The Metz Massacre: Stage 6 of the Tour de France

Another day in the world’s most famous bike race. And another crash. This one was a real doozy, occurring 25km from the finish in Metz. (Photo from steephill.tv/reuters.)

Americans in Paris.

I feel sorry for people who say they don’t like to read. And that pity is particularly pronounced when I find myself in the midst of a book that makes me imagine the world in a whole new light. David McCullough’s latest, The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, is one of those. (And, the fact that my copy came to me from Paris—a sweet gift from an American friend who’s lived there for decades—makes it even better.)

The book’s review in the New York Times was titled “How Paris Created America”—and the headline is apt. The Americans who crossed the ocean to the French capital in the mid-19th century were citizens of a very young country. They sought Paris as a place at the zenith—in the arts, in science and medicine, in literature. They studied, they observed, they wrote, they painted—and, like generations of Americans ever since, they were seduced, transfixed and transformed by their time there. Continue reading

Just a little 90-hour bike ride in France…

It’s Sunday, August 21. About 9 p.m. in my neck of the woods. In France, it’s early Monday morning. Still dark, and the entire country’s basically on vacation. But right now, on country roads from Saint Quentin-en-Yvelines (a suburb just outside Paris) to Brest (a city on the Normandy coast in northwest France), more than 5,000 people are on their bikes.

They’re participating in Paris-Brest-Paris 2011, the oldest bicycling event in the world that’s still regularly run. Their goal: ride 750 miles from the Paris suburb to Brest, and back again. If they’re tired, they’ll sleep by the side of the road. If they’re hungry, they eat what they’ve packed — or buy something along the way. If they have a flat tire, they fix it themselves. There are regular checkpoints, and they have to stop at each one. And they have to get back to Paris in 90 hours or less. Continue reading

Coco Chanel. Not so pretty.

It’s Coco’s birthday. The woman who gave us the little black dress, the pop of faux pearls (lots of ’em), the iconic quilted handbag, and that I’d-know-it-anywhere jacket. Not to mention the famous perfume. Gabrielle “Coco” Chanel was born 128 years ago today, and her imprint on fashion remains strong, pervasive and very lucrative.

This week, though, Chanel’s making news in a different vein. A new biography just released — Sleeping With the Enemy by Hal Vaughn — claims that the German military intelligence officer she was involved with was a Nazi master spy who reported directly to the infamous Joseph Goebbels, that Coco herself was a genuine operative involved in a number of clandestine missions, that she had her own code name (Westminster), and that she was fully and completely a German collaborator—with all the perks thereof.

I’m no Chanel expert. But reviews of the book’s research are compelling (though it’s not all new news). It is not a pretty story. And as you’d expect, its publication caused significant heartburn for the House of Chanel, with the usual statement of rebuttal issued. Continue reading

Happy 99th birthday, Julia Child!

Today, August 15, the great and grand American doyenne of French cooking, Julia Child, would have been 99 years old. She died in 2004, mere days before turning 94.

She was plenty famous during her lifetime, of course (thanks in no small part to those wonderful PBS shows). But with the talents of Nora Ephron (who wrote the Julie and Julia screenplay) and Meryl Streep (who played Julia with such lovely aplomb) and Julie Powell (who started the Julie and Julia blog project long ago in August 2002, which became the book, which became the movie) — Julia Child is now firmly and forever entrenched in the pantheon of culinary culture and history. And thank god for that….

I love the woman. When I think about that stupid question we’ve all been asked  —“Who would you like ot have dinner with, living or dead?” — Julia’s always on my top-10 list. Not Jesus, not Einstein, not Ghandhi, not even Shakespeare (well, maybe Shakespeare). But always, always Julia.

And yes, I own Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In two volumes (mine is the 1981 edition, the 32nd printing).

But now, for the blasphemy. As a cookbook, MtAoFC sort of sucks. Continue reading

The infamous brownies of Miss Alice B. Toklas.

I have lots of cookbooks. Lots. Many are well-used (with the requisite smudges of sauces, olive oil and butter). But many others I only read and never cook from.

One of the best in that latter group is The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book.

Man Ray’s famous shot of Alice and Gertrude. Surrounded by extraordinary paintings.

Alice B. Toklas was a Paris institution — because, of course, she lived in the shadow of a Paris monument, Gertrude Stein. Misses Toklas and Stein met in 1907, on the very day that Alice arrived in Paris. They were soon partners and lovers (and remained so for the rest of their lives). And they held court over the most famous literary gatherings in Paris. Evenings that included the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Sherwood Anderson and Thornton Wilder…. (The apartment at 27 rue de Fleurus still bears a plaque. As it should.)

But, back to the cookbook. It was first published in 1954, eight years after Gertrude Stein’s death. In reality, it’s hardly a cookbook. My copy is a paperback published in 1960, and it has that old book smell. And I love the cover — a repro of a painting titled The Cock and Knife, done in 1947 by Picasso.

There’s much to relish in this little volume. The chapter called “Murder in the Kitchen,” for example:

Food is far too pleasant to combine with horror. All the same, facts, even distasteful facts, must be accepted and we shall see how, before any story of cooking begins, crime is inevitable. That is why cooking is not an entirely agreeable pastime. There is too much that must happen in advance of the actual cooking.

Then, there’s the chapter on servants in France.

When I asked Gertrude Stein how you went about finding one [a “servant”] in Paris and what questions you put to her in your interview with her, she answered that…the proper question to ask was, did she make a good omelette.

The most famous legacy of The Alice B. Toklas Cook Book comes from the chapter “Recipes from Friends.” More precisely from the now hardly-known artist, Brian Gysen, who contributed his instructions for Haschich Fudge (e.g., pot brownies). Apparently, Alice was under deadline to submit her manuscript and wasn’t scrutinizing — much less, testing or tasting — the recipes from the friends she’d solicited. The editors of the first U.S. edition were more exacting though and “extracted” the cannabis-laced fudge before publication, but the British edition included it —and the press took notice. Continue reading

Paris honey. Sweet local luxury.

And you thought all that “buzz” was about the monogrammed handbags…

When I read last week that the eponymous luxury company, Louis Vuitton, was harvesting honey from hives on the rooftop of its Champs-Elysées flagship, I imagined eager tourists swarming to purchase little monogrammed jars of miel, along with the latest “it” bag.

Louis Vuitton’s honey (yes, the monogram’s still there)

It turns out that Louis Vuitton’s latest product will only be shared with “friends,” however —and the designer’s not even close to a trendsetter in the Paris beehive business.

There are hives on top of the Opéra Garnier and the glass-domed Grand Palais. Even on top of the modern Opéra Bastille, homebase of Paris’s national opera. The beehives in the beautiful Luxembourg Gardens have been there since the mid-19th century and now produce half a ton of honey every year. It goes on sale each September for just two days and is a favorite gift item for French senators (the Senate is housed in the Luxembourg Palace). The beehive count across Paris is around 300 — with hives in public parks, on private rooftops, and on the grounds of a hospital run by the good Sisters of the Visitation. But the location that most intriqued me was the National Veterinary Museum (in line with that very Paris tradition of having a museum to just about everything). [David Lebovitz‘s Living the Sweet Life in Paris blog has more on this and the French passion for local honey.] Continue reading

How the Tour de France really started. Proof that all politics are local.

It covers 2,000+ miles. It lasts three weeks. It’s the third most-watched sporting event in the world (after World Cup soccer and the Olympics). And it starts this Saturday, July 2, for the 98th time.

But it was fierce politics and intense rivalry — not a love of cycling — behind the origins of the Tour de France. The Dreyfus affair, in fact, was the prime mover.

A French soldier named Alfred Dreyfus was court-martialed in 1894 after being charged with selling military secrets to a German military attache. Capt. Dreyfus was sentenced to a life of solitary confinement on the dreaded Devil’s Island. He was exonerated five years later, but not before there were false documents produced to underscore his guilt, military cover-ups of new evidence, and anti-semitism overtones that would re-surface again and again in the coming world wars.

In 1898 Émile Zola wrote his famous J’accuse letter to the president of France, defending Dreyfus. Printed on the front page of a leading newspaper, J’accuse was the talk of France and made headlines around the world. Everyone and every major publication in France took sides. And herein lay the seeds of the Tour de France. (Stay with me now…) Continue reading

Setting the record straight on the Lost Generation.

George Seldes, American investigative journalist, blacklisted by McCarthy, self-described  freethinker (1890-1995). From his memoir:

“As Miss Stein herself told it: when she complained to her garage owner about the bad job of repairing her auto, he replied that ever since the war he could no longer get skilled, responsible craftsmen of the good old days, and it was in this connection, and with no relation to the perhaps 100,000 artists, writers, expatriates crowding Paris, of which he probably knew nothing, that he remarked on a generation being lost.”