When you plan a road trip to the mountains but the South of France declares a snow day, the only recourse is to take solace at the nearest village market.
Your Canadian friend who is doing the driving remarks on the absurdity of the chaos wreaked by a light dusting. There are no salt trucks or plows, just two municipal workers decked out in chic coveralls tossing handfuls of sand or birdseed out of baskets onto the snow-slicked sidewalk. Like something out of a Millet painting. The Canadian laughs so hard you fishtail a little.
When you get to the market, you find that only the most hardcore local producers have shown up in the snow, and you feel duty-bound to buy what you can so that they will show up on the next snow day.
“N’est pas chaud.” You overhear the cheese monger joke that “it’s not warm.” Then the fishmonger says the same — an entire village of people cackling to each other that it’s not warm.
There’s not much in your kitchen because you were planning to be on that damn cancelled road trip. You feel out of sorts, so you want soup.
“I wonder if they have those duck carcasses,” you say to the Canadian. The woman behind the counter of the meat truck acknowledges you with a “Bonjour.”
So you wing it. “Bon-jee-or. Ah-vay-voo day cahr-cahs da can-ahr?”
You’ve grown accustomed to that puzzled look from the French, but after a moment she breaks into a broad smile and confirms, “Ouais, les demoiselles?”
“Oh, whee!” you say, nodding vigorously. “Doo dey-mwah-sell, see-voo-play.”
It’s winter and this is Gascony, duck country. It’s also traditionally the time of year that the fat ducks are slaughtered. Inevitably, after the duck is broken down — the precious liver (foie gras) is harvested, the legs are preserved as confit, the magret (boneless breast) is trimmed off for grilling or curing — what is left is an appendage-free duck skeleton with some delectable bits of meat still clinging to it.
These duck frames are kept in a box behind the butcher counter. You have grown in the butcher’s esteem for even knowing to ask (even if you don’t know how to ask). You reward Julie, the butcheress, for her determination to show up when it is not warm with the purchases of two duck carcasses.
If you were a good Gascon, you would know that demoiselles are traditionally grilled over an open fire until the bones are crispy. Then a platter of them is served as an informal family meal — sort of like a plate of ribs or a crawfish boil — to be eaten by hand. Imagine Van Gogh’s “Potato Eaters,” except that there’s a pile of grilled duck carcasses instead of potatoes and everyone at the table is happy. Imagine them saying to each other “N’est pas chaud,” and laughing (#because-beaucoup-du-vin). It is a crude but maddeningly delicious dish. People don’t talk about it in polite company but everybody knows about it. It’s not restaurant fare.
But you want soup, not a pile of crispy bones (because snow). So, after fishtailing home, first you must trim out the little tenderloins that cling to the breastbone. (Consult the recipe below if you don’t know how to make soup. But of course you know how to make soup already.) While the carcasses are simmering, build a fire and turn your thoughts to the only other reference to “demoiselles” you are familiar with: the title of that Picasso painting.
No doubt your university art history lectures were always after lunch. The dark room and the drone of the projector was a formula for naptime. Sort of like being at home in front of this roaring fireplace while all of France takes a snow holiday.
But what you vaguely remember is someone saying once (perhaps while your eyes were closed) that the title of this Cubist painting, the one with a bunch of naked women wearing African masks, has a scandalous overtone because it implied that the women were “ladies of the night.” So that’s what you thought all those years — that “demoiselle” was French for “ho.” What’s up with that?
There is no proper entry for “demoiselle” on Anglophone Wikipedia, only a list of links to what the word might apply to: a bird, a horse race, a river, an insect, an aircraft, a fish, the name of an obscure British play, a Native American resistance leader against the French colonization of America. Of course you explore them all. But no duck carcass; no ho.
A Francophone search, you discover, results in a similar list. Demoiselle is an old-fashioned term for a young woman or girl of noble descent. All the other usages — for the bird (a type of crane), the fish, the dragonfly, the geological spires we call hoodoos — all somehow refer to the qualities of said young woman of noble birth, a damsel. Not a ho.
So you’re talking about this on the phone with a friend back in States. He’s all like “Come on, have you ever looked at a duck carcass on a lonely winter night? Mighty attractive from certain angles.”
He’s from Detroit. He goes on to conjecture that young Pablo’s African masks were modeled on duck carcasses.
You’re like, “Dude, stop. Just stop.” You feel you have to school him because he actually teaches art history. “No, it’s not like that.” You explain about the noble birth thing — how its archaic; derived from mademoiselle. But, you say, in the English language, when the three estates of medieval society began to blur with the rise of the new merchant class, terms like “lady” and “madame” stepped on a slippery slope. So in French, “demoiselle” by the 19th century was an antiquated, overly polite way of referring to a young woman such as a shop clerk. Picasso’s original title was something like “The Brothel of Avignon” but his art dealer tried to soften the controversy but re-titling it “Les Demoiselles d’Avignon” which translates roughly to “The Young Ladies of Avignon.”
The Avignon of the painting’s title is not the French city, by the way, but a famous red light district of Barcelona frequented by the young Pablo. As you know, the city in France was the seat of the papacy — that time in the 14th century when the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church didn’t do his pope-stuff in Rome? You know, when it was the seat of seven popes and two antipopes. Remember that?
A brothel named Avignon. You can connect the dots yourself. I need to put another log on the fire.
Speaking of which, there’s another inexplicable French meaning for “demoiselle”: the seeds of certain types of corn (maize) that explode in the fire (a.k.a. popcorn).
Finally we are left with the mystery of how the 18th-century Piankshaw chieftain, Memeskia, who fought against the French got the nickname “La Demoiselle.” But the story of how he was boiled and cannibalized is for another day because the soup is ready.
Duck Soup Recipe
2 duck carcasses
1 small onion, peeled
1 garlic clove
1 very large carrot
1 bay leaf
1 large sprig of fresh thyme
1 bundle parsley stems
other vegetables as desired
Put everything in a pot and cover with a generous amount of fresh, cold water. Bring to a boil, skim the foam off and reduce to a simmer. Boil about 2 hours or until the broth tastes delicious.
At this point, ladle enough broth for your lunch into a smaller pot. Add a cabbage wedge, and sliced turnip and carrot. Boil until cooked through. Meanwhile quickly sauté the little duck tenders in a little duck fat or butter. Slice. Arrange your vegetables and meat in a soup bowl. Pour the broth over it, then garnish generously with parsley leaves and garlic chopped together with some course salt. Pepper? Yes. A splash of Armagnac doesn’t hurt either.
Eat in front of a roaring fire with fresh baguette and farm-churned butter.
(Repeat as needed)
As arts communities around the world experience a time of challenge and change, accessible, independent reporting on these developments is more important than ever.
Please consider supporting our journalism, and help keep our independent reporting free and accessible to all.