CHARLOTTE, NC, July 22, 2015 – Trivia with a French twist today as we explore some interesting facts about the nation which gave the United States our beloved Statue of Liberty.
1 – Storming the Bastille: July 14, 1789 is as important to the French as July 4, 1776 is to Americans. On that morning, the city of Paris was in a state of emergency as partisans of the Third Estate in France, which quickly became Revolutionary France’s National Guard, prepared to storm the Bastille, or prison, while seeking ammunition for their arms.
The revolutionaries had earlier attacked Hotel des Invalides to obtain roughly 30,000 muskets which were useless without gunpowder.
Thus, the “storming of the Bastille” has become a symbol of French independence as the medieval fortress was besieged by an angry mob.
In reality, the prison and its garrison were only in limited use at the time. Maintenance costs were so high, it became prohibitive to preserve the stronghold at an appropriate level of functionality. During the attack, there were only seven old men confined to the Bastille; four were forgers, two were insane and one was a “deviant” aristocrat who had been incarcerated by his family to teach him a lesson.
In other words, it was hardly the D-Day invasion which occurred nearly 150 years later.
As an added bit of irony, Governor Bernard-Rene de Launay, the son of the previous governor, had actually been born in the Bastille.
No matter, the word “storming” has much stronger connotations than “protesting” so the image lives on in the minds and hearts of the French.
A crowd numbering less than 1,000 gathered outside the prison at mid-morning shouting for surrender and the release of the arms. At noon, two representatives of the revolutionaries were invited inside for negotiations.
An hour and a half later, the mob became restless and surged into the undefended outer courtyard and the rest is history.
Though the actual events may not capture the images of the “storming of the Bastille” headlines, the prison was, indeed, a symbol of royal tyranny and therein lies its significance.
2 – Why chefs wear tall white hats: To start we should mention that those tall white hats are called a toque. In French, a toque blanche, or “white hat” is a high, round, pleated and starched head covering commonly worn by chefs.
Tracing the roots of the hat, the etymology is derived from an Arabic word which means “round hat” which have existed for centuries.
But why do chefs wear them?
Anyone who has worked in a restaurant will argue that a toque is a sanitation practice to keep hair from falling into food. Other professional chefs claim the hat is tall and shaped like a chimney because it allows air to circulate and keep their heads cool in the heat of the kitchen.
In early times, the hats were colored in order to denote the rank of a chef within a royal kitchen. According to legend, it was the personal chef of Charles Talleyrand, then prime minister of France, who insisted the hats be white for hygienic purposes. The height of the toque then became the determining factor for rank.
Perhaps most interesting however, is the reason for the pleats. Many toques have exactly 100 pleats which signify the numerous ways an egg can be cooked.
Toque that for what it’s worth.
3 – The truth about French toast: Just in case you were wondering, you cannot get French onion soup in France. It is simply “onion soup.”
With that in mind, remember when Americans decided to call “French fries” by the term “freedom fries”? That didn’t hurt French feelings one bit, because frites, as they are called in France, derived in Belgium, not France. Oops.
Similarly, French toast was around long before France existed.
Originally the idea sprang out a way to utilize stale bread so it would not have to be thrown out. The way to accomplish this was to soak the bread in milk and eggs.
Earliest known references date to 4th century Rome in a recipe written down by Apicius. The dish was known as Pan Dulcis in which bread was soaked in a milk/egg mixture and then fried in oil or butter much as we do it today.
The French named it pain perdu, which means “lost bread.” Oddly enough, before that, French toast in France was known as “Roman bread.”
Another popular legend says that French toast was created in 1724 in the United States by a chef whose name was, of course, Joseph French. Not being a native English speaker, Chef French left out the apostrophe in calling it “French’s toast” which supposedly led us to the variation we use today.
Perhaps the English solved the conundrum with the best solution. They just call it “eggy toast”, thereby leaving the yolk entirely on the French.
Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.
Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (www.MagellanTravelClub.com)
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