The longer I live in France, the more I find that the things that once drove me crazy about French people are precisely the things I find humorous about them now. You might have already noticed, especially in Paris, that the word jeans is often spelled with a pesky apostrophe: jean’s. So I couldn’t help laughing one day when I sat behind this guy on the bus whose label blatantly flounced all notions of correct apostrophe usage in English.
Second degree humor
Taking the man’s jacket label literally, and deliberately ignoring the fact that Jean-Paul Gaultier is a famous designer, would mean that Paul Gaultier belongs to a person named Jean, I suppose. But who would take this literally, or in the first degree, as the French call it? An anglophone apostrophe nut? Guilty as charged.
So why does this label make me laugh now instead of simply perturbing my sense of propriety concerning apostrophe usage? I think I’ve finally started to understand what the French call second degree humor. Maybe it’s just me, but I find it pretty funny that even a famous designer could use this very French sense of irony right on his jacket’s label, when even the label itself is a play on words between the designer’s first name and his line of
Not terrible, or pas terrible?
Americans are often accused in French culture of taking thing too literally, at face value – first degree. But how do you actually use second degree humor? One expression we use in the second degree is Ce n’est pas terrible or more often, it’s pronounced without the ne: C’est pas terrible. Literally, this means something’s not terrible, not bad.
But seen through the second degree lens, it’s not terrific, meaning it’s actually, truly terrible. People I know usually scrunch up their nose as they pronounce this expression, to show their dislike of whatever is pas terrible. There are plenty of other really great examples of French second-degree expressions, which you can find in books on French life, like The Parisians, by Alain Schifres.
Scallops vs. St. Jacques
Well okay, so what if the French misuse English-language words and apostrophes? Maybe they think that using one will confer a sense of anglo “cool” on their brands, businesses, and other official names. But wait a minute… Don’t we also use French words to confer more panache or more cachet (hmmm…) to a product?
Take scallops for example. When did they become "St. Jacques" on American menus? Or "en croute" – why not just say in a pastry or a salt crust? Another example is velouté: it literally means something velvety, and in classic French cuisine refers to one of the five mother sauces. But it’s also used nowadays for any puréed, creamed soup. Does velouté look better on a menu than puréed, creamed soup? You bet.
Shan tee yee
There’s one word that I see almost universally misused on menus, no matter where I am: Chantilly. The word Chantilly is considered an appellation, or official name, and as far as classic French cuisine is concerned it means one thing, and one thing only: whipped cream with the addition of powdered or confectioner’s sugar, and vanilla bean.
But this term has been largely hijacked and transformed to refer to savory whipped creams, which are a delicately pretty and delicious addition to soups or little aperitif toasts, like this recipe for Chantilly salée citron fines herbes. Or the herb Chantilly that accompanies the soup recipe below. And frankly, doesn’t Chantilly [shan tee yee] sound so much nicer than whipped cream?
Disc-eaters and bubble chairs
This week’s soup recipe comes not from Jean-Paul Gaultier, but from my friend Jean. His affinity for the seasonal soup recipe below could be explained by his love of monochromatic mid-century objects. The color? You guessed it: orange.
- Pumpkin chestnut soup
Jean has transformed his adventures in finding orange objects into an art form: in and around Paris, he scours junk shops, flea markets, and vide-greniers (literally attic-emptyings, what we call yard sales). His sole aim is to unearth inexpensive portable vinyl record players called mange-discs, bubble chairs, plastic dice, bar kits, lampshades, and the occasional Eiffel DSW chair, by American designing couple Charles and Ray Eames.
Autumn dinner parties or Thanksgiving
You can imagine why this is Jean’s favorite soup: its gorgeous orange color. It announces autumn just as surely as that first snap of pleasant cold that grabs my gut (or is that a hunger pang?) on the way to the market. When I get there, I buy the small round variety of pumpkin known as potimarron, a mix of the two words potiron (pumpkin) and marron or chestnut. Its flesh is sweet and dense with starch, and tastes a little like chestnuts, hence the name. In English, the pumpkin is called Hokkaido or Red kuri squash.
I’ve dressed up this recipe with the addition of chestnuts, a very French ingredient, a bit of Cointreau (or use any orange-flavored liqueur), and yes, an herb Chantilly. These ingredients make this soup perfect for autumn dinner parties or even a festive fall occasion like Thanksgiving! And what’s great about most forms of pumpkin is that they’re economical vegetables – a helluva lot more affordable than an Eames chair!