July 14 is Bastille Day. A simple explanation is it’s to France what the 4th of July is to the USA except it was an overthrow of the existing rulers on the ground – in this case the French monarchy – by the storming of the Bastille or prison. Heads rolled, literally.

I’ve got a set of guillotine earrings a friend brought me from the French Bicentennial celebrations in Paris way back in 1989. Friends are meeting up for festivities in D.C.’s Adams Morgan where there will be a French Maid relay race at L’Enfant Cafe (2000 18th St, NW) hosted by King Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette. There will be free cake.

Back in the olden days, Dominique’s restaurant on Pennsylvania Avenue would hold the annual Bastille Day races where waiters and waitresses from around the country competed for a grand prize. Dominique’s was owned and named after Dominique D’Ermo who had been part of the DC hotel and restaurant scene since 1962. In his 2002 obit, the first sentence describes a life filled with fireworks before descending into tiny puffs of smoke:

Dominique D’Ermo, 74, the buoyant Washington restaurateur and showman who blew up bridges with the French Resistance during World War II, downed Dom Perignon with Marlene Dietrich in her private Shoreham Hotel booth and caused a sensation at the Washington restaurant bearing his name with such dishes as baked Pennsylvania timber rattlesnake, died Wednesday at his home in Key West, Fla. He had cancer.

Dominique’s was sold then closed in a semi-scandalous bankruptcy ordeal. Les Halles took up the racing tradition but also recently closed. Apparently, 2009 is D.C.’s first Bastille Day without the waiters’ race.
photo by Paul Child
On other matters French is the upcoming film “Julie & Julia.” The film combines two memoirs including My Life in France by the pioneer TV French Chef, cookbook author and connoisseur Julia Child (and her great nephew Alex Prud’homme), and former regular person Julie Powell’s Julie/Julia Project blog inspired memoir of her year of fearless cooking every single recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

My Life in France is Julia’s “American in Paris” story in which her leading man, Paul Child, gives her a formal introduction to appreciating authentic French food during his State Department assignment in Paris after World War II. It was also Julia’s entree into preparing French food, which led to writing the cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking published in 1961 by Julia Child, and her friends Louisette Berthole and Simone Beck. (The details of their partnership can be found in My Life in France.) The book was intended to take the fear out of French food and preparation for an American audience. Some say the timing was perfect as Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy, wife of John F. Kennedy, had taken the stage as First Lady. But for many years after its publication, casseroles countesses and some back room gourmets felt the recipes were impossible to follow. I’m re-reading My Life in France for a bit of summer escapism. Mastering the Art of French Cooking has been pulled from the top of my kitchen cabinet.

Julie Powell’s trial and error rants and gushes may appeal to modern day sensibilities and is material for another Nora Ephron self-depreciating comic movie (Ephron is producer, director and writer). I’m more attracted to Julia’s immersion into her life in France, the culture, her strict testing of every recipe and multiple trials of mastering french bread. And at the end of the day Julia emerges a television cooking show star at the age of 49 with a husband who really digs what she’s doing…and really digs her.

I cooked my first grown up meal from Julia Child’s recipes for quiche lorraine and potato leek soup. I still use her pastry crust recipe as my standard pie crust. Sure it’s thicker than regular pie crust, but for me the crust is the best part. Julia also introduced me to Marcel Proust reading from Remembrance of Things Past as an introduction to making madeleines. I picked up special ingredients from the french market in Georgetown where I could buy wine for one of Julia’s recipes just like in France. I wasn’t even 17 years old at the time.

A few friends and I are trying to cook up a movie and pot luck with foods from — eh hem — Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume 1. It’s been a long time since I’ve really cooked. To save myself from embarassment, I’ll make the quiche. Or should I just close my eyes and pick a page. Gotta stock the cupbard with some vermouth just in case. “Julie & Julia” — starring Meryl Streep as Julia and Amy Adams as Julie– opens August 7, a week before Julia Child’s birthday (August 15).

Julia Child died in her sleep at the age of 91 in 2004. Hours before she joined the ancestors, she had a bowl of french onion soup and the company of her cat. Now that would be my answer to the Vanity Fair Proust questionnaire.

Bon Appetit!