The Pot Au Feu

— In the fireplace of every French peasant there will be found a large iron pot hanging by an iron crane, as useful if not as picturesque as that which adorns the New England fireside or draws water from the New England well. This utensil is called the pot au feu. In this receptacle are collected the fragments of all things edible, such as can be obtained under the restricted conditions which beset the maintenance of peasant life, — pieces of meat, odds and ends of vegetables, stray handfuls of fragrant herbs, of parsley and of dandelion, with such indigenous condiments as impart savor to the mess of pottage, and all the product of the peasant’s modest garden. On Friday a goldfish or two, from the tiny pool or shy stream which so often creeps unnoticed through the grounds, are substituted for meat in the frugal feast, for on that day fasting is in order. A moderate fire, when the requisite fuel is obtainable, is kept up under this large iron pot the greater part of the day. This procedure serves to keep dry in summer and warm in winter the unpretending room which is used as kitchen, dining-room, and drawing - room. When the appointed hour for the family meal has arrived, the fluid contents of the pot an feu are dished up as soup, or, as they call it, potage, in earthenware platters. Later on, the vegetables and meat are fished out, to lie served as another course ; the whole meal fortified with bread, and adorned and sweetened by such flowers and fruits as may be indigenous to the soil.

In this way the French peasant obtains a much better meal, for less money or its equivalent in labor, than can be obtained elsewhere or by other means.

The pot au feu has grown to assume in French national life a significance which is frequently recorded in the literature of that people. Many, indeed, have wondered why the French emigrant is so irreconcilable an alien ; why, of all who cross the sea, he seems to be the greatest sufferer from homesickness ; why mal de pays should prove a severer and more incurable disease than Heimweh. Generations upon generations of people born in Louisiana or Canada are ill at ease, discontented, vacantly listless, realizing no home but that country, thousands of miles away, which they have never seen, which their fathers have never seen, which their grandparents have never seen. Heaven itself is scarcely more remote as a fact, or more near as a passionate tradition. These exiled Frenchmen, although American citizens by birth, and endowed with all the privileges that belong to such, have never voted, scarcely know who is President, care not who may chance to be their governor, speak no language but that of Voltaire, and continue for generations to sigh for, not, as cynical English or American critics aver, the theatres and cafés of Paris, — for those neither they nor their ancestors have ever known, — but for the social life of France which centres on the pot au feu of their ancestors’ childhood.

To think that the scent of fines herbes, chiming in odorous harmony with the homely savor of domestic meat and vegetables, should generate a steam of frugal perfume which would be glad in the nostrils of generations yet to come ! I speak advisedly, for I do know and remember an old Louisiana Creole who had, by heroic parsimony and ruthless thrift, managed to amass enough money for his first trip to “la belle France,” the first made by himself or any of his kindred since the days of Montcalm. This old Creole said, with glistening eyes and dilating nostrils : “I am going to Normandy. I shall see my cousins. They dwell there as my forefathers dwelt, on the same ancestral acres. Ha ! already it seems to me that I perceive the odor of the pot au feu. I am going home I ” The poor man was an actor from the French theatre at New Orleans, and had made some little money in Mexico during the brief ill-starred reign of Maximilian. Possibly his calling may have added emphasis to his words and gestures, but so evident was his sincerity, and so deep and lasting the proof it gave of national constancy, that I saw a new significance in the fifth commandment with its promise of many days.