Today's Vitamin D: Bastille Day

by Dane Huckelbridge

Once a month, author Dane Huckelbridge gives us a nourishing dose of useful (for the most part) knowledge. In today's post, he tackles Bastille Day.

Around this time each year—July 14th, to be exact—world stock markets rally on an uptick in beret futures, La Marseillaise rockets to the top of the international pop charts, and those of the French persuasion everywhere interrupt their fromages a trois to celebrate Le quatorze juillet. Or as we know it: Bastille Day. But what exactly is this decidedly Gallic holiday? An excellent question, one that Yours Truly spent an entire day poring over pictures of Brigitte Bardot and quaffing bottles of Bordeaux to answer. History is a discipline, after all.

His conclusion? In what may be one of the most mis-matched expressions of national character in history, while our revolution was ignited by a tea party, the French, well, they had a jailbreak. For the day commemorates an event that transpired in 1789: the storming of the Bastille, a prison-fortress that frequently housed those incarcerated by Louis XVI under his rather arbitrary lettres de cachet. When good King Louis threatened to disband the Third Estate—the branch of government that represented the interests of the common people—those same common people responded with a call to arms, taking control of the Bastille as a symbolic gesture, but also to get their hands on the gunpowder and muskets contained therein. As you can imagine, a royal sh*t-storm ensued, but one that would trigger the French Revolution and usher in some welcome reforms. In its wake, feudalism was abolished, the Rights of Man were proclaimed, and the French Republic as we know it came into being . . . with a few trips to the guillotine thrown in for good measure.

All of which begs the rather obvious question: How can the arcana of French political history help me throw a better party? Well, to those of you with any interest in celebrating Bastille Day with an authentic twist, here are a few pointers, courtesy of the author’s lovely although mildly indifferent French wife. Indeed, the most authentically French way to celebrate would probably be to puff out your lips and make a coolly aloof comment about François Hollande. But alas, we can’t all be French, so for all of us yankee-doodles on this side of the Atlantic, here it is:

  Dear Brigitte: Will you be my Bastillentine?

Dear Brigitte: Will you be my Bastillentine?

Drink Pastis

What is it? We have no idea, but it tastes like black jelly beans, turns cloudy in ice water, and packs a sweet buzz. The French sometimes add a dash of grenadine syrup to make a tomate, and serve it in a tall glass. The easy brands to find for your Bastille Day party are Pernod and Ricard—one part liqueur to three parts water will do, accompanied by a bowl of peanuts.

Grill Merguez

A spicy mutton sausage beloved by the Gauls, you can throw a few on the grill just like you do brats. They might be a little tricky to find, but that fancy grocery store that the fashion models and European au pairs shop at will probably have them.

Listen to Georges Brassens

True, he hails from the south of France, a healthy hike from Paris, but his songs are fantastic. If you’re looking to mix it up, a little Charles Aznavour and Yves Montand will also bring down the house . . . and if you listen to "Le temps de cerises," possibly a tear to your eye.

Invite a Fireman

Perhaps even more celebrated across the length and breadth of France on July 14th are the bals de pompiers, curious cultural events at which firehouses open their doors and host all-night disco parties for citizens and firemen alike. If you have a firehouse in your neighborhood, invite the full brigade over for a few ice cold Kronenbourgs. If it seems weird, just blame it on the French.

Play Pétanque

It’s really just bocce, but we won’t tell if you don't. Long-favored by Gauloises-smoking pensioners, it’s a relaxed game that can be played in a backyard, on the beach, even in the theater of the mind, if you want to get all existential about it, Monsieur Sartre.

Wear Saint James

Long before Mlle. Chanel introduced them to haute couture, French sailors were wearing the breton-striped shirts of this legendary brand. Saint James has some great wool sweaters as well, but they’ll be too warm for July. Stick to the long-sleeve tees.

Get a Real Beret

Forget that little felt piece of junk from your last Halloween costume. The best French berets come from the Basque country, and are made to last. Invest in a Laulhère, Bakarra, or a Hoquy, and you’ve got a friend for life—or at the very least, a reliable woolen pen pal.

Grow a Proper Moustache

Gallic manhood is defined by a robust moustache. A nude upper-lip is as frowned upon in the 6th arrondisement as a covered bosom is on the Baie des Anges. You can go with a trim Vincent Cassel from Mesrine, or bushier with a full-blown Inspector Clouseau. Just be sure to keep it free of whipped cream when you eat that tarte de Saint Honoré.

Got it all down? Magnifique. And if all else fails, you can always save the day with a healthy side of freedom fries, prepared in the classic French style. À la vôtre!

Dane Huckelbridge is the author of Bourbon: A History of the American Spirit. Follow @huckelbridge for a daily dose of Vitamin D.

Illustrations by Frank Guia

Photo of Brigitte Bardot by Michel Bernanau