Tuesday, April 27, 2021


Moving to a new continent with a new language definitely broadens your horizons.  Things are done a different way with words you may or may not understand or recall.  

Reading a story by David Sedaris, “Jesus Shaves”, touched on this subject and brought back a flood of linguistic “WTF” moments when, in spite of speaking fluent French, I had NO idea what people were talking about.

The example Sedaris relates is the Easter bunny vs the church bells. 

Let me explain.  

It was after he moved to Paris, and he was taking French lessons.  The teacher chose Easter as that day’s lesson.  “And what does one do on Easter?  Would anyone like to tell us?”

One student mentions the Easter meal of lamb.  And of course brings up chocolate.

“And who brings the chocolate?” the teacher asks.

Sedaris thinks he knows the French word for rabbit and raises his hand.  

“The rabbit of Easter.  He bring of the chocolate.”

“A rabbit?”  The teacher, assuming I’d used the wrong word, positioned her index fingers on top of her head, wriggling them as though they were ears.  “You mean one of these?  A rabbit rabbit?”

“Well, sure,” I said.  “He come in the night when one sleep on a bed.  With a hand he have a basket and foods.”

The teacher sighed and shook her head.  As far as she was concerned, I had just explained everything that was wrong with my country.  “No, no,” she said.  “Here in France the chocolate is brought by a big bell that flies in from Rome.”

I must admit that this facette of French lore was confusing to me as well when I heard it my first Easter in Paris.  But it’s easy to explain, once you realize the Christian logic behind it.  As of Good Friday, with the death of Christ, all the church bells in France go silent.  They only ring again Easter Sunday morning, once Christ has risen from the dead.  And France, being a Roman Catholic country, explains to its children that the bells had flown to Rome but now they’re back, bringing chocolates with them.  

The Easter Bunny dates back to more pagan times, as do the eggs.

So there you have it.  All very logical, if you know the cultural context.

There are lots of differences between American sayings and French ones.  Many run more parallel than the bunny versus the bell.  For instance in France you let sleeping cats lie, not dogs.  And when you don’t understand something it’s all Hebrew to you, not Greek.  Stubborn people aren’t pig-headed; they’re mule-headed.  If someone, especially an older person, loves you tenderly, they won’t call you “sweetie” or “honey”; they will call you “ma puce”, my flea.  Bad checks aren’t made of rubber (so they bounce); they’re made of wood.  Should something seem strange, you won’t smell a rat but you may have an eel under your rocks (not sure what that’s about, unless it’s the biting kind of eel).  If you’re in a bad situation, your goose isn’t cooked, but your carrots are. And the frog in your throat is really a cat.  (Cats come up a lot in French.)

Those are fairly easy to comprehend, due to the parallel structure.  But other things don’t just use a different animal or material; they depend on a historic explanation.  And if you don’t know the history behind it, you won’t understand.

For instance, important events in America are red letter days.  But in France, the red letter becomes a white stone.  Why?  Because during Napoleon’s Empire, military service was sometimes a question of chance, like the now-disappeared draft lottery for U.S. youths, where at age 18 boys got a number that decided whether they ended up in Vietnam or not (sometimes permanently).  The young Frenchman would put his hand in a bag filled with black and white stones, and pull one out.  If it was black, he was off to combat (unless someone poorer could be paid to replace him.)  If it was white, no military service for him.  So young men would remember that day for a long time, the day marked by a white stone that probably saved his life.

But I prefer chocolate to war, and I’d rather hear bells ringing because they’re back from Rome than because they’re sounding a death knell.

So next time Easter comes around, remember to tell that bunny I said “bonjour”.


Wednesday, February 3, 2021

La Chandeleur... and crêpes

Well, yes, I’m a bit late. The Fête de la Chandeleur - Candlemas, in English - was yesterday, January 2nd, forty days after Christmas. Why forty? See below. It has to do with the Virgin Mary and baby Jesus. 
     But to the French, poor church-goers at the best of times, Chandeleur means food. As do a lot of things. 
     Crêpes, to be specific 
     Here’s what I wrote about it many years ago. 
     The crêpe recipe is at the end.
     Bon appétit! 

Although Paris is rarely as cold as Michigan, or even as other parts of France, the City of Light is resolutely grey and damp during the winter months. Parisians are eager for any scrap of light or warmth.

     Enter la Fête de la Chandeleur
     As with so many feast days, this one has two sides to its story: a Christian one and a pagan one. Unlike the chicken and the egg, we know which came first. 
     Let’s attack the subject backwards. The Christian holy day commemorates Mary bringing Jesus to the synagogue 40 days after his birth, as Leviticus required, him being the first-born son. Later, the 14th century Catholic church linked this day to the Purification of Mary on February 2nd. In both cases, candles were used to keep Evil at bay. But that’s Chapter 2. Let’s flip back to Chapter 1: the pagans. 
     In France, the Fête de la Chandeleur is celebrated with crêpes. And therein lies the link to the pagan side of the feast day. Pagans worshiped the Sun. Especially in the middle of winter, when cold winds blew and the sky was perpetually grey and it seemed like the Sun would never shine again to warm Mother Earth and breathe life back into Nature. The Celts held a festival on the first of February where they walked through the fields, torches held high, asking the goddess of fertility to purify the earth and make it fruitful. To bring back the Sun. And what could better represent the Sun than a crêpe? It’s round. It’s pale yellow. It’s warm. And it’s nourishing. 
     Other pagans held a Festival of the Bear, which came out of hibernation around this time, much like Punxsutawney Phil, the groundhog who comes out - also on February 2nd - to see whether spring is here yet. They, too, felt early February was a good date for a sun festival. So there was already a long tradition of a feast day around this season when the Christians started to proselytize. 
     Winter. Cold. Dormant nature. Lore mixed and melded with religion. Out of it came a symbol that everyone, even the poorest, could adopt. And the winner was the lowly crêpe

 If you want to perpetuate the tradition - or just enjoy a mouthful of paper-thin sweetness, here’s the recipe, (although every mother has her own to hand down to her children): 

- 1 cup flour 
- 3 T butter 
- 2 cups milk 
- 3 eggs 
- 2 T water 
- 1 T rum or vanilla (or lemon or orange zest) 
- 4 T sugar pinch of salt 

- Heat the milk to a boil. Take it off the burner and add the butter. Leave it to cool. 
- Put the flour in a large bowl. Make a “well” in the center of the flour and break the eggs into the well, one by one. Whisk thoroughly. 
- Add the pinch of salt and the sugar, then the water, then the flavoring (or zest). Slowly whisk in the cooled milk. The batter should have no lumps. If it does, just strain them out. 
 - Let the batter sit in the refrigerator for an hour. 

 Now you’re ready to get down to business. Take an 8" frying pan (non-stick helps) - or better yet, a crepe pan, with its low sides that make flipping easier - and melt a little nugget of butter. When it starts to sizzle, pour in just a ladleful of batter. Make sure the crêpe is almost paper thin. Wiggle the pan around to fill in any holes. As soon as the edges turn golden and bubbles form and start to pop - which is just about immediately - work it free with a spatula and flip it for just the few seconds it takes to finish up that side. Sprinkle plain sugar over the top - or spread jam or Nutella... or dribble on a bit of Grand Marnier - and fold the crêpe in half and then in half again. Eat it while it’s piping hot. 
     You can make a stack of crêpes ahead of time and keep them warm in the oven. Then fold them as you serve them up. 
     But the French like to all gather around the stove and watch the show. Especially as the trick is to flip them, not with the spatula, but with a flick of the wrist. If you manage to flip your crêpe without dropping it on the floor or sticking it to the ceiling, and if you do it with a coin in your other hand (traditionally a louis d’or, but I doubt if you have any of those laying about), then you’ll have good fortune for the entire year.


Sunday, January 17, 2021

Le fête des rois = galette

If you're a Christian, you know that Jesus was born in a manger, in a stable behind an inn. There was no publicity, no arc lights (except a star), no viewers (except for some shepherds passing by).
     And then arrived three wise men from "the East", the Magi: Melchior, a Persian scholar; the white-bearded Gaspard, a king of India; and Balthazar, a Babylonian scholar.
     Of the Gospels, Matthew is the only one who mentioned them, which is interesting.
     But whatever the history - and who of us could prove any of it, either way? - in France the Wise Men are responsible for one of the sweet culinary wonders of the world: the galette des rois - the pastry of the kings (three). A delicious treat you can find on January 6th. (And now sometimes longer.) It's something I look forward to every year. This year I will miss it because of covid. Luckily, I have a French friend here, a baker/chef, who makes them.

Bonne année et bonne santé." Happy New Year and good health. It’s what you hear as soon as people sober up from their New Year’s Eve festivities (La fête de Saint-Sylvestre), which are monumental, especially gastronomically. For fear of losing your French nationality, you must start with oysters and then move on to other equally rich things, all washed down with the appropriate wine and finishing with champagne. And chocolates.
     Even if you get your lords a-leaping confused with your geese a-laying (but still always chime in on the “five gold rings” part), you know about the Twelve Days of Christmas. But do you know what it means? It starts the day after Christmas and runs for twelve days, ending purportedly in the day the Three Wise Men - aka Magi - arrived at the manger in Bethlehem bringing gold and frankincense and myrrh.
     To mark that day with a pastry (it is France, after all), French bakers invented the galette des rois - or if you’re in the south of France the brioche des rois (basically the same thing but with with a brioche base instead of puff pastry). Unless you drink a lot of champagne or tea with it, the plain galette can be dry, so personally I always buy a galette fourrée à la frangipane - puff pastry with almond paste inside.
     Also inside is a fève - once a dried broad bean, but more often now a ceramic figurine which can range from one of those Three Wise Men themselves to Mickey Mouse to... oh, just about anything. (One year I got a kind of tiny ceramic rolling pin that opened up and had a miniature recipe for clafoutis, a delicious custard dessert with cherries on top.) French dentists have erected a monument to the fève, because unsuspecting victims have broken many a tooth on it, thereby ensuring their livelihood. Should no dental catastrophe ensue, the person who finds the fève is declared the king or queen and given a golden cardboard crown to wear. (It comes with the galette.) Sometimes they’re supposed to buy the next galette, but that may be the baker’s ploy; other times they just get to kiss everybody.
     The brioche des rois is indigenous to the south of France, and is fashioned in a semi-circle, reputedly to mimic the turbans of the Magi. The candied fruit on top is just to brighten up a short winter’s day by adding a bit of color... and to sucker children into eating it. (It’s similar to the Italian panettone, which had always been by far too dry for me until a smart friend told me to make it as French toast, and now I love it!)

But the New Year is more than just pastry.
     First of all, French people don’t send Christmas cards. Perhaps that’s left over from the concept of it’s being a religious festival and all minds should be on God. For whatever reason, cards are sent, but later, to wish a happy new year. They can be sent any time during the month of January, but I’m convinced that the date on which you send them is perceived by the French as an indication of what kind of person you are. (Do you procrastinate? Or are you the timely sort?) The French can be very judgmental. And of course you must add a little handwritten message, although those typically American “yearly state of the union” enclosures are not required.

And then there’s the Bonne Année handshake/kiss (depending on how well you know the other person). Ah yes. This is the true New Year’s test of French-ness. But not this year, because of covid.
     The rule is that you must wish a Happy New Year to everyone around you - not only family and friends but also anyone with whom you have dealings, even on a customer/shopowner basis. If you do a quick mental calculation of how many people you interact with in your daily routine, you’ll see that wishing them all Happy New Year can be daunting.
     And you must do it only once, because to wish them Happy New Year a second time just proves that a) you weren’t paying attention the first time around, b) they personally don’t merit being remembered as already having been greeted, c) you didn’t mean it when you said it, d) all of the above.
     If you live in France year-round, especially in a small community, it’s easy to keep track of who has been Bonne Année-d. If you start on January 1st, you may have a good chance of not giving double-greetings. But if you live in Paris, things can get iffy, given the number of people involved. And if you live in Paris only part-time, as I do, and so you start The Greeting Process part-way into the month... Well, to say you’re walking on eggshells is putting it lightly.
     Once, in mid-January, I went into the neighborhood five-and-dime/hardware shop, run by a nice Asian gentlemen originally from La Réunion, one of France’s overseas states (think Hawaii). I go in there several times a year, and I talk with the man each time. But still I’m far from a weekly customer who boosts his sales greatly. He greeted me with a big smile, came out from behind the counter, his hand outstretched, and said “Bonne année, Madame, et bonne santé”. With all the people who come through his shop, how did he remember he hadn’t seen me, in particular, yet this year?
     And it’s been the same thing with all the other shops. The butcher, the wine merchant, the newstand... Of course, maybe my periodic disappearances and reappearances make me stand out. Still, this is an acquired skill. I’m getting quite good at it myself after all these years.
     Or perhaps there’s a bonne année neuron in the brain and I've managed to turn it on.