Santé: Champagne and Culture, from Paris to Providence

In my arms, I hold seventeen pounds of smooth green glass and I can’t help but think, what if I drop this? I’m cradling the largest bottle of champagne that I’ve ever seen, but I don’t feel like Kanye at his latest release party. I feel like a little kid on picture day, shrinking from the spotlight and trying to look natural.

Bob Burke, the proprietor of Pot au Feu bistro, stands behind the camera, grinning. He gave me the honor of holding the empty “Balthazar” (named for one of the Three Kings of Jesus’ nativity) when he heard I would be studying in Paris. We had just met, but he quickly became the kind uncle who reminds me to watch my pockets on the Metro.

Despite his bright, ruddy cheeks and sportive bow tie, Burke melts into the scene of his restaurant as part of the décor, along with the vintage maps of Paris and the devotional framed photo of Julia Child. The bar, much more a display of woodwork than a place to pour drinks, appears to have sprouted naturally from the space. Its hewn edges and smooth lines disappear into the shadows of champagne bottles that line the walls, relics of celebrations past.

Burke places himself in the lineage of Child, great ambassador of French cuisine, as he opened Pot au Feu in the 70s with the mission to capture French esprit in his American home. He’s something of an expatriate in his own country, as he inhabits a little pocket of France in downtown Providence.

The space is lined with red bricks, kissed with lamplight soft enough to foster une atmosphère amoureuse but bright enough to read the menu, which is written in French. The waitress, a RISD student from Brittany, might need to explain les plats du jour. Even those that can read the French may want to hear the dance of her accented English, which can make anyone believe they are a tourist in Montmarte.

The pâté, rich with French brandy, transports me to that hole-in-the-wall beneath Sacré-Coeur, where I spent hours swirling bread in fondue and slowly sipping white wine. I felt like an adult, gazing across the table through make-upped eyes. My parents let me taste the wine. I recall the distinctly French craft of lifting a dish with the delicate touch of liquor. They call it eau-de-vie, “water of life”, and you can see why — each smooth, deep bite brings to mind the complexity and elegance that we crave in life.

I let my senses take over, allowing them to lead me elsewhere. I know there’s more to life than escargots and steak frites, but you take these in as expressions of life — as art embodied and shared.

champagne picture

It is this elevating of the mundane — family dinner rendered art — that draws my family to French cuisine. My family has a peculiar culture of celebrating: we honor everything from birthdays to good report cards to the simple blessing of togetherness with a bottle of champagne. There is a drawer in my kitchen full of champagne corks, each marked by the Sharpie smudge of my dad’s hand: day/month/year and reason/excuse for celebrating. There are made-up abbreviations, shorthand like “A” and “C”, “NYE” and “T-giving”, because there’s never been a time when we could fit all of our blessings on just one of those little cylinders. We see the glass half-full, and it looks even a little more full when its contents are bubbly.

There is a notable difference between my family’s tradition and the bottle I hold in my hands at Pot au Feu. The neck of the Balthazar looks as though it has been sliced clean; the full green-glass lip is missing as well as the cork. We learn the reason why this bistro is filled with champagne bottles that appear to have seen the guillotine: Bob Burke is trained in the art of champagne sabrage. He shows off his diploma, etched in what looks like gold leaf, and we hear a story of Napoleon’s cavalry, who, we’re told, sliced open bottles to christen each victory — without letting go of the reins.

This balance of seeming excess and simple gratitude is precisely what makes that bite of pâté so special.

I listen closely to Burke, gold leaf, brandy, bow tie and all, and I know already what my parents are thinking. My wide-eyed parents, who’ve been cheers-ing life since before I can remember, are ready to hire Bob to slice open a bottle for my Brown graduation. I laugh because it seems lavish to the point of the absurd to hire a jovial man to violently sever a bottle of champagne to celebrate a bachelor’s degree. Besides, would we even get to save the cork? But then I remember this balance of seeming excess and simple gratitude is precisely what makes that bite of pâté so special.

French joie de vivre — the culture that produced Napoleon’s champagne-sabering horsemen and Proust’s tea-soaked madeleine — exists on this boundary of exceptional and ordinary. T.S. Eliot wrote, “Culture may even be described simply as that which makes life worth living.” This can be found downtown at Pot au Feu, between the pages of Madame Bovary, or surrounded by family and that familiar pop of champagne.

Cheers, santé, l’chaim. To life.


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