Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Thankgiving Special: What gender is that turkey in your oven?

Learning the genders of nouns (objects) in French has been driving me fou. There are a few rules (nouns that end in -age and  -eau are usually masculine, those in -ion usually feminine) but when it comes to the gender of animals, it's a downright zoo.

Take, for example a chicken. Lays eggs, so much be ...wrong-o! It's a male - un poulet. Thank goodness a cock, at least (that is, a rooster) is a male -- un coq. But when it comes to most animals, you need to hazard a peek under the tail to figure it out. A cat is either un chat or une chatte; a dog un chien or une chienne -- wait a second, do I detect a pattern here? -- to derive the feminine, just repeat the final consonant and add an e? That's not so hard.

Not so fast, chérie! In the spirit of the season, consider the turkey. A male turkey is un dindon. But a female turkey is not une dindonne (nice try), but une dinde. By the time it ends up stuffed and in your oven, your guess is as good as mine. Just enjoy it.

Happy Thanksgiving, tout le monde!

Friday, November 22, 2013

In Praise of Jacqueline Kennedy

As the nation observes the remembrance of this tragic day 50 years ago, I'd like to add my own thoughts about Jacqueline Kennedy, who brought French style, flair, and, of course, French food, to the White House. Julia Child is often credited with bringing French cuisine to the American public -- and it's true, she deserves a tremendous amount of credit -- but her Mastering the Art of French Cooking was in fact published several months after another groundbreaking event in Franco-American relations: Jackie Kennedy's naming of French chef René Verdon to the post of White House Chef.

As the New York Times wrote in Verdon's obituary in 2011,
His first official meal at the White House, a lunch for Prime Minister Harold Macmillan of Britain and 16 guests on April 5, 1961, set the new tone: trout in Chablis and sauce Vincent, beef filet au jus and artichoke bottoms Beaucaire, and a dessert he dubbed désir d’avril, or “April Desire,” a meringue shell filled with raspberries and chocolate.
The message was clear. No longer would a meal at the White House be a painful duty.
A White House dinner menu of the time included something called "Potatoes Nancy." I've been unable to find a recipe for "Pommes Nancy."  If anyone out there has one, please let me know.

As for Monsieur Verdon -- the Texan who moved into the White House had a distinct preference for frozen vegetables, burgers, ribs, and baked beans. Verdon resigned in 1965 and opened his own  restaurant.

Jacqueline Kennedy moved to New York and, let us not forget, just about single-handedly saved the majestic Grand Central Terminal from the wrecking ball, a sliver of a silver lining to the dark of cloud of November 22, 1963.

Merci, Madame Kennedy.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: Dese, dem, and dose damn genders!

Coming up with the correct gender of nouns can drive any student of French fou. Gender even infiltrates a common phrase like “this one,” which is celui-ci if the thing you’re referring to is masculine, say, a woman’s breast. If it’s a beard, which is obviously feminine, it’s celle-ci. Of course, breasts usually come in pairs, so you’d better know that “those” plural masculine breasts are ceux-là, while plural feminine beards are celles-là. This French version of “dem and dose” has at least eight variations to be memorized. Here's a chart for the masochistic (the rest of just point and grunt):

English                  Masculine                  Feminine
this                           celui                            celle
these                        ceux                            celles

that                          celui-ci                        celle-ci
those                       ceux-là                        celles-là

In my next life I may study Latin instead -- it's easier.

Friday, November 15, 2013

French Food Fight Friday: "Quality partridge should have the fresh smell of an infant’s diaper."

This week on French Food Fight Friday, I'm actually ready to start a fight: against the US government, which, for the most part, does not allow the serving of wild game in restaurants. France, by contrast (vive la différence!) celebrates the preparation and consumption of wild game this time of year. Restaurants have relationships with hunters, who bring their freshly-caught game to the back door, slung over their shoulder, still warm and furry. But in our antiseptic, overly-regulated culture, everything we consume has to be slaughtered and wrapped in plastic before we are allowed to eat it.

Among the rules French hunters abide by:
  • "Female birds are to be venerated, not killed"
  • "Quality partridge should have the fresh smell of an infant’s diaper" (a clean diaper, that is)

Read the full story on hunters and French diners, and sigh with regret.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: Why the French don't hug

In last week's installment we explored the surprising fact that the French don't have a word for "French kiss." Believe it or not, we only scratched the surface of affection with that post. This week we delve into this kissing business a little more, um, deeply.

When I had a date to meet my French penpal in France last year I agonized beforehand whether to shake hands or do the air kiss on each cheek. One option I didn't have to worry about was a hug. The French don't socially hug, I've noticed. They just don't. This may be because they don't really have a word for it. They used to — embrasser — but somewhere along the way the terms of endearment all got ratcheted up one level and embrasser now means “to kiss,” a real kiss, on the lips.

The cheek-to-cheek air kiss I ended up performing (flawlessly, as far as I could tell) is called a bise. Essentially you touch cheeks and make a smacking sound with your lips as if you were actually kissing, which in most cases you are not, then repeat on the other cheek. And it doesn’t always end there. The French, it seems, are so fond of the bise that they sometimes go for three or even four kisses, depending on the region. In general they kiss twice in the north, and anywhere from three to a tongue down your throat in the south.

Well, back to the ratcheting up of terms of affection: if the hug (embrasser) got promoted to a kiss, what happened to the word for "to kiss"? The verb baiser got promoted to the vulgarity, "to f**k." Except -- attention, mes amis! -- baiser can still mean "to kiss," but the kind of kiss a mother might plant on her child's forehead. In other words, kissing the pope's ring and screwing your girlfriend (or boyfriend) use the same verb -- it's all in the context!

So be careful next time you meet the pope. Quelle langue!!

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

Wordsmith Wednesday: What do the French call a French kiss?

This may come as a surprise (it did to me), but the French don't have a term for "French Kiss." I think we can interpret this to mean that they don't think it's anything special to exchange tongues with your partner — it's just part of kissing — and indeed American servicemen returning from liberating France after World War II reported that "those French women really know how to kiss!" And depictions of tongue-kissing were banned from American films for quite some time.

Well, the 2014 Petit Robert dictionary, perhaps concerned about the impact the lack of a term for French kissing might be having on the already-low French birth rate, has recently proposed one — a very odd concept for Americans, who kind of just wait for a new word to arrive naturally — coming up with the verb galocher, which is derived from the word for an ice-skating boot, the idea apparently being that a French kiss is kind of sliding around on the ice, but with your lips and tongue.

You can love it or hate it, but when it comes to new words, it's the storied Académie française — the arbiter of the French that's been around since 1635 — that has the final say on whether galocher will be accepted as official French or fall through the ice.  Stay tuned: The really — um — juicy part about the French word for kiss comes next week!