The first time I saw the bleu de travail or worker’s blues was at my local café, Le rendez-vous des amis. (Why does the “Friend’s meeting place” sound so much more appealing in French?) I was up way too early, and at the unholy hour of seven the café was crowded with men wearing thick cotton blue pants and jackets, drinking their coffee right at the counter, which is far cheaper than sitting down at a table. Besides, these guys didn’t have time to sit down. I wondered if these blue people weren’t part of a special Schtroumpf club.
And then I kept seeing those blue clothes. I was thinking they were the color bleu Klein, named after the painter Yves Klein, and patented in 1960. A couple of years ago, some friends had an entire wall of their living room painted Klein blue, with stunning results: the color was a clever, or malin, contemporary contrast to the old-fashioned crown molding and herringbone pattern or point de Hongrie wood floors inside their typically Parisian 1880s apartment.
Well, it turns out those guys in the café were in a special club - sort of. They were all getting ready for a long day of plastering or masonry somewhere in my neighborhood - there’s always a building renovation going on somewhere around here, usually in one of those typically Parisian apartments I just mentioned! So they were fueling up with “tightened” coffee or café serré, and they’d make a special gesture in the air, jerking their closed fist from left to right, a little like refastening a loose drawer knob, to show they wanted their second or third coffee made with as little water as possible.
Denim from France, blue jeans from Genoa
But what was this special lively blue uniform? It turns out those blue clothes were invented for workers in France at the end of the Industrial Revolution, which brought workers both scrawny and brawny from the rural provinces to Paris to find jobs in factories. With the change in locale, those guys also changed their clothes: once dressed in the traditional green coveralls of a farmer, those former country bumpkins started wearing clothes made of blue cotton twill.
While blue jeans became standard for American workers starting in the 1870s, French workers wore clothes from Nîmes or literally de Nîmes – denim! Strangely enough, the blue twill fabric that makes up French worker’s blues today isn’t the same as American denim, at least not the one Levi-Strauss and Jacob Davis patented in 1872.
And what about that color? Jeans are indigo blue: the fabric was invented in Genoa in the 16th century, and was originally called blu di genova or bleu de Gênes, but the words got mangled and then in the end were pronounced “blue jeans” in English. But worker’s blues in France are Bugatti blue. This is a much more vibrant blue, and it sure beats all that black clothing that Parisians like to wear this time of year. Well, it’s true they wear gray sometimes too.
- Eggplant and blue cheese pasta
I’d also seen the blues on an artist in my ‘hood who would always be wearing the same blue worker’s jacket, covered in paint spatters, but his version had a mao collar, similar to the one on a Nehru jacket - remember those? He built cinema sets in his local workshop, and fully enjoyed the distinction conferred on him by this color: he was a manual worker, and the jacket communicated both the communist and the blue-collar values with which he liked to be associated. So he claimed this status with pride.
But workers didn’t always wear their color with pride! Worker’s blues were designed first and foremost to protect factory employees from the dangers of all those new-fangled machines they were using in the late 19th century, but just as a jaunty red scarf might set apart the infamous hipster Apaches I mentioned in a previous post, the color of each worker’s outfit distinguished him from other types of workers on the shop floor and in the offices.
Ready to strike!
So each rank had its own hue: blue for factory workers, gray for their immediate supervisors, and white for office employees. All this was the result of hyper-organized worker’s unions, but in France, you might be familiar with that rebellious ready-to-strike spirit, especially if you recently tried to fly Air France. So some workers refused to wear their special color, and decided to put on their own clothing to protest the outward show of status.
Which reminds me a little of my former culinary students, who would do anything possible to express themselves sartorially in a school which oppressed them so completely, at least in their eyes. Uniforms were stifling, many of these guys had never worn a tie in their life, and kitchen clothing featured normal-waisted hounds-tooth pants. To them, they felt like high-waisted pants and were juste pas possible! Simply not possible. They preferred to order their pants three sizes too big and then spend their time hiking them up or literally holding them up with one hand while stirring choux pastry batter with the other.
I couldn’t seem to convince those guys that low-rider pants were unacceptable in the kitchen. I saw more boys’ underwear in that school than I ever hope to see again, and I constantly threatened them with a pair of wide, multi-colored suspenders I kept in my knife case.
But I did have more success explaining why rolling up their pants wasn’t allowed. Just imagine boiling liquid spilling down your leg, and pooling in the cuff of your pants! They would grumble about having to have their pants hemmed (most boys didn’t even know what that meant), but it only took an accident or two in the kitchen to convince them of what I was talking about.
Best chefs in France
Uniforms in French kitchens are still symbols of the particular line of work: white aprons for chefs - they show stains and must be changed often - or dark blue aprons for sommeliers, which don’t show red wine spots. Bakers wear white pants, to camouflage the flour that’s always floating everywhere. And the most prestigious uniform of all is the tri-color collar on chef’s jackets worn by MOFs, or Meilleur Ouvriers de France, or the best chefs in France.
By now you’re probably thinking, “But what about the blues in this dish?” And you might be wondering why we’re eating eggplant in October! Last weekend, that’s what I was wondering too, when I saw a bunch of beautiful eggplant laid out on our favorite market gardener’s stall. Isn’t eggplant a summer vegetable?
And that’s precisely the “stupid” question I asked our our maraîchère Nathalie: “Wow, you still have eggplant? I thought the eggplant season was over!” I’ve adjusted to playing the naïve foreigner, and usually expect a smart-ass answer to my questions. Nathalie didn’t disappoint: “The eggplant season will be over when we don’t have any more eggplant!”
For those of who want to wear the blues, check out any number of thrift shops in Paris - you’ll find some addresses in Allison’s favorites. But if you prefer to eat the blues rather than wear them, the recipe below features blue cheese. In France, one of the eight families of cheeses is known as persillé which doesn’t mean parslied cheeses as its name might imply, but rather veined.
Here, instead of buying blue cheese ripened with care by my local fromager, or cheese-monger, I buy cheap(er) supermarket blue, since the finer nuances of the cheese will be modified by heat and by the other ingredients. Sharp-flavored bleu des Causses works well, as does the creamier Italian gorgonzola - see what’s available and reasonably priced at your local market or grocery store.
If you own or can borrow a pressure cooker, this recipe is literally a snap to make: just toss in the ingredients and seal your cooker shut with the characteristic click-snap. Even if you’re making this in the oven, you won’t be spending too long in the kitchen, since the oven does almost all of the work for you. Either way, enjoy your blues and bon app’!