According to one source, this funny French expression has a similar equivalent in English: “How now, brown cow?” If forced to choose, I suppose being called a hen wins over being called a cow, but either way, whoever’s asking me the question wants to know how I’m doing. Or, sometimes I hear the expression in the affirmative, as a way of answering someone who asked, “So are we going out for a drink on Wedneday?” Oui – ça roule, ma poule ! That works for me!
A glamorous hen in every pot
But I was surprised to see this expression painted on what is usually an ordinary brown metal box on the sidewalk. These “fire boxes” or armoires à feux, are all over the city. This one is right over in the rue de Bagnolet, and features a kind of riddle with the question on one side and the answer on the other. Who painted this riddle? And more importantly, who else feels like eating the famous dish known as poule au pot when they see a reference to a hen?
Poule au pot is one of those recipes whose name sounds great in French, but really just means “boiled hen” – glamorous, right? (You can read about the phenomenon of beautiful French names for ordinary foods in a previous post.) As legend has it, Henri IV invented poule au pot during his reign in the late 16th century. His Nantes edict and personal conversion to Catholicism put an end to 30 years of religious war, so finally the French could afford, according to Henri IV’s wish, to “put a hen in every pot.”
But did Henri IV really mean “every pot”? As in liberté, égalité, and fraternité? Not quite. It turns out he was talking about the labeureur, an “elite” peasant. This slightly well-to-do Frenchman even would have owned a team of oxen or horses to work his fields.
So while labeureurs didn’t exactly constitute the 1% of their day, they weren’t the most destitute of French peasantry either. I wonder how they’d compare to current French society? According to 2011 statistics, if you declared more than 88,000€ per year in individual earnings, you were part of the 1% of French people with the highest revenues.
The real story?
But back to that hen, which is much more interesting than discussing money, which French people don’t do anyway – it’s considered vulgaire. So how did Henri IV really invent the dish? One version of the story holds that the unofficial date for the invention of poule au pot is August 24, 1572: Henri IV accidentally dropped the hen he was plucking into a pot of boiling water when fighting broke out between Catholics and Protestants.
Another story is that Henri IV’s mother fed him roast chicken pretty darn often when was growing up. But cleaning the oven was the future king’s only chore. Eventually, he grew into a wise young man who decided he’d had enough housework, and decided to put his hen into a pot…and voilà! No more oven cleaning. Those of us who have worked in restaurant kitchens, trying not to inhale those toxic products used for cleaning, or home cooks who remember the days before automatic-cleaning ovens, can all appreciate the labor-saving method Henri IV invented.
A Parisian artists’ collective
Those theories sit fine with me. But what I really wanted to know was this: what stealthy graffiti artist, or nighttime taggeur, was responsible for this rolling street hen? It turns out that the artistic effort behind this fire box was completely legal and even sanctioned by the Mairie, or town hall, of the 20th. In conjunction with the pluridisciplinary artists’ collective Curry Vavart, a campaign is underway to beautify eastern Paris’ ugly brown fire boxes by painting them.
Curry Vavart began in 2004 as a group of visual artists, photographers, actors, and dancers who decided to squat – or occupy space in empty buildings – illegally. The original members squatted in the 10th, 11th, and 20th districts, but during that time they were working to legalize their status.
Tattoos and nose-piercings
Years ago, I spent a little time in squats, and occasionally went to their organizational meetings – a contradiction in terms in France, where the concept of “one person speaking at a time” doesn’t exist. So the meetings happened about the same way as in any other organization, if you threw in about 30 tattoos and nose piercings.
The squats themselves are usually impressive – most often public buildings in between renovations, or some still furnished, like the laboratory the folks at La Gare Experimentale occupied a few years ago. Long, tiled tables set up with beakers, Bunsen burners, and other lab materials were all still intact, as if the lab employees just stood up one day in the middle of an experiment, left the premises, and never came back.
The ephemeral nature of squatting empty buildings is nothing new – easy come, easy go. But what has changed dramatically is the image of the squatter as a dreadlocked gutter punk with an aggressive dog and a drug problem. Today’s occupants, like the members of Curry Vavart, are organized, motivated artists and performers who have an agreement with the City of Paris that allows temporary occupation of private or public abandoned buildings and warehouses.
The mission of Curry Vavart is quite simply to put to good use empty buildings while they’re awaiting renovation. And Paris has a lot of empty buildings, many of them the result of (too) long-standing family feuds or other legal battles. So Curry Vavart has a nomadic but beneficial presence in the city: opening up spaces for use, searching for others, and shutting some down and moving along when the owner finally decides to renovate.
Shared gardens and mini-libraries
And what better way to spur a building owner to renovate than letting a bunch of artists take over the place? But rather than becoming graffiti-covered eyesores, most of these buildings house artists’ studios, children’s playrooms, and community bicycle workshops, where tools are shared along with skills and know-how. Concerts, dancing, and theater rehearsals are common in these spaces, but Curry Vavart also works towards building quality relationships within the community: creating shared gardens and mini-libraries are also part of their work.
Geoffroy over at Curry Vavart answered my questions about the project: what is a fire box, or an armoire à feux, anyway? What’s the idea behind this project? It turns out those brown boxes belong to the city, and contain the wires for public lighting and traffic signals, hence armoire à feux, as in stoplights, not fire.
Call for projects
The project itself was another collaboration between City Hall and Curry Vavart: it was easier to customize the property of the city rather than paint a mural on a building, whose owners have to all be consulted individually, which in a country as slow as France could take months! The local cooperative bike workshop Cyclofficine proposed the rolling hen.
Curry Vavart and the town hall of the 20th have put out another call for projects to customize fire boxes all over the district. Art in public spaces, visibility for street artists (who would literally work in the shadows otherwise), and brighter colors than that awful brown in our visual landscape? Ça roule, ma poule !