By Catherine Rush Thompson
With Valentine’s Day approaching, consider celebrating with romantic dishes guaranteed to please. My first suggestion: croque monsieur. This hot sandwich is a favorite across the world, including Le Molière Restaurant in romantic Paris where one customer stated: “We were looking for somewhere to have breakfast, and wanted a croque monsieur. Since I absolutely love Rue de Buci, we came upon Le Molière. Hands down these were the best ones we had on our trip, thanks to the bread they use.” If you cannot manage a trip to France, why not bring the taste of France home? The recipe for croque monsieur is quite simple, so it is worth trying to create this delicious and satisfying dish for those you love.
Croque monsieur is a toasted ham and cheese sandwich that is “one of the true staples of simple French cuisine.” It has gained such popularity that it is served around the world, featuring variations that range from the traditional version to vegetarian versions. My second suggestion is croque madame, a version of croque monsieur served with a poached or lightly fried egg on top. In parts of Normandy, it may be referred to as croque-à-cheval.
There are several stories about the origin of croque monsieur. One suggests that croque monsieur was created when French workers left their lunch pails too close to a radiator, resulting in toasted bread with melted cheese and baked ham sandwiches. Another version asserts that the sandwich was created by a chef at a Parisian brasserie on the Boulevard des Capucines. When the restaurant ran out of baguettes, the chef substituted a loaf of pain de mie (a thin, soft crusted bread) and created the classic hot ham and cheese sandwich. The sandwich first appeared on a Parisian café menu in 1910 and was referenced in Marcel Proust’s 1918 novel, In Search of Lost Time (Volume 2).
According to Bob Adam’s blog Oui Always Have Paris, “The name [of croque monsieur] is derived from the crispy bread of the sandwich (from the French verb croquer, which means “to bite”) and from a casual comment from the brasserie’s chef about the origins of the ham in the sandwich. When asked by a customer about the meat, the chef reportedly gestured toward another customer—likely the neighborhood butcher—and replied ‘C’est la viande de monsieur’ (‘It’s the meat of that man).’ And voila–le croque monsieur.”
Julia Child reported that croque monsieur was one of her favorites and, once you try it, you will understand why. Here is one of her simple recipes:
CROQUE MONSIEUR (makes 2 sandwiches)
4 slices good-quality artisan bread
4 oz. gruyère cheese
4 oz. deli ham
a little butter
Dijon mustard optional – my personal touch
Bechamel sauce *see Julia Child's recipe below
1. Preheat a large skillet or grill pan on the stove over medium heat.
2. Make sandwiches by laying down a layer of cheese to taste, then ham to taste on one slice, spread a little Dijon mustard on the other; close up to make the sandwich, then butter both outside surfaces well. Fry in the pre-heated pan until the bread is nicely toasted and golden around the edges on both sides.
3. It’s a nice touch to trim off the crusts and cut in half before plating. This is traditionally served with pommes frites and a light salad with vinaigrette on the side, but the sandwich should be lightly covered with a delicious Bechamel Sauce.
4. Place on a grill tray or place in the oven for 5 minutes, or until bechamel is nice and brown, and bubbling.
Bechamel Sauce (makes 2 cups - medium-thick consistency)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons flour
2 cups hot milk
Salt and freshly ground white pepper
Pinch of nutmeg
1. Melt the butter in a heavy saucepan, blend in the flour with a wooden spoon, and cook over moderate heat, stirring, until butter and flour foam together for 2 minutes without turning more than a buttery yellow color.
2. Remove from heat, and when bubbling stops, vigorously whisk in all the hot milk at once. Bring to the boil, whisking. Simmer, stirring, for 2 minutes. Season to taste.
NOTE: If you top this sandwich with a fried egg, it becomes a CROQUE MADAME.
While this is not the original recipe for croque monsieur developed in the early 1900’s, it will provide a delicious sandwich.
For those who like to see a chef explain and demonstrate various versions of croque monsieur, croque madame, bechamel sauce or pain de mie, the following are excellent videos providing history, helpful tips, and variations on how different chefs prepare their mouth-watering croque monsieur:
FINDING CROQUE MONSIEUR IN LOCAL RESTAURANTS
And if you want to go out to eat, consider one of your local French restaurants to see if they offer it on their take-out menu. Aixois offers croque monsieur and you can order it for carry-out or curbside pickup. Check out its menu at: https://aixois.com/to-go/. As one reviewer reported on Yelp, “Aixois gets five stars for one reason: they have the best croque monsieur in the world. OK, I haven’t traveled everywhere to confirm, but I’ve visited France a few times and have not found its equal…And I hear the other food is good, too. I just never get anything other than croque monsieur.” It’s always nice to have a backup if your recipe doesn’t turn out as planned. Just call the restaurant to get takeout
Adams, Bob. Tracing the History of the Croque Monsieur Sandwich Paris Blog “Oui Always Have Paris". 2015-08-11. http://ouialwayshaveparis.com/2015/08/11/croquemonsieur/
Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home: Episode 104 Our Favorite Sandwiches. http://www.alacartetv.com/html/jnj/episode.htm
Julia Child’s Croque Monsieur Recipe: http://blog.webicurean.com/2012/08/04/croque-monsieur-cookforjulia-sundaysupper/. Wordpress Recipe Plugin by EasyRecipe. Read more: http://blog.webicurean.com/2012/08/04/croque-monsieur-cookforjulia-sundaysupper/#ixzz6kmOtxelr
Pain de mie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pain_de_mie
By Aaron Barksdale-Burns
“How am I to present a hypocrite on the stage without making him perform outwardly the gestures of an honest man?” - Molière
On Molière’s 400th birthday, the international community can celebrate the evergreen relevance of his enlightened age satire, Tartuffe (1664). The dramatist is a true rock star of French culture, proven by his fame-of-one-name, which is something that even Louis XIV himself cannot boast. This reputation is due in no small part to his lapidary pièce de théâtre about the hypocrisy of an imposter and his faux piety, which speaks to audiences across both space and time. The treatment of universal themes in Molière’s brilliant satire demolishes falsehood and reveals truth.
For Molière, farcical satire did much more to change society than did the philosophical treatises of his contemporaries. In Tartuffe we recognize that hypocrisy is still alive and well in daily life from the banks of the Seine to the banks of the Missouri river. Therefore, it is not to be ignored that the only known operatic work based on Molière’s Tartuffe rightly takes its unique place among masterpieces of American opera – and this, thanks to a Kansas boy.
Indeed, Kansas native, Kirke Mechem (b. 1925) is one of the most influential voices in the wide-ranging genres of classical music for generations of American performers of the 20th and 21st centuries. His compositions have, in fact, delighted listeners in over 42 countries and range in scope from symphonies to chamber music. Moreover, his choral works have been an integral part of the American choral experience for decades, with several seminal works such as the secular, yet otherworldly, Island in Space (Dona Nobis Pacem). The composition is written to the words of Apollo 9 astronaut, Russell Schweikart who viewed Earth from space and said that he heard true silence. The Stanford graduate studied at Harvard under Randall Thompson and in 2012 received an honorary Doctorate from the University of Kansas for "notable contributions to choral music and opera."
Born in Wichita and raised in Topeka, the composer is best known to Kansas City audiences for his opera John Brown, about the antagonistic abolitionist and his confidant, the brilliant orator Frederick Douglass, in their anti-slavery campaign. Written in the 1990’s, it did not receive its premiere until 2008 at the Lyric Opera of Kansas City, and still today its themes on the relationship between violence and justice in the American story have never been more relevant.
Mechem’s operas are written in a very accessible style; but remain inaccessible in definitive studio recordings that have not yet been produced. In contrast, his other vocal works are widely performed and appreciated across the United States. As a choral composer, he is known for motets, folksongs, anthems, choral variations and his American Madrigals such as his arrangement of Kansas Boys. A wonderful example of his virtuosity in writing for the human voice can be heard in Blow Ye the Trumpet. The atheist composer fashioned a powerful prayer, excerpted from his opera, John Brown. It has been scored for both mixed and men’s choruses and is a fabulous example of his composition and influence on young America.
Blow ye the trumpet, blow,
Sweet is Thy work, my God, my King.
I’ll praise my Maker with all my breath.
O happy is the man who hears.
Why should we start, and fear to die,
With songs and honors sounding loud.
Ah, lovely appearance of death.
Even still, his first opera, Tartuffe (1980), the only operatic treatment of Molière’s famous satire, was an immediate success on the international scene. With a libretto in English, written by the composer himself, the opera was premiered at San Francisco Opera. In the years since, it has seen over 400 productions in six countries including Canada, China, Russia, Austria. Germany, and the United States.
Mechem wrote all of his own libretti, and Tartuffe required a rhyming English translation of Molière’s French which retains key dialogue. As librettist, he also made several changes in the original play, most notably by omitting the enlightened Cléante, enlarging the women’s roles and doing away with Molière’s Hellenistic ending that formulaically featured le Roi Soleil himself saving the day. Mechem’s version has “a sillier, more Mozartean-style conclusion of daffy reverse trickery: Orgon’s kin disguise themselves as public officials, fake an arrest, and Tartuffe flees the scene, to swindle another day,” - Pierre Ruhe (Arts Atlanta).
Mechem addressed this change in his written commentaries on the opera. “There are really two Tartuffes by Molière—the three-act comedy he originally wrote, and the five-act comic morality play he was forced to make of it in order to get it past the censors. Unfortunately, we have only the latter, but evidence suggests that the first version was a straight satire of human character. The tedious disclaiming of impiety and the deus ex machina ending are generally acknowledged to be unwelcome additions.”
The storytelling of this stage work relies in part on its format as opera buffa, meaning that the musical structure draws inspiration from 18th century works and offers a clear delineation between its arias, cabalette and ensembles. The structure of the stage work rather resembles neoclassicism of Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress (1951) and the lyricism of Samuel Barber’s Vanessa (1958). In contrast, the music seems to be the polar opposite of the rhythmically experimental minimalism and the avant-garde operatic conceptions that were introduced in Philip Glass’ Einstein on the Beach (1976) and Satyagraha (1979).
In this regard, the composer's treatment of the piece in a somewhat stylized manner is the outcome of his musical style in response to the text and not, as is sometimes misunderstood, a spoof on operatic traditions. Pierre Ruhe wrote: “Mechem’s construction is very fluid, moving gracefully from semi-sung parlando to light arietta to ensemble numbers and back. The score tingles with ear-friendly American
modernism, evoking Stravinsky and Barber and comic musical quotations from Wagner and Beethoven: (a perfectly timed) knock at the door. Da da da dum.”
Mechem describes the opera harmonically as “patently 20th Century American”, but regarding its form he says, “Tartuffe is a ‘numbers’ opera because I wanted to revive the flamboyant spirit of Molière, which considerably predates 18th century opera. We know that Molière was a great actor of farce; it is a mistake to load onto his plays the dark ‘social commentary’ style of the 20th century.” Mechem’s sensibility is to discourage the trivialization or brutalization of music that he feels is commonplace in our day. Moreover, he continues “In Molière’s plays, not only hypocrites but con men (Tartuffe), dupes (Orgon), and naïves (Mariane and Damis) are laughed at for mouthing words that the audience recognizes as shopworn clichés. To get the same effect in opera, these characters must occasionally sing in styles equally recognizable as musical clichés”.
The adaptation is known for its gay instrumentation and musical tags, such as the hymnic harmonies associated with the faker, Tartuffe and the flourishing absurdity of the leitmotif that accompanies the duped bourgeois Orgon, a bass-baritone. Appearing early in the score, the cheeky folk ballad “Fair Robin, I love” is perhaps the most famous song and a main theme, as it is sung by Dorine (soubrette soprano), who, as the maid in service of a wealthy family, is perhaps the wisest of characters. In the opera’s finale “all’s well that ends well”, her playful tune is adopted by her superiors who reprise the theme in a contrapuntal ensemble that exposes the lies of Tartuffe, the ostentatious fraudster who had successfully preyed upon the family.
With his modern interpretation of Molière’s masterpiece, Kirke Mechem has secured a place in an underappreciated history of opera, among other American greats: Virgil Thompson, and his more popular countrymen George Gershwin, Aaron Copland, and Leonard Berstein.
“The composer cannot, of course, be his own judge. I can say only that I have tried, like Yeats, ‘to rediscover an art of the theatre which shall be joyful, fantastic, extravagant, whimsical, beautiful, resonant and altogether reckless.’ It sounds like a good description of Molière.”
— Kirke Mechem
About the Author: Tenor Aaron Barksdale-Burns is a Master of Music and a freelance musician, writer and translator who is native to Kansas City. As a soloist, Aaron has performed across the Midwest and in Europe. He was greatly influenced by performing Kirke Mechem’s compositions throughout his musical training. Aaron is a graduate of DePaul University and the University of Missouri at Kansas City. He is also a private teacher and a linguist with interests in Germanic and Romance languages. Aaron is currently collaborating with both the Goethe Institut Pop-Up in KC and the Alliance Française de Kansas City on upcoming programs. With his family, he previously worked at Californos Westport and hosted a monthly Opera Supper from 2007-2019. He lives in Midtown Kansas City with his husband of 12 years, Christopher Barksdale, formerly a principal dancer at the Kansas City Ballet (1988-2009).
By Rebecca Smith
L’ Avare (The Miser) is one of Molière’s best-known plays. First performed in 1668 and published in 1669, it revolves around protagonist Harpagon’s total obsession with l’argent (money) to the detriment of everyone and everything in his life.
Oh, if only Harpagon could have lasted another 3 centuries - what a thrill would have awaited him! His progenitor and his greatest purpose in life – together in one.
In July of 1959, the Banque de France unveiled the 500-Franc Molière banknote, marked “nouveau franc, or, NF”.
The original “franc” named a gold coin minted in 1360 by King John II. In the 1600s such coins were no longer minted, but the term continued to be used to refer to a new coin, the “livre tournois”. The first paper currency was issued in 1701, but crashed in 1720 due to overproduction. A second attempt failed in 1793. In 1795 the republican government of the French Revolution instituted the 5-franc silver piece and later the 20-franc gold piece. The franc, divided into 10 decimos and 100 centimes, became the established French currency unit in 1799. In 1803 the Bank of France was given authority to distribute paper francs but only in high amounts and for restricted use. In 1857 the first 50-franc notes were made available for widespread use.
In 1950, after World War II, 5-, 10- and 20-franc notes were replaced by coins. A few years later 50- and 100-franc notes went the same route. In 1954, 10,000-franc notes were presented and, in April 1956, the Bank of France was set to introduce a new 50,000-franc banknote featuring the portrait of Georges Clemenceau. The plan was cut short, however, when further monetary reforms were announced. The bank then chose to design smaller value banknotes and Moliere’s was one of the portraits chosen.
Molière wasn't the only, or even the first, author honored; Victor Hugo preceded him. Henry IV, Richelieu and Napoleon made appearances; Pascal followed him. Sadly, these notable items of tender were relatively short-lived. Printed between July 1959 and January 1966, they were withdrawn from circulation as of March 9, 1970 and ceased to be legal tender 30 April 1971.
So Harpagon would have had a little more than a decade to bask in his named glory. And with his sole focus on wealth value, he would have had shown little appreciation for the art and social significance of the note.
The image was designed by Jean Lefeuvre and engraved by Jules Piel and André Marliat. The premiere colors were of reds, browns and ochers and it measured 182 mm x 97 mm. The watermark was of Armande Béjart of the renowned Béjart theater family. She was one of the most famous French stage actors of the 17th-century and also, of course, the wife/muse of Molière and the daughter of Madeleine Béjart, with whom he cofounded the IllustreThéâtre in 1643. Thus, it wasn’t just the playwright esteemed on the note but his family and theater company, as well.
Those unique and endearing elements have even more impact now that the Euro has replaced the no-longer-legal-tender-since-2002 franc, and all traces of French national character and history have gone missing. Every Euro shows the EU flag, the signature of the President of the European Central Bank, the Bank’s initials in different EU languages, a listing of EU territories and an enumeration of security features.
But then, only the denomination would have mattered to Harpagon.
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