The Return…La Rentrée

While we’re relishing the long Labor Day weekend (and school’s already been underway for weeks in my hometown of Nashville), it’s La Rentrée in France—the “return” to work, school and everyday life after the country’s long holidays in July and August. Shops re-open, tourists go home, and the Parisians return to Paris.

I’m imagining an entire nation of relaxed, renewed citizens sporting Mediterranean tans, along too-cute-for-words French children with shiny new school satchels. Everybody’s  getting re-acquainted, exchanging tales of les vacances, and making resolutions for the new season.

No doubt, I’m exaggerating the wonders of La Entrée—but even so, there’s just no comparison between four weeks of holiday and a puny three-day weekend.

“Text Is Simply Written For Persons Who Enjoy Cuisine”

In 1961, Craig Claiborne, the New York Times food editor (and the first man to hold such a post among American newspapers), reviewed a just-published volume from Alfred A. KnopfMastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. Claiborne described the volume (priced at $10) as “probably the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work on the subject” of French cuisine written in English.

He praised the the recipes (“glorious”), noted the six pages devoted to the preparation of a cassoulet (“not a wasted syllable”), and complimented the line drawings (“[they] supplement and speak more eloquently than words”). And he predicted that the book, almost a decade in the making, would “probably remain as the definitive work for nonprofessionals.”

And indeed, he was right.

Copyright ©The New York Times. Published October 18, 1961

A Seine swim? Oui or non?

Paris wouldn’t be Paris without the Seine.


The river’s no less than the city’s raison d’etre—it all started with a fishing village on what’s now the Île de la Cité in the middle of the Seine, established by the Parisii tribe around 250 BCE. The Seine literally bisects the city, and in modern Paris, it’s truly a “working river”—a busy thoroughfare of commercial barges carrying freight and bateaux-mouches carrying tourists. And along its banks, people walk, jog, picnic, kiss, and fish.

What people don’t do, however, is swim in the Seine. Paris à la Nage (Swim Paris) is aiming to change that. A month after the Olympics, on September 2, Paris à la Nage wants to resuscitate an event that was started in 1905 and last staged 70 years. Basically, it’s a race in the Seine.

But the French police have issued a loud resounding “non.” Paris à la Nage’s modern-day organizers (who include a former French Olympiad) have planned two race distances (2.5 km and 10 km) and have had 3,300 people register already. But the official word from Préfecture de Police de Paris is that the waters of the Seine are “of manifestly insufficient quality for swimming” and the event would cause an unacceptable interruption in the river’s commercial and tourist traffic.

The Paris à la Nage organizers haven’t given up. They’re appealing the decision. They’ve set up an online petition. And they’re stirring the waters in the media. I’m betting that, no matter what happens to their appeals, there’ll be some swimming in the Seine in just a few weeks.

70 years after Vel’ d’Hiv

On several occasions in aimless walks around Paris, I’ve seen plaques like this one on schools. It’s not hard to make out the meaning.

Today, scrolling through French news sites (thinking it was time for a blog post, and I needed a subject), this is the headline that grabbed by attention:

Hollande acknowledges French role in Holocaust.

I was confused. “Acknowledges French role”? Wasn’t it completely common knowledge that this was a dark, ignoble piece in France’s history…that tens of thousands of Jews were systematically deported…that the Vichy government openly collaborated with the Nazis? But then I read the article. Until President Hollande’s speech, only former president Jacques Chirac in 1995 had publicly and explicitly spoken out about France’s culpability.

The occasion of Hollande’s speech was the 70th anniversary of of a two-day period in July 1942 when the French police rounded up more than 13,000 Jews. It was known as the “Vel’ d’Hiv” roundup, short for Velodrome d’Hiver, a cycling stadium that was mere blocks from the Eiffel Tower. It was a “holding spot”for thousands of men, women and children before they were taken to Auschwitz.

Just days before Hollande made headlines (“…this crime was committed in France, by France”), the French police archives relating to this deportation were opened to the public for the first time. Even a single photo of a few documents is painful to look at.

Names of French Jews deported by the police to Auschwitz, from the Archives of Paris Police Prefecture (photo credit: Remy de la Mauviniere/AP)

Paris’s only official “monument” to the 200,000 Jews sent to concentration camps is the Mémorial des Martyrs de la Déportation—a tiny spot tucked behind Notre Dame, almost unnoticeable, but ironically on the site of a former morgue.

(photos of the Memorial to the Martyrs of the Deportation: Keith Miles)

Bradley Wiggins: In a Town Called Paris

British cycling fans are already celebrating in the pubs. Tomorrow, Bradley Wiggins will be the first Brit to ever win the Tour de France.

One of Wiggo’s fans was moved to write a song—and play it on her ukelele. (A re-do of the 1970s punk band The Jam’s “A Town Called Malice.” Wiggins is apparently a huge fan.)

We Brits never win a single race we’re ever in. Stop apologizing for that broken collarbone. Cos’ time is short and life is cruel. But it’s up to us to win in a town called Paris.

Full lyrics and back story here.

Louis Malle loved bike racing.

Fifty years ago, in 1962, one of the greats of French film turned his cameras on the spectacle of the Tour de France. Louis Malle, it turns out, loved cycling almost as much as he loved filmmaking.

His 18-minute Vive Le Tour! is a sweet little gem of a documentary. About bike racing, yes…but just as much about Malle’s countrymen and women who stood outside their village café or boulangerie or farmhouse to cheer on packs of gaunt guys on bicycles. Then and now, bike racing is not a bourgeois sport.

I re-watched Vive Le Tour! tonight. Fitting, I thought, since this year’s Tour de France will end in Paris on Sunday. And because this year (barring a catastrophe), a Frenchman will be on that famous podium in the middle of the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Thomas Voeckler will wear the coveted polka dot King of the Mountain jersey. He could run for president of France next week with that win.

If you want to watch the last days of the 2012 Tour de France, you can watch NBC Sports. If you want to see a glimpse of the Tour 50 years ago, you can see it here (in two parts)…

p.s. Just interesting…. Also in 1962, before he filmed Vive Le Tour!, Malle marked his return to documentary filmmaking by spending four months in Algeria, war-torn and at the height of its struggle for independence from France.

Steak tartare. Sushi for carnivores.

There’s no getting around it. Steak tartare is raw meat. There’s a raw egg involved too. And it’s delicious. My favorite comes from my favorite hometown restaurant, Margot Cafe—where it was on this past weekend’s Bastille Day menu.

The “tartare” in the dish references the tartar sauce that was originally served on the side (à la tartare). Auguste Escoffier included a recipe in his 1921 Le Guide Culinaire, but the dish was called beefsteack à l’Américaine. No one seems to know exactly why— because whatever its origin, it definitely wasn’t in the U.S. of A. There’s a foodie myth that it originated with the Tartars of Central Asia (think Atilla the Hun). Rumor was they travelled with raw meat under their saddles, nicely pulverizing it for dinner on-the-go post-battle. Wholly unfounded info, however.

These days, steak tartare is standard fare on the menus of Paris bistros and brasseries. And often in Nashville at Margot. Lucky me. If you’re so inclined, food writer Michael Ruhlman urges you to try steak tartare at home.

Of course, it’s not for everyone. Mr. Bean (aka Rowan Atkinson) pretty much sums up the anti-steak tartare camp.

p.s. Whatever you do, don’t eat steak tartare from a kitchen you don’t trust. Same goes for sushi.

Big day on the roads of France

A big day in France. French rider Thomas Voeckler won the 10th stage of the 99th Tour de France. No, he won’t win the overall Tour. (The last Frenchman to do so was Bernard Hinault in 1985. It’s been a long dry spell.)

But it’s a big deal. A very big deal. Voeckler is already a sort of national hero, having won two stages in a previous Tour. A single stage win in the three-week race (no matter what country you’re from) puts your name in the history books…and guarantees someone will always pick up your bar tab in France for the rest of your life..

The upcoming centenary of the great Julia Child

Julia photographed by her husband, Paul Child, in 1948—the year they arrived in Paris.

I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life.” ―Julia Child, My Life in France

Julia Child’s 100th birthday is August 15. You know she would have liked the party. The woman who made coq au vin and boeuf bourguignon both household words and meals on American tables in the 1960s is being well fête-ed by Alfred A. Knopf, the publisher of Mastering the Art of French Cooking

There’s a clever Facebook page that’s cataloging “JC100″ events at bookstores, dinners at restaurants, and blog posts from Julia fans around the country who are cooking up their favorite recipes.

Start planning dinner now. You’ll need butter.

Red, white, blue…and stripes.

(A re-do of a 4th of July post I did for Nashville style blog, Stella Shops.)

In a long list of French fashion standouts, the striped sailor’s shirt hasn’t changed much in over 150 years. And like so many French classics, we have the independent style revolutionary Coco Chanel to thank. In 1917, she started carrying these striped shirts in her shop in the elegant seaside resort of Deauville—popularizing the French navy’s uniform item as de rigueur apparel for the vacationing chic.

I’ve love all the recent derivations of this striped wonder. But really, the original is where it’s at. After all, it was good enough for Marilyn Monroe, Audrey Hepburn, Sophia Loren, Bridget Bardot, Andy Warhol and the Ramones….

Since 1871, these striped classics have been manufactured by a small French company that shares the name of the Normandy town where it’s based—Saint James. The original Saint James contract was with the Marine Nationale, the French navy. A government act degreed that sailors all wear striped shirts as part of their uniforms—the better to spot the unfortunate guy who fell overboard. The earliest version had exactly 21 stripes, one for each of Napoleon’s naval victories against the British (or so it’s said).

Saint James now produces a dizzying array of these classics, in varied weights, colors and styles (including some pretty swank collaborations like the one launched last year on Bastille Day with nightlife impresario André and The Standard—and completely sold out, btw).

I vote for the original model, though. Along with red lipstick, ballet flats, a cigarette, and an independent point of view.