Stuffed Savoy cabbage

Serge Gainsbourg and the cabbage-headed man

Love him or hate him, Serge Gainsbourg is the definitive Dirty Old Man of French culture. The chain-smoking singer made 17 studio albums and over the course of his career he also painted, made films, and tried his hand at literary expression. March 2nd marked the anniversary of Serge Gainsbourg’s death 26 years ago. Is this provocative and irreverent singer still relevant today ?

I’ll admit, my first experience with Serge Gainsbourg wasn’t exactly positive. Covered in head-to-toe denim (in French, they say total look), Gainsbourg was already late into his career when I discovered him in French culture studies.

On stage, he sang about incest. The song "You’re Under Arrest" – a reference to the Miles Davis album of the same name – featured a silly rhyming rap in English. Gainsbourg seemed like a washed-up pop star, a has-been whose songs made me cringe.

Requiem for a jerk

But when I moved to Paris in 1995, a few friends introduced me to his earlier work, like his first stage appearance in 1958. Or the more self-assured and seductive performer that he became in this video (below) that accompanies the song "Requiem pour un con" ("Requiem for a jerk"). Even some of his later work was interesting – this video accompanies the 1984 song "Harley David Son of a Bitch." It rocks !

A whole nation seems to be fascinated with Gainsbourg, young or old, including my local pharmacist. Any passer-by can find Gainsbourg statuettes decorating the windows and the shelves of the Pharmacy des Gatines.

Counter-culture

But you’d think Gainsbourg, always a heavy smoker, would be positioned strategically next to Nicorette or electronic cigarettes instead of hawking hair products or Pampers. Either way, Serge is lurking from every corner of the pharmacy.

But why this obsession ? To find out more, I recently visited an exhibit at La Maison Rouge : L’esprit français : contre-cultures 1969-1989. There, the curators considered that "France is at its best on its fringes." The exhibit explores France’s counter-culture through themes like the legacy of May ’68 (when demonstrations rocked the country), women’s liberation, cinema, rock, and subversive comics or bandes dessinées.

Face to cabbage face

The exhibit is "a mix of idealism and nihilism, caustic humor and eroticism, darkness and hedonism." That description is applicable to Gainsbourg himself, who was also featured at La Maison Rouge. His reggae version of the national anthem, "La Marseillaise" was available for listening, and a curious statue was on view : L’homme à tête de chou, or the Cabbage-Headed Man.

I was delighted to come face to chou-face with the statue by Claude Lalanne that inspired Gainsbourg’s album of the same name. L’homme à tête de chou is a concept album, released in 1976, that French Rolling Stone called the 28th greatest French rock album ever.

Compromising position

Gainsbourg purchased Lalanne’s statue on a whim at a gallery in Paris. When he got the Cabbage-Headed Man home, Gainsbourg found him a bit stiff, but he "quickly loosened up and told his story." He was a journalist working for a tabloid (known in French as a feuille de chou or a cabbage leaf), and fell in love with the shampoo girl, Marilou, at Max’s hair salon.

The problems began when the journalist realized Marilou was cute enough (assez chou) to attract other…. suitors (to put it politely). When the journalist finds her in a compromising position with two of them, he knocks Marilou over the head with a fire extinguisher. The journalist then falls into madness and loses his head, which turns into a giant cabbage. You can find out more about the album by clicking here, and this blog burning a 500-franc note] has the full-length album on listen – scroll all the way down and click on the songs.

France on the fringes

Besides his overtly sexy albums, Gainsbourg became known in later years for his outrageous behavior : burning a 500-franc note on live TV, or telling Whitney Houston (also live) that he wanted to f**k her.

Today, it’s easy to judge Gainsbourg harshly. But to condemn him based only on his flagrantly shocking (and often misogynist) behavior is to miss the point. Behind the insolence and provocative stunts was a talented, imaginative soul with a critical eye. Most importantly, Gainsbourg – even today – represents the French spirit, decidedly on the fringes.


The exhibit at La Maison Rouge lasts until May 21st, 2017. Find out more here.

Stuffed Savoy cabbage

The bluster and rain of March is perfect for eating cabbage. This recipe is an adaptation of Stéphane Reynaud’s, and is pure comfort food, with a few mushrooms and chestnuts thrown in for good measure. Look for Savoy cabbage at your local farmer’s market, and choose one that’s heavy for its size.

ingredients :
- 1 head Savoy cabbage
- 2 medium shallots (2 ounces or 55g)
- 2 cloves garlic, peeled and degermed if necessary
- 1 cup (110 g) button or cremini mushrooms, cleaned
- 2 tablespoons olive oil
- ¾ cup (100 g) cooked chestnuts (from a jar is perfect)
- 1½ cup (180 g) cubed cooked pork (any well-flavored cut of pork will work)
- 9 ounces (250 g) pork sausage stuffing or bulk sausage (or breakfast sausage, casings removed)
- ½ tablespoon salt
- a few twists of the pepper mill
- 1 tablespoon (15 g) butter
- ¾ cup (180 ml) white wine

how to make it :
1. Rinse the cabbage and remove any damaged outer leaves – I usually take off just the first layer. Insert a paring knife into the bottom and cut around the hard core, cutting deeper and deeper so that you can remove this core from the middle of the cabbage.
2. Separate the cabbage leaves from one another, and choose 12 of the prettiest leaves.
3. Prepare a large bowl of ice water. Working in 2 batches, blanch the cabbage leaves : plunge them into a large pot of salted, boiling water. Once the water comes back to the boil, let the leaves boil over medium-high heat for 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, remove the leaves and plunge them into the bowl of ice water.
4. Remove the leaves, drain well, and blot them with a clean tea towel.
5. Chop the shallots, garlic, and mushrooms. Heat the olive oil in a large saucepan over medium heat. Lower the heat slightly, add the shallots, and sauté them for about 3 minutes. Then add the garlic, sauté for 1 minute, and add the mushrooms. Sauté and stir well for about 5 minutes. In the meantime, chop the non-blanched cabbage leaves into fine ribbons.
6. Chop the chestnuts and add them to the pan. Add the chopped cabbage to the pan. Cook all together for about 8 minutes. Turn these ingredients into a large bowl and let cool.
7. Add the cubed pork meat to the bowl of now-cool ingredients. Add the sausage meat, and stir well. Add salt and pepper. Preheat the oven to 350°F (180°C).
8. Butter an oven-proof lasagna-type pan or decorative baking dish. To make 6 cabbage rolls, take 2 blanched cabbage leaves and place about 1 cup of stuffing in the middle of the leaves. Roll them up, tuck the ends underneath, and carefully transfer the roll to the buttered baking dish. Repeat for the five other rolls.
9. Add the wine to the baking pan or dish. Cover it tightly with foil, and bake for 1 hour. Remove the aluminum foil, and continue to bake for 15 more minutes.
10. Remove from the oven and serve straight away with a crusty baguette and a glass bottle of Côtes du Rhône. Bon app’ !

makes 6 servings

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Tags : Serge Gainsbourg , Gainsbourg , cabbage , Savoy cabbage , stuffed cabbage recipe , La Maison Rouge


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