By Rebecca Smith
We all know the phrase “let them eat cake” and attribute it to Marie Antoinette, Queen of France 1774-1793. Lesser known is that “passer le sel et le poivre” can be traced to Louis XIV, two regimes prior.
Yes, we can thank the Sun King for the presence of salt and pepper on our tables. Louis was quite particular about his food; he preferred light seasoning and considered excessive seasoning vulgar. To his taste, salt and pepper complemented each other and did not overpower the dishes. He banned all spices except for salt, pepper and parsley.
Furthermore, until the late 17th century, spices were applied in the kitchen and not available to seated diners. But Louis brought them to the table. One’s proximity to the seasonings even became a measure of status – the higher the rank and favor, the higher the honor. All wished to be “above the salt”.
And finally, up until Louis’s reign, salty and sweet dishes were presented together. It was his chefs who began serving salted foods to stimulate the appetite and then finishing off with sweet items to satiate and to complete the dining experience. Thus began, reportedly, “modern cooking”.
Salt, of course, was a standard from before 500 BC. It is one of the 4 taste buds at the tip of the tongue (along with sweet, bitter and sour), it has long been used to preserve foods and it is a required substance in our bodies, allowing us to regulate our fluid balance and body temperature. It was a prime trade product and even used as a medium of exchange. The word “salary” comes from the salt used to pay Roman soldiers, “salad” also has “salt” as its base, referring to salting of vegetables and greens in that era. Empires were built on salt, battles were fought over it, towns were named for it.
Pepper, although always enjoying some popularity, was never in the same league as salt. Originating in India it was valued as medicinal, was also used in payments and is even found in Egyptian tombs. And in the Middle Ages it joined with cloves, nutmeg, ginger and cinnamon as spices from the East much desired to improve the common bland, gruel-dominant meals of the European continent. Its heat and pungency were also effective in disguising meats past their expiration dates. However, it was expensive. So much so that peppercorns were used for ransoms, dowries, taxes and rents. As a condiment, it was a luxury item, only gracing tables of the rich. Indeed, it was often referred to as “Black Gold”.
Clearly, for the court of Louis XIV and French royalty, this did not present a problem. Accordingly, the duo of salt and pepper became history.
All of this, of course, transpired in the time of Molière. And here’s an additional “pinch” connecting Molière to the subject. Gourmet salts are more and more prevalent in our cooking and a current star (might we say, again, of the “aristocratic” set) is truffle salt. Expensive and exotic, it comes in different varieties (white truffle, black truffle) and has a place of honor on esteemed tables (not to mention its aphrodisiac qualities believed by the French).
And here’s the rub. The name “Tartuffe”, arguably Molière’s most famous villain actually comes from the old French for “truffle”. It has been hypothesized that the duplicitous character was so named “in allusion to the fancy that truffles were a diseased product of the earth.”
A truffle salt web page advertises, “With just a few grains of this salt, you can enrich the flavor of anything”. And who would dispute that of Molière, as well?
So, there you have it - four centuries later, Louis XIV and Molière are still adding flavor to our lives.
Throw a little of that over your shoulder, mon ami.
By Rebecca Smith
In the late 1600s, “turquerie” was in full bloom in French court society.
Leading up to that time, the Ottoman Empire, in its burgeoning size and strength, was seen as increasingly important to France. Consulates in Tripoli, Alexandria, and Beirut were created. Trade, in carpets, dyes, linens, leather and waxes was greatly expanded, mostly through the port of Marseilles, which became the “door of the Orient”. Savary de Brèves, French ambassador to Constantinople, negotiated a favored status position for French trade and protection over that of the English, the Venetians, and the Holy Land. He brought back manuscripts, cultural items and scientific discoveries, all of which were instrumental in the opening of the French Academy of Sciences.
The first Ottoman presence on stage had been in 1561 with “La Soltan”, a tragedy of the 1553 execution of the elder son of Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent by his wife and consort, Roxelane. A passion for exotic oriental fashion and décor, including turbans and caftans and sitting on rugs, ensued. Coffee was introduced into French society and coffee shops sprang up across Paris. Oriental elements entered into French literature and luxury goods from the East were in vogue.
It was in this heady atmosphere that Louis XIV invited to the court the Turkish ambassador, Soliman Aga, to further strengthen diplomatic and commercial ties, as well as to, in a sense of competition, impress upon the Ottoman emissary the equally ornate grandeur of French society. A grand gala and lavish feast was scheduled and an entire monthly issue of the Gazette was dedicated to the visit, fanning the public’s interest in the exotic. The King flaunted flamboyant dress in a full display of diamonds and a feathered crown, rejecting the more austere Spanish form of fashion, prevalent at that time. He began taking instruction in Turkish culture from Chevalier d’Arvieux, a French “orientalist” who had traveled extensively throughout the region and had mastered some of the languages. Finally, he ordered a “divertissement oriental” to be created by d’Arvieuxand the court artists, one that would include a new comedie-ballet by Molière. Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme was that play, built around the vain and selfish M. Jourdain and his misguided efforts to become a Man of Quality, at the expense of his family. In the dramatic climax, Jourdain is duped into marrying his daughter to her true beloved, who is disguised as the heir to the Ottoman throne.
It was an elaborate ceremony played out at Chateau de Chambord, with bejeweled costumes, four dervishes, a dozen Turkish singers and a panoply of exotic instruments.
The event did not entirely go the way of the king’s wishes. Soliman Aga, in what was perceived as possibly an insult, as well as a disappointment, arrived simply attired, as if it had not been worth his effort, and appeared to be indeed a lesser official than was expected. Yet more enraging, he reportedly claimed the Grand Sultan’s horse to be more elaborately adorned than Louis and his retinue.
Molière’s comedy, however, did please the king. The performance was repeated three times at Chambord that week, followed by three times at the palace at Saint-Germain-en-Layebefore it was played at Molière’s Palais-Royal theatre. Many critics then and since have questioned the Turkish folly of the play but audiences have continually delighted in it.
By Jeremy Drouin. Manager, Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library
Two decades after Lewis and Clark reached the confluence of the Missouri and Kansas (Kaw) rivers in 1804, French traders settled the area that would become Kansas City’s earliest community. But French presence in the region dates back much further.
Explorer Etienne de Véniard, Sieur de Bourgmont traveled the lower and middle Missouri River in 1713 and documented the expedition in Routte Qu‘il Faut Tenir pour Remonter la Riviѐre de Missoury (Route to Be Taken to Ascend the Missouri River). His detailed account of the waterway, from the mouth at the Mississippi River upstream to the Riviѐre Nebraskier (Platte River), was the first survey of its kind of the Missouri.
Bourgmont oversaw construction of Fort Orleans in 1724, thought to be located near the convergence of the Missouri and the Grand rivers. The fort was a launch point for Bourgmont to lead an expedition to a Kansa village at the mouth of the Kansas River and then venture inland to establish relations with the “Paducas,” or Plains Apache, who were impeding southwest trade routes.
Twenty years later, in 1744, Fort de Cavagnial was built near present-day Leavenworth for the same purpose of protecting French trade interests. It remained until 1764, when the French ceded the Louisiana Territory to Spain.
The prized commodity that brought French traders to the area was fur. The Kansa Indians (now the Kaw Nation) were the primary trappers in the region and traded with the French for tools, weapons, and other goods. By establishing outposts in Indian territory and maintaining friendly relations with the Kansa people, the French were able to secure a dominant position in the Middle Missouri River fur trade.
In 1821, a newly married couple, Francois and Bérénice Chouteau, journeyed upriver from St. Louis to establish a trading post east of the Kawsmouth. The Chouteaus were the most prominent and powerful family in St. Louis. Francois’ uncle, René Auguste Chouteau, co-founded the city and was a pioneering fur trader, and his father, Jean Pierre, founded the Missouri Fur Company.
Chouteau chose the location for its proximity to Indian trading partners—the Osage to the south, Kansa to the west, and Sauk, Iowa, and Kickapoo to the north—as well as ease of access to the Kansas, Missouri, and Platte river valleys. The outpost was located at Randolph Point on the north bank of the Missouri River, near the current location of the Chouteau Bridge.
A flood in 1826 forced Chouteau to relocate and rebuild. Because the Osage ceded territory south of the river the year prior, Chouteau secured a more advantageous location at the foot of what is now Harrison Street on the southern bank. Conveniently located near two Indian trails, the new post offered overland trade access with the Osage and Kansa tribes.
Chouteau’s holdings grew to include the river landing, a warehouse and store, and several hundred acres of farmland with livestock. By the 1830s, Chouteau’s Landing, as it came to be known, was a hub for the French-speaking community. The Osage and Kansa referred to the new settlement as Cho-To-To-Wan or Chouteau’s Town.
The earliest settlers were a mix of trappers, traders, merchants, and farmers – some French-born but long removed from their homeland, and others of French-Canadian and Creole descent. A small population of French-Kansa also inhabited the region. Mon-Chonsia (White Plume), the principal Kansa chief, had four French-speaking granddaughters. One of them, Josette, was raised in the home of Francois and Bérénice Chouteau.
An 1825 treaty with the U.S. government relocated the Kansa Nation to a 2-million-acre tract of land west of Topeka. A special concession, however, was given to tribal members of French-Kansa descent, who were awarded plots of land near Lawrence and Topeka along the Kansas River.
The small French settlement founded by the Chouteaus extended from their homestead in the East Bottoms west to the Kansas River. As fur trading waned, many settlers turned to farming for their livelihood and cleared land near the mouth of the Kansas River, an area that became known as the French Bottoms.
Farmland would have likely been plotted in arpents, narrow parcels of land extending inland from the riverbank. This surveying system was commonly used to plot other French settlements along Missouri waterways.
French settlers led a rugged frontier life. To farm the land and build a community, the heavily forested West Bottoms first had to be cleared. The timber was used to construct homes and other buildings.
The Chouteau family operated as bankers and realtors for the budding, yet largely poor, French community. The first parish priest of the fledgling settlement, Father Benedict Le Roux, labeled it Nouveau Vide Poche (New Empty Pocket) upon his arrival in 1833.
In a November 23, 1833, letter titled “From the Mouth of the Kansas,” Father Roux reports to Bishop Joseph Rosati of St. Louis about his progress in creating a parish:
It is in Jackson County that we have most of our Catholics; still their number is very small. We have here only a dozen French families; but they will keep me occupied for some time, as there are many children to baptize and prepare for first communion; the instructions will take up not a little of my time.
Father Roux persisted and purchased 40 acres of land on the bluff tops overlooking the West Bottoms in what is now Quality Hill. There he built a small log church, St. Francis Regis, near the present-day location of the Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception at 11th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue. This was a historic move away from the river and over the bluffs—a precursor to the founding of Kansas City.
The French Bottoms community continued to grow in the 1830s. The Chouteau family expanded their warehouse operations, Gabriel Prudhomme opened a store and tavern, and a ferrying business operated by the Rivard family transported customers across the Missouri River.
Although the exact population during this period is unknown, there were at least two dozen French Catholic families by 1840 and many more trappers and traders who resided in the area on a semi-permanent basis. Father Nicolas Point, a Jesuit missionary and artist visiting in 1840, documented the French families in hand-drawn map of the parish, which he called “Plan de Westport.”
Father Bernard Donnelly, who would later be instrumental in building Kansas City, described the French residents as sociable people who held many balls and dances, especially in the winter, with music, dancing, and feasting.
Despite living on the edge of the western frontier, proper etiquette was displayed at social gatherings in the French enclave. “There was no liquor drank, nor boisterous talk, no unbecoming word or act seen among them. All were happy; all danced; all partook of bouillon” Donnelly said of French celebrations.
The Flood of 1844
Tragedy struck in 1844 when heavy rains caused the Kansas and Missouri rivers to overflow their banks, ravaging the French Bottoms settlement. The Chouteau warehouse and homestead were destroyed and the family matriarch, Bérénice Chouteau, had to be rescued from the rising waters (Francois died six years earlier). The Chouteaus rebuilt and remained a prominent family. Other residents relocated homes and businesses to higher ground.
The flood spelled the end of the French Bottoms community. Within a decade, much of the area was overgrown and only small clearings remained where homesteads once stood. But there remained a French presence in the newly established Town of Kansas, as many descendants of the early French settlers stayed in Kansas City.
The Chouteaus remained closely identified with the city. When the Milwaukee Railroad Bridge—built in 1887 near François Chouteau’s first trading post site—was purchased in 1950 to be repurposed for highway traffic, it was renamed for the pioneering French family who built the first permanent settlement of what would become Kansas City.
Chouteau’s French Settlement, Scrapbooks 1-3 (microfilm). Native Sons of Kansas City Collection. Missouri Valley Special Collections, Kansas City Public Library.
Dalton, William J. The Life of Father Bernard Donnelly with Historical Sketches of Kansas City, St. Louis, and Independence, Missouri. Kansas City, MO: Grimes-Joyce Printing Company, 1921.
Donnelly, Joseph P. Wilderness Kingdom: Indian Life in the Rocky Mountains: 1840-1847.
The Journals and Paintings of Nicolas Point, S.J. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1967.
Garraghan, Gilbert J. Catholic Beginnings in Kansas City, Missouri: An Historical Sketch. Chicago, IL: Loyola University Press, 1920.
Hoffaus, Charles, E. Chez Les Canses: Three Centuries at Kawsmouth, The French Foundations of Metropolitan Kansas City. Kansas City, MO: The Lowell Press, 1984.
Shortridge, James R. Kansas City and How it Grew, 1822-2011. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2012.
Jeremy Drouin is manager of the Missouri Valley Special Collections, the local history department and archives of the Kansas City Public Library. In his position, he oversees collection acquisitions, exhibits, programming, and outreach.
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