French cuisine has influenced the eating habits of people around the world, especially those who enjoy "haute cuisine" in restaurants. But there are also many regional (or "provincial") styles of cooking that remain unique to France.
Vive La Revolution!
by Claire & Monte Montgomery
What do they eat in France on Bastille Day? We had no idea, so we visited out local library for some historical/culinary research.
Following the historical route first, we learned that on July 14, 1789, a lot of extremely angry Parisians stormed the hated Bastille, a castle/prison/munitions dump jammed full of political prisoners and gunpowder. Their intention was to liberate the former and ignite the latter, ideally beneath the throne of Louis XVI.
The raid must have been a whopping success, because the French are still celebrating the date some 206 years later. (If it had flopped, July 14th would be referred to as "Whose-Bright-Idea-Was-It-To-Storm-The-Bastille Day.")
But what do the French eat on Bastille Day? Still clueless, we moved on to our library's cookbook section—specifically, the French cookbook section.
And guess what? There wasn't one! Not a single French cookbook. Oh, there may once have been a French cookbook section—say, back in Julia's "French chef" heyday—but its shelf space had long ago been given over to the what-foods-are-toxic section and the how-to-make-the-nontoxic-ones-fairly-edible section.
We found low-fat cookbooks. Non-fat cookbooks. Non-food cookbooks. Cookbooks that teach the difference between good Cholesterol, bad Cholesterol and ugly Cholesterol, with a capital C and that rhymes with T and that stands for Triple-bypass.
We searched in vain for Feuilletes D'Escargots (snails with aniseed cream sauce in puff pastry); Aubergines Farcies (eggplant stuffed with bread, eggs and Gruyere); Filet Mignon de Porc Embeuree de Choux et Navets (pork tenderloin with cabbage and turnips). What we unearthed instead was...Jicama. Tofu. Endive. Wheat germ. Rice cakes. For god's sake, rice cakes.
Not that we have anything against these substances. They're all inexpensive, and they make excellent packing materials for breakable items. Some even rival the Styrofoam peanut, both for resilience and flavor. but they're hardly the thing with which to celebrate le quatorze Juillet (July 14th)!
The longer we stood there, staring at this bibliographic monument to Puritan self-denial, the angrier we became. The hungrier we became. The more we felt like...revolting! (Possibly because so many of the recipes were already revolting).
Suddenly everything fell into place. We developed a new theory on the spot: back in the late 1780's, King Louis and Marie Antoinette, who were daily stuffing their faces with saucisses (sausages) and chocolat (chocolate), mounted a nationwide disinformation campaign attacking pate de foie gras and promoting instead the consumption of herbal tea, chard, seaweed, endive, and leafy green vegetables. (Some modern translate, "let them eat kale.")
Meanwhile, all the butter and cream and cheese and eggs and prime rib were locked up in the basement of the Bastille. Word got out and spread like the enticing aroma of barbecue smoke, and when the growling of millions of Parisian stomachs drowned out all other modes of political discourse, the mob hoisted le tricoleur (the flag) and...well, you know the rest. The rabble weren't after liberte, fraternite and egalite at all. No, what they were risking their lives for was caloric content!
(This isn't the only time that cuisine has played a decisive role in French history. Historians and psychologists agree that Napoleon's maniacal lust for power was largely fueled by a desire to have a rich dessert named after him.)
More than two centuries later, we sympathize with the rabble's plight. One again, gourmets and would-be gourmets everywhere find their right to make cochons (pigs) of themselves under attack by a dogmatic and unsympathetic elite. Once again, larders are empty ó or at best, are full of bottled water and top ramen. And once again the battle cry rings out, "aux armes, citoyens"! (let's have lunch!).
So why not stage a French Revolution of your own? Even if it's only one day a year, why not throw off the shackles of the gendares de nourriture (food police) and eat something—insurgent? It doesn't have to be expensive. For that matter, it doesn't even have to be French. What it should be, though, is bad for you ó at least, bad according to the gendarmes.
As everyone now knows, the gendarmes don't have much of a track record, anyway. Remember the story recently broken by 60 Minutes? Reputable scientist (and you can bet they were French scientists) discovered the secret to the Frenchman's resistance to a cholesterol-choked diet that would kill most Americans in six months. Was it exercise? Moderation? No—it was red wine, and plenty of it!
If the gendarmes are indeed wrong and we're right, we'll have the last laugh. And if they're right and we're wrong...well, what of it? Suppose, for example, that each time you snarf down a Nonnette de Pommes Chaudes Acidulees en Caramel et Sa Quenelle de Glace Vanille (individual apple tart with caramel sauce and vanilla ice cream), it costs you ten minutes of life at the other end. What are you really giving up? Ten minutes of wasting away in a thousand-dollar-a-day hospital bed, sprouting plastic tubes from every orifice, surrounded by your ungrateful children as they fight over who gets your Calphalon cookware.
So when July 14th rolls around, our advice is bon appetit! (dig in!). You'll enjoy yourself, your impatient offspring will thank you for accelerating the fulfillment of their secret desires, and you'll become a part of gastronomic history that much sooner.
By the way, we never did find out what the French eat on Bastille Day. But we've got a feeling it isn't gateaux du riz (rice cakes).
Claire and Monte Montgomery, besides being bon vivants, are also Hollywood screenwriters.
So what do the French really do to celebrate Bastille Day? We consulted (in 1998) two of our favorite French chefs and asked them.
"They dance in the street, they drink champagne, and this is a 'dance populaire.' It is not a family holiday. It is really an expression of democracy, if you want, in the sense that people take their fun in the street, usually as a kind of brotherhood of people. So things happen in the street. Food—it's always food in France, of course—food, wine, champagne and dancing, that type of stuff. Besides, of course, remembrance. And besides the fact, as it is now in this country where all of a sudden Christopher Columbus is a villain rather than a hero, so suddenly in France we have all (these) nobility roots which go back and now (we're) attacking the revolutionaries of 1789 who killed so many people and all that. So we have that sort of faction group which in France, well, people love to talk politics and now, you can fight about it. That's all right.
"There is not really any specialty dish like there would be for Christmas or like barbecue on July Fourth. It's more of a plentiful thing and street food and people eating in bistros, but not specialty dishes."
Jacques Pepin's many TV cooking shows and cookbooks have won numerous awards.
"You know Bastille day is in summer, the beginning of summer when the product is very light. You eat more cold dishes like the cold consomme, salad, melon...The sauces, we forget them in summer, we forget a lot of sauces because people don't want any sauces. In the winter it is completely different because people want to eat, to have some heat coming into them. In the summer it is not the case—that is why you need to walk more and to eat lighter. In the summer in France, we are making all these kind of cold, light items. The Fourteenth of July for us is a celebration day and we want to have fun, you know."
Jean-Louis Palladin was a former chef of several of the most acclaimed restaurants in Washington DC, New York City and Las Vegas.
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