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‘Café French': Uncle Wiggily, Voltaire And A Taste Of Paris Image

La Vie en Rose: As a sensitive and hungry boy, I learned valuable life lessons from the classic series of children’s books by Howard R. Garis featuring Uncle Wiggily Longears, an elderly, kind and wise rabbit. In each illustrated story, Uncle Wiggily takes on the vagaries of life in his forest habitat and solves a social or personal problem within his community of furry critters.

I can recall one episode with gastronomic implications. As best as I remember it, a young squirrel or possum with a taste for candy gets a terrible tummy ache that Uncle Wiggily helps to cure. At the end Uncle Wiggily concludes, “Too much of anything is not too good!”

Mark Twain’s taste for whiskey

Uncle Wiggily’s lesson in hunger management is like a Hallmark card version of Mark Twain’s earlier drollery: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good whiskey is barely enough.” Truth be told, Twain’s version, despite wise Wiggily’s input into my early childhood development, comes much closer to the true “gastronomical me”: “Too much of anything is bad, but too much good food is barely enough.”

Which brings me circuitously to our next Café French™ lesson: the curious linguistic connection between biological and aesthetic taste (goût in French, pronounced goo), and the ailment, gout (goutte in French, pronounced goot), caused by too much taste for rich food and alcohol.

It’s all Greek, Latin, Old French and Anglo-Saxon to me

The use in English and French of the same words — taste and goût — for both aesthetic appreciation and perception of flavor — is deeply embedded in our two languages. As Voltaire, the French Enlightenment thinker, explained in his Philosophical Dictionary (1764), the English language  “… is a copy of ours in almost all the words which are not Saxon …”

The convoluted etymological links between French goût and English taste, and between French goutte and English gout, are no mere accident and took millennia to develop. Here is a cursory Café French glossary:

Goût (FR): From the Latin gustus, Old French goust = Taste. “Gustatory” in English and “gustative” in French come from the same sources. By the 18th century, goût was associated with aesthetic taste in France.

Goutte (FR): From the Latin gutta, Old French gote = Gout and Drop. It was thought as far back as the ninth century that this inflammatory ailment was caused by little drops of viscous humors seeping from the blood into the joints causing painful swelling — a theory close to the modern explanation.

Gout (ENG): Derives from the Old French gote (see goutte). Again, note Voltaire’s comment above about the origins of many English words.

Taste (ENG): From the Vulgar Latin tastāre and the Old French tast = Touch. The Old English smaecken — to taste — derives from the German schmecken, which translates as “to taste, try, smell, perceive.”

Paris taste and gout. Credit: L. John Harris

But why the same words in English, French and most other Romance languages for both aesthetic and physical taste? The complex etymology is well-documented, but I have not found an acceptable answer why our sense of taste — the human faculty least associated with art with a capital “A” (the fine arts) — is used as the metaphor for discerning, as Voltaire put it, “the feeling of beauty and defects in all the arts.”

Our other senses are, in fact, used in some contexts to describe aesthetic taste: You can have an eye for design and an ear for music. But you can’t have an eye for music or an ear for sculpture. Why then does “taste” apply so universally?

Is it because when we taste something, we bring the object of that sense (food and beverage) into the body itself, which, I would argue, renders taste unique among the human senses in being more sensitive? This is a simple explanation I can live with. After all, bad food can kill you. Bad paintings just make you sick.

Uncle Wiggily meets Voltaire in Paris

Voltaire’s ideas about taste emerged at a time when Paris had become Europe’s capital of le bon goût — in art, style, fashion and gastronomy — during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV (1638-1715), the Ralph Lauren of French monarchs. The cafe had arrived as the chic nexus of good taste (both kinds) and the go-to spot for that new, exotic beverage — coffee. But cafes mainly catered to a small Parisian elite in Voltaire’s day. “Taste,” he noted, ” … like philosophy, belongs only to a small number of privileged souls.”

Today, the cafe serves good taste to a much broader swath of souls; less privileged perhaps, but still human. So, imagine for a moment that Uncle Wiggily had ventured out from his forest to travel to Paris with a group of young furry souls — chipmunks, possums, bunnies and bear cubs. They are seated at Voltaire’s favorite cafe, Café Procope (established in 1686 and still going strong), happily nibbling on wedges of quiche and sipping cups of chocolat chaud. The elderly, kind and wise Uncle Wiggily Longears would, of course, be admonishing his charges in his best rabbit French, “Trop de quoi que ce soit n’est pas trop bon!” Too much of anything is not too good …

Main illustration credit: L. John Harris

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‘Café French’: The Cafe Is Dead – Long Live The Cafe! Image

La Vie en Rose: Bitter brews, perfunctory pâtés, questionable quiches, insipid salads and tepid tarts? Has the Parisian cafe lost its culinary luster? Well, yes and no, but from my hard-core cafe-lover’s point of view, it really doesn’t matter!

Yes, Paris’ fall as the world capital of fine dinning and its efforts to revive are well-documented. The most recent, and fairly gloomy, report is by Mark Bittman in his July 22 New York Times piece, “French Food Goes Down.” Bittman is a bit late to the funeral. The media discourse on French gastronomy has brightened of late, and Nicholas Lander’s April 25 column in London’s Financial Times has even hinted at a renaissance of fine dining in Paris.

In any case, fine French food — dead, alive or somewhere in between — has never been the draw of the Parisian cafe.

Joie de Starbucks

L. John Harris' Paris Cafe Index. Credit: L. John HarrisIt’s true that traditional cafes in Paris, and France generally, are closing in growing numbers. Young cafe-going Parisians and tourists, if not older, die-hard loyalists, are opting for food-trendy, Internet-friendly (Wi-Fi gratuit or free Wi-Fi) alternatives. These include, incredulously, American fast food and coffee chains like MacDonald’s and Starbucks.

Most traditional Parisian cafe owners would rather close up shop than give out their Wi-Fi (pronounced whiff-ee) passwords. Or so it seems.  Last summer, I had to swallow my pride (and their “handcrafted’ lattes) and head to Starbucks to access a signal. I was conducting an online interview with Leonard Pitt, the Berkeley-based author of “Walks Through Lost Paris” (Shoemaker and Hoard, 2006), a fascinating visual guide to Baron Haussmann’s architectural transformation of 19th-century Paris.

Pitt responded from his computer at the cafe in Berkeley, California’s French Hotel, across the street from Cali/Frenchie Chez Panisse. Working from my computer at Starbucks Odéon, the irony seemed absurd and a little painful. Pitt is a passionate proponent of a cafe-centric lifestyle over the work-ethic culture of Puritan-influenced America. “Nothing better symbolizes,” writes Pitt, “the congeniality, the rhythm and sheer joie de vivre we ache to recapture in life than the cafe.”

Well put, Pitt! But one man’s joie de vivre is another man’s (or woman’s) morning coffee ritual, writing studio, business office, evening gathering spot or flâneurian observation post. And often, all the above and more. The Parisian cafe is more than the sum of its parts.

Our Café French™ lesson today is based on my cafe-centric stay this June in the heart of Paris’ cafe-rich 6th Arrondissement — a perfect location for reflections on the traditional cafe’s basic functions. (See “Parisian Café Index” illustration.)

Wake up (se réveiller) and smell the coffee

When I go to a cafe to wake up with a café crème, the least important criteria for me is the coffee’s origin, quality or, I confess, taste. My critical connoisseur’s brain is still asleep even if my legs can get me there. So, I began each day at cafes within a few minutes walk of my apartment on rue Madame, mostly at my café du coin (corner cafe), Café Madame. There is nothing exceptional about Café Madame — they serve a typical petit déjeuner (decent coffee, acceptable croissant or buttered tartine, reasonably fresh orange juice) — except its convenient location.

After my morning coffee and a short stroll through the nearby Luxembourg gardens, I would arrive back at my apartment awake and ready for work — reading, writing and sketching — before heading out again to another cafe for lunch and more work.

Working (travailler): reading (lire), writing (écrire), sketching (faire des croquis)

Any cafe can be a working cafe, depending on one’s personal requirements. Kaaren Kitchell, an ex-pat novelist, poet and “Paris Play” blogger combines her daily one-hour walk with her writing and editing projects, so her cafe must be at least a 30-minute walk from home. Her other criteria include a quiet ambiance and, ergo, few tourists. “The French know how to modulate their voices,” says Kitchell, “Americans and Italians don’t.”

Chacun à son café! Ex-pat Paris author, tour guide and bon vivant, Terrance Gelenter, prefers to work in crowded and noisy icons, like Café de Flore. Every Sunday from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m., Gelenter holds “office hours” on the ever-popular terrace for his tour clients and visiting Anglophone writers, artists and musicians. His newsletter, “Paris Through Expatriate Eyes,” offers restaurant and hotel reviews, travel tips and a calendar of arts events.

Talking (parler)

Where better than at a cafe to talk? The cafe inhabits a middle world between public and private space, unlike bistros and brasseries, where spirited talking inter-table is welcome, if not required. For the 19th-century Impressionists who broke from the stifling restraints of the Academy, the cafe became a salon where they could engage in debates over aesthetic issues (with the help of addictive amounts of absinthe).

One artist, however, presents an amusingly downbeat view of the cafe’s talking function. That would be the legendary Marcel Duchamp, as quoted in “Marcel Duchamp: The Afternoon Interviews” by Calvin Tomkins:

“In the case of the Impressionists it could be a very useful thing — one artist would say a word that caught the imagination of the others, that’s true. But it’s a very, very artificial thing … full of new words and flourishing language and so forth, but no actual exchange and no understanding of the other one’s ideas.”

The inscrutable, tight-lipped Duchamp famously abandoned art and art talk when, in mid-career, he withdrew into the silence of chess competition. Which brings us to our final, nonverbal, cafe functions.

Watching (observer) and resting/napping (se reposer/sommeiller)

Much has been written about the cafe’s observational function. It’s as if the cafe, invented in 16th-century Istanbul, was destined for “… the eminently Parisian compromise between laziness and activity known as flânerie!” as 19th-century playwright Victorien Sardou was quoted in Edmund White’s book “The Flâneur.”

As for resting in cafes, it’s a touristic necessity after days filled with shopping and sightseeing. But napping? Well, I admit it’s a conceptual stretch. Nevertheless, while sketching one afternoon at Les Deux Magots toward the end of my summer cafe immersion, I drew three tables pushed together with a man sleeping on top. A visual punchline for my illustration of the cafe’s functions. Come to think of it, for us older, diehard cafe loyalists in search of that elusive joie de vivre — or, at least, an occasional afternoon nap — it’s not a bad idea.

Main illustration: The basic functional modes of the Parisian café. Credit: L. John Harris

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‘Café French': Bouillon Meets Bullion In A Soup Pot Image

La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson today takes us to Bouillon Chartier, which opened on rue du Faubourg Montmartre in 1896. It’s not a cafe or bistro or brasserie. Chartier is a bouillon, one of a few surviving members of a class of mid- to late 19th-century Parisian restaurants that specialized in hearty faire — especially meaty soups and broths. The low prices at the bouillons attracted workers, artists and shopkeepers in and around the sprawling food markets of Les Halles during the period of rapid commercial expansion during the Second Empire.

Credit for the creation of the bouillon (pronounced “bul-yon” in French, with a silent “n”) goes to Pierre-Louis Duval, an enterprising butcher whose first “broth Duval” opened in 1855. By 1900, the year of the Universal Exposition in Paris, there were hundreds of bouillons in Belle Epoque Paris, some fancier than Duval’s originals (Art Nouveau interiors were the rage), catering to the increasingly affluent bourgeoisie.

Primordial soup

It’s well documented that the modern restaurant (the word and the place) evolved from the restorative meat broths (called restaurants in French, pronounced “res-toe-rone) served at “health food” establishments in Paris beginning in the late 18th century. Going back still further to the 15th century, a very interesting recipe for a “restaurant” is documented in Rebecca Spang’s fascinating book “The Invention of the Restaurant” (2000).

The recipe is from the French master chef, Chiquart Amiczo, in his cookery book, “Du fait de cuisine” (1420). Amiczo’s instructions call for cooking a freshly killed chicken in an alchemist’s glass kettle along with 60 gold ducats. Not exactly the recipe my grandmother used when she made her famously golden chicken soup to cure my colds.

Courting the golden bouillon

Today’s Café French lesson explicates the linguistic trajectory between bouillon/broth and bullion/gold, health and commerce, restaurants (restorative broths) and restaurants (dining establishments).

The English pronunciation of bouillon, with a hard “n”—yone — is the same as for the English word bullion. Bullion, usually in the form of gold bars (ingots in English and lingots in French) has no linguistic faux ami in French (literally, false friend, or “unrelated sound-alike”). Both words, bouillon and bullion, derive from the Latin bullireto boil or make bubbles.

Compare: To make gold bullion one has to “boil” the gold to liquefy it for the ingot molds. To make a golden court-bouillon (“quick bouillon,” pronounced “coor-boo-yone), the vegetable-based broth used for poaching fish and light meats, one boils carrots, celery, onion, parsley, bay leaf, thyme and lemon in water, adding white wine or vinegar. Gold ducats optional.

Or one can cheat and avoid culinary/alchemical complexity by using dehydrated bouillon cubes (in French, bouillon cubes), like the Kub Or (gold cube) brand from Maggi, a French division of Nestlé Global.

Follow the monnaie

The pot thickens! Let’s look at a small slice of French history that is as startling as it is inconsequential, the almost simultaneous arrival of two men to the court of King Louis XIII (son of Henry IV) in the first half of the 17th century, one named Bullion and the other Bouillon. (You can’t make this stuff up.)

Claude de Bullion was a French aristocrat who served as Minster of Finance under Louis XIII from 1632 to 1640. He is credited with the creation of the Louis d’Or gold coin, which replaced Spanish doubloons, then in use in France for their coined money — monnaie (pronounced mon-et, as in, “A Monet costs beaucoup de monnaie). At least one authoritative source insists that the etymology of the word bullion derives from Lord Bullion’s name.

Henri de la Tour d’Auvergne, the Duc de Bouillon, was born in 1555 into the royal line associated with the Duchy of Bouillon in northeastern France, which later became incorporated into Belgium. Today, the Dutch city of Bouillon attracts tourists to its medieval castle, Château de Bouillon. Louis XIII was still a boy in 1610 when the Duc de Bouillon became a member of the Council of Regency and a favorite of the Queen Regent, Marie de Médici.

I have found no evidence that Bullion and Bouillon knew each other, but it’s interesting to speculate about what might have happened when M. Gold met M. Broth.

Taking stock at Chartier

Cafe French No. 4 translation exerciseSeated at a small table at Chartier, I find no bouillon on the menu — no soup, potage or consommé of any kind. My waiter explains that the weather is too hot for soup. Imagine a Parisian cafe on a hot summer day with no café crème!

But as disappointed as I am, I can almost taste the history of Parisian broth in Chartier’s Belle Epoque interior. You feel as if you have traveled back to the Paris of Emile Zola’s “The Belly of Paris,” his novel set in Les Halles and the market stalls, charcuteries and bistros of the Second Empire.

During that extraordinary period, Duval’s chain of bouillons had made him a “bouillonaire.” But his son, Alexandre, according to fellow Francophile, Susan Griffin, author of “The Book of Courtesans,” squandered much of the family’s wealth on the notorious and exquisite courtesan, Cora Pearl.

When Pearl dumped young, naive Duval, he tried to shoot her with a pistol that miss-fired and almost took his own life instead. The scandal that rocked tout Paris tilted in favor of the scorned Duval and brought down Pearl. The “affaire Duval” was a wake-up call for the bouillon heir who recovered and rebuilt his broth empire.

The golden age of Parisian bouillons is past, along with courtesans, Art Nouveau and the Belle Epoque. The fabled Bouillon Chartier is, at least today, a sad and soupless shadow of its former self. Luckily for cafe and coffee lovers, the thirst for hot coffee, a universal, all-weather restorative brew, will never dry up.

Main illustration credit: L. John Harris

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‘Café French': Palate, Palette & Picasso’s Ghostly Palace Image

La Vie en Rose: Our Café French™ lesson takes place today at Le Sélect in the former bohemian stronghold of Paris, Montparnasse. Where better than at this legendary literary cafe to consider the linguistic and aesthetic connections between cuisine and art? The list of the cafe’s celebrated patrons reads like a who’s who of literary and artistic Paris going back to the 1920s. Le Sélect may be the only cafe in Paris with its own biography, “Paris Café: The Sélect Crowd” by Noël Riley Fitch.

My guests (or should it be ghosts?) of honor today are the great novelist, dandy and gourmand, Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), and the Sélect’s most celebrated alum, Pablo Picasso (1881-1973). We are gastro-philologists, exploring via my Café French learning system a love of words and texts about art and food and the art of cooking.

The cook (le cuisinier, pronounced qui-zee-nyea) observes the materials arrayed on his work surface, just as a painter (le peintre, pan-truh) views the pigments on his palette (la palette, pah-let). The cook “sees” the possibilities before he even begins to chop, mix, sauté and roast.

As the cook engages with his culinary palette, his anatomical palate (le palais, pah-lay) anticipates taste – le goût (pronounced goo) — via the physiological mechanism of anticipatory arousal (salivation and memory). This parallel between the artist and cook, the palette and the palate, was noted by Balzac when he commented on the practice of that inscrutable 19th-century urban type, the flâneur.

The gastronomy of the eye

Balzac described flânerie (la flânerie, flan-er-ee) as “the gastronomy of the eye.” The flâneur was the ultimate urban observer, not merely a stroller, who would emerge at mid-century as the bohemian artist, an ironic dandy roaming the commercial arcades and grand Haussmann-designed boulevards of Paris. Drinking in its novelties, the flâneur, like a cook, served forth his aestheticized observations as poetry, prose, music and art. The poet, Charles Baudelaire (1821-1867), was the archetypical flâneur, and perhaps the first modern Paris artist.

Balzac understood flânerie (he shared a social circle with Baudelaire) but fancied himself a flamboyant dandy and even wrote the first philosophical study of the type, “Treatise on Elegant Living” (1830). More gourmand than dandy — he was described by one critic as a binge eater — Balzac’s slovenly corpulence always gave him away.

Gastronomy was in the air in Paris and in the restaurants that flourished after the French Revolution. The City of Light was becoming the gastronomic (and art) capital of Europe. Balzac was 26 years old when Jean Anthelme de Brillat-Savarin’s “Physiologie du Goût” was published in 1825.

The cook as artist

Cafe French Translation Exercise. Credit: L. John Harris If, in Balzacian terms, the observing flâneur practices the eye’s gastronomy, the cook as artist operates as gastronomy’s eye — he/she sees/tastes something we don’t. The ingredients on the cook’s culinary palette are transformed through aesthetic expression and registered on the eater’s palate much as the painter’s colors, poet’s words or musician’s notes are transformed and registered on their respective sense organs.

Interesting to note that the French word for palate — le palais  (pah-lay) — is also the French word for palace. Of course! The palate is our palace of gustatory pleasure. Before the discovery in the late 19th century of taste buds — les papilles gustatives — distributed throughout the oral cavity, especially on the tongue, it was thought that the human palate (soft and hard) was the sole site (or seat, as in “the seat of government”) of taste. Run your tongue along the roof of your mouth — it is a pleasure dome, no mere roof, and we are the kings and queens of the realm.

Another palette. Credit: L. John Harris

Another palette. Credit: L. John Harris

Back at Picasso’s palace

The haunted ambiance at Le Sélect is palpable today. Squeezed into a cozy booth, I am reading now about the “select crowd” in Fitch’s homage to the cafe and its resident ghosts, including Ernest Hemingway, Luis Buñuel, Henry Miller and, most famously, Pablo Picasso. You can almost taste the history of 20th-century modernisme at Le Sélect, or at least its mythology.

The cafe’s resident cat (chat), a long-haired bohemian fellow, is asleep on the bar, adding a je ne sais quoi (a little something, or literally, “I don’t know what”) to the cafe’s ambiance. Perhaps it’s a soupçon (a little bit) of domesticity, the cafe in its historic role as an extension of the home.

The servers are scurrying from table to table, like penguins in their black and white garb. I glance out the window at the passersby, expecting my friend, the food writer, cookbook author and now French pastry expert, Martha Rose Shulman, who will be joining me for lunch today.

I have important questions for Martha — about Picasso not pâtisserie. She spent the 1980s living in Paris and operating her “Supper Club chez Martha Rose.” While there, Martha grew close (and still is) to her landlord, Christine, who she soon discovered was the widow of Pablo Picasso’s son, Paulo. Martha is my connection to the real, historic Picasso, Picasso outside the myth.

I’ve read a lot about the palette of the artist Picasso, but I know little of his palate. Señor Picasso was an Andalusian Spaniard, and I presume that he loved garlic, peppers, sherry and grilled sardines, a specialty of his native Málaga. Martha will know. We will sit at Le Sélect and, like good gastro-flâneuring bohemians, observe the action on Boulevard du Montparnasse and the action at our table – salade niçoise, croque-monsieur and café crème. I will drink in Martha’s stories about le palais de Picasso and the cafe’s nosy ghosts will be all a-twitter.

Main illustration credit: L. John Harris

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‘Café French': Fish, Poison And James Beard’s Fork Image

La Vie en Rose: The key to mastering the art of the café lifestyle in Paris is to be vigilant. My Café French™ language system can help. Did your French server just scowl at you because you ordered poison (in French, poison, pronounced pwah-zon) instead of fish (poisson, pronounced pwah-son)? The grammatical rule here is that a single “s” appearing between two vowels — “i” and “o” in the case of poison — is pronounced “zz.” And a double “ss” appearing between two vowels, as in poisson, is pronounced “ss.”

Something’s fishy here

There may be reason enough in our polluted world to worry about being poisoned by fish without ordering it that way! That prompts the question: Where does Paris actually get its fish? All 100-mile locavores take note: Paris is a long way from its Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. Although the River Seine and smaller rivers and streams around Paris were once sources of freshwater fish, this is no longer the case because of industrial waste, especially from nuclear power plants. So even with its spectacular ocean bounty, France is today a net importer of seafood.

But despite discouraging trends in French gastronomy brought on by social, political, environmental and economic stressors — read Michael Steinberger’s book on France’s declining haute cuisine status, “Au Revoir to All That” — much of the gastronomic apparatus that made France the envy of the Western world over the last several centuries remains intact, theoretically, if not always visible on the plate.

The gastronomic reach of Paris

It was the legendary French writer and gastronome Curnonsky — born Maurice-Edmond Sailland in 1889 — who christened Paris a “tentacular” city and the digesting “belly” of France. Gastronomic France was built like a huge wheel with spokes that radiated out from the hub — Paris. And like some gourmandizing Goliath, Paris reached out over La France Profonde (“deep France”) to rake in the regional treasures of its incomparably fertile terroir.

The Gastronomic Reach of Paris. Credit: L. John Harris

Illustration of Paris Gastronomic Reach. Credit: L. John Harris

You might say that culinary Paris was, in the first half of the 20th century, Curnonsky himself. In a 1927 newspaper poll, he was voted by 3,000 Parisian chefs “The Elected Prince of Gastronomy” (Le Prince-élu de la Gastronomie) and was the first modern French food and wine critic powerful enough to make or break important restaurants. It has been claimed that top chefs would keep a table empty just in case Curnonsky should walk in.

The gastronomic wheel of France circa early 20th century was, of course, made of rubber, as in the Michelin tire company. Curnonsky helped usher in the Michelin era and its starred rating system, becoming the company’s first spokesman and the creator of what is known today as gastro-tourism, or back in the day, “motor-tourism.”

Promoting France’s increasingly-accessible regional cuisine was Curnonsky’s real passion. Similarly, a generation later, American food legend James Beard (1903-1985) would advocate for the regional cuisines of the United States, including the new California cuisine that emerged in the 1970s. Curnonsky had divided French cuisine into four hierarchical categories: At the top was haute cuisine (fancy restaurant cooking), followed by traditional family cooking, regional cooking and finally at the bottom, “impromptu” or “camper” cooking. The resemblance of California’s simple, local, fresh-is-best cooking style — discovered and championed by Beard — to the lowest rung in Curnonsky’s French cuisine hierarchy is worth noting.

Forks and rakes

Like Paris raking in the bounty of France, Curnonsky and Beard did prodigious amounts of personal gastronomic raking, as to which their growing rotundity would testify. The French word for a rake or pitchfork is fourche (foorshhh). A dinner fork, fourchette (pronounced foor-shett), is a “little rake.” (Café French™ tip: Don’t forget to emphasize the second syllable in the word fourchette when you ask your scowling Parisian café server for another fork. It’s bad enough you dropped the first one on the floor without asking to replace it with a rake.)

The physical resemblance of our outsized French and American gourmands went well beyond their balding pates, mustaches and signature bow ties. The expansive real estate they each wore around their middles (the French call a paunch a brioche) like suburban sprawl around an urban core, was their professional trademark. Larger than life (obesity became a “problem” only after World War II), Curnonsky and Beard personified the material abundance of the foods and wines they celebrated and gorged on.

There is something both hilarious and poignant in the discovery that at the James Beard Foundation in New York there is a long telescoping extension fork that Beard would use at meals to skewer food from across the table, especially bread I am told.

Historical rakes and rascals

Appearing a century or two before Curnonsky and Beard, the “rake” (in French, un débauché, pronounced day-bo-shay) was a dandy, rascal or libertine whose large, often refined appetites were, from the perspective of a growing bourgeois culture, out of control. Cafés in Paris and tea salons in London of that period were full of rakes.

The character is featured in English artist William Hogarth’s series of devilishly humorous paintings cum lithographs called “The Rake’s Progress.” The social and personal dramas portrayed in Hogarth’s masterpiece reveal the troubles of one Tom Rakewell (a wordplay on “rakehell” from the Middle English “rakel”) whose “… pursuit of pleasure and sensual satisfaction … shows hedonistic, Epicurean, and anti-rationalist patterns of thought,” as Wikipedia puts it.

I wouldn’t necessarily apply the “anti-rationalist” component here, but Curnonsky and Beard certainly shared “rakish” tendencies. Our twin epicures did not hesitate to pursue their “sensual satisfaction” publicly through their gargantuan devotions to the pleasures of the table, and privately, no doubt, through “hedonistic” behaviors not relevant to our Café French™ discourse.

Meanwhile, back at the café

Seated at my favorite corner table at Café de Flore in Paris’ chic 6th arrondissement, I come across an astonishing line in Beard’s 1961 cookbook “Paris Cuisine,” where he comments on the declining post-WWII cafés in Paris and their “ … very mixed crowd of phony artists, haywire poets and every possible nationality of sightseer.”

Muffling my guffaw in a glass of chilled rosé — a Café French™ survival technique — my thoughts shift back to Monsieur Curnonsky. I wonder what he would think about today’s Michelin-endorsed avant-garde cooking and an artsy cuisinier de poisson (fish cook) who serves a purée de poisson poché (poached fish purée) splattered over a sheet of baked parchment paper and calls it “Jackson’s Pollock”?

Top illustration: Poisson = Fish. Poison = Poison. Credit: L. John Harris

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Secrets Of ‘Café French': Liver, Faith & Time – Foie, Foi & Fois Image

La Vie en Rose: So you want to hang out in Parisian cafés and cultivate the artful, virtually mythic, lifestyle portrayed in films, novels and the media? Bienvenue (welcome)! But indulging in the pleasures of a café lifestyle can be tricky business, fraught with linguistic, social and gastronomic pitfalls. A basic knowledge of what I call Café French™ will give you the simple linguistic and stylistic tools (vocabulary, gestures, fashion tips, etc.) necessary to make the Parisian café your own. With my unique learning system — Café French™ — you can avoid the petty humiliations and disappointments many Americans report after visits to Paris.

The French café as institution

Our first lesson begins, naturally, with the French café itself, a centuries-old social and gastronomic institution that derives its name from the Arabic word for coffee, qahwa, via the Turkish kahve. The oldest surviving café in Paris, Le Procope, dates to the 17th century. Although still functioning in all its romanticized glory as a magnet for artistic types and modern versions of my favorite café character, the 19th-century flâneur, the French café is, like so many French institutions today, in crisis. Crisis (crise in French, pronounced “kreez”) will be the underlying theme of Café French™ Lesson One.

Adam Gopnik, perhaps our most exuberantly articulate Francophile (and an “ex” Parisian expat), has dubbed the French café the “highest embodiment” of French “commonplace civilization.” The café is, he seems to be saying, so embedded in quotidian French life that for the French it simply is. Well, that’s all well and good for the French, but for Americans it’s not so simple.

While the Parisian café itself is arguably, echoing Gopnik, the highest embodiment of the French café, the numbers are sadly dwindling — from as many as 45,000 cafés in the 1880s to something like 7,000 today. Nevertheless, Americans continue to flock to the venerable survivors such as Le Select, Café de Flore, Les Philosophes, Les Deux Magots, La Rotonde and Le Procope.

Crise de foie

It would be an exaggeration to say that abusing the Parisian café can kill you. But for the uninitiated and unwitting it may not be far from the truth. Think about it: All the glorious French consumables associated with the café are either high in alcohol (wine, absinthe); caffeine (coffee, tea); butter fat (croissants and triple-crème cheeses) and sugar (pastries and tarts); or animal fat and salt (charcuterie, foie gras). This is French gastronomic heaven translated into a nutritional version of Russian roulette!

Let’s focus for a moment on foie gras (pronounced “fe-wah grah”), that quintessential Gallic delicacy popular in cafés that means, literally, “fattened liver.” It is made from the livers of force-fed ducks (canard) and geese (oie, pronounced oy, like the Yiddish oy vey). Eighty-five percent of the calories in foie gras are from fat. As delicious as it is, woe to those who overindulge in foie gras!

* Gavage in English also refers to the technique of feeding newborn infants having problems swallowing milk or formula by inserting a tube down their nose and into their stomach.

* Gavage in English also refers to the technique of feeding newborn infants having problems swallowing milk or formula by inserting a tube down their nose and into their stomach. Illustration credit: L. John Harris

Usually found at cafés in the form of a spreadable mixture, pâtépâté de foie gras de canard (or, d’oie) — it is served with slices of toasted bread and, commonly, with small pickles called cornichons. More expensive and richer still is foie gras served whole, either cooked or not – foie gras entier (the “entire” liver).

Like the Parisian café, foie gras is also in crisis. The controversial process of manufacturing foie grasforce-feeding corn to ducks and geese to fatten their livers — gavage (“ga-vage“) — is being challenged, particularly in the United States where animal welfare activists have virtually shut down this age-old technique. But even in France there is growing concern about the animal welfare dimension of the foie gras industry.

Just as stuffing feed into a duck or goose can expand their livers to the bursting point, the same is true for café-goers who gorge on those very same livers. Excessive foie gras consumption can unleash what the French call a crise de foie, literally a “crisis of the liver” (see top illustration). From mild symptoms of dyspepsia (indigestion) to acute bilious conditions, such liver maladies (les maladies du foie) can be serious, even fatal.

Crise de foi

It’s curious, if not confusing, that the French word foie is phonetically identical to the French word for faith — foi. A crise de foi — crisis of faith — is usually associated with a religious crisis, perhaps the belief that God is dead. However, in French existentialisme, the 20th-century philosophical school most identified with the celebrated café Les Deux Magots regular, Jean-Paul Sartre, one’s crise de foi can be totally secular in nature — the feeling that life is meaningless and absurd. This condition can lead to extreme acts of political, artistic and psychological violence, even suicide (in French, suicide, pronounced “Su-e-seed”).

One more fois

One more “fe-wah” to consider: the word for time — fois — as in “for a second time” or “the next time.” So, for example, if your first attempt at suicide fails, you can try for a second time — une deuxième fois. Or, if you are hospitalized for a crise de foie, you might be more modest when eating pâté de foie gras the next time — la prochaine fois.

But not to fear — Café French™ is here! Master the appropriate French vocabulary applied to the social, aesthetic and gastronomic codes embedded in French café culture and you can avoid the potential perils of the French café: rude waiters, snubs from locals, fashion missteps, indigestion and depression.

In my experience over the last several years, spending months at a time (mois à la fois) in Paris studying the art of the café, I have never experienced a crise — existential, gastroenterological or otherwise — only that bittersweet feeling of contentment (le contentement) tinged with nostalgia (la nostalgie) the French describe as la vie en rose — “life in the pink.”

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Selected Vocabulary

la crise            n.f        crisis

le foie              n.m      liver

la foi                n.f        faith

une fois          n.f        time

le temps         n.m      time

un café           n.m      café

le café             n.m      coffee

un suicide      n.m      suicide

le gavage        n.m      gavage

deux/ième     num.    two/second

entier              adj.      entire, whole

existential       adj.      existential

un flâneur      n.m      urban observer

la nostalgie     n.f        nostalgia, longing

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 Top illustration credit: L. John Harris

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