Bastille Day and our French connection

July 14, 2011

When I moved to Paris to attend Le Cordon Bleu, our flight left America on Bastille Day. When we landed the next morning I learned that the French don’t call it Bastille Day. They just call le quatorze juillet - the fourteenth of July. More surprisingly, and disappointingly, I discovered that there aren’t really any food traditions associated with it either. No burgers, no dogs, and certainly no saucission-eating contest à la Nathan’s.

Sure there are few more picques-niques than usual, because today does mark the unofficial start of the six-week French vacation season. Over the years I’ve spotted a few more barbeques à charbon too, though not the chic white Smokey Joe Premium made by Weber based in Palatine. As impractical it’s got to be, I have to admit I covet it.

But this is Chicago, where we call it Bastille Day, and it’s a work day, but there are celebrations - with food.

And we do have an important historic French connection. Remember that the first known non-native permanent resident of Chicago was Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. While his name is French, his origins are disputed, but he’s believed to have been of African and European descent. In 1789, on July 14th, while a crowd stormed Bastille prison in Paris, du Sable was already living in what would become Chicago 44 years later.

His settlement, what’s now known as Pioneer Court - at the river, just off Michigan Avenue - is about a mile walk away from the Chicago French Market at Ogilvie station, where the vendors are serving specials today with live entertainment.

Up at Hot Doug’s, Monsieur Sohn has his infamous Foie Gras and Sauternes Duck Sausage with Truffle Aioli, Foie Gras Mousse, and Fleur de Sel on today's specials menu for $9. But no Duck Fat Fries, which you should know by heart by now are available Friday and Saturday only - by your slowed-beating heart.

For those of us celebrating after work today, Rob Levitt, the chef and butcher at The Butcher & Larder, will have fresh Toulouse sausages by around 5 p.m. Rob says, “they’re pork with a decent amount of garlic, black pepper, nutmeg, and ground mustard seed.” He recommends frying them up in a pan, serving them with a summertime lentil salad dressed in a mustard vinaigrette. He says they’re good grilled too. Get them while they last. The roughly quarter pound sausages sell out fast at $10 per pound.

And did you know that the biggest Bastille Day celebration in North America is in Milwaukee? The four-day Bastille Days kicks off tonight with a “storming of the Bastille” 5k run and 2 mile walk. They even have a signature 43-foot replica of the Eiffel Tower.

France. Milwaukee. Wherever you celebrate, whatever you call it, I guess you’re bound to find cheeseheads.