Lobster Thermidor: Not a Recipe! Just History.

Reading up on the aftermath of the French revolution I was reminded of Napoleon’s immortal words “the Gregorian calendar shall be restored throughout the French Empire as from tomorrow, 1st of January 1806″, and with this simple decree it closed the book on one of the strangest and certainly bloodiest episode of the French Revolution. The coup of 9 Thermidor (July 27, 1794, yes try to understand the logic here) marked the downfall of Robespierre and the end of the Reign of Terror.

The Thermidorians removed economic controls, thus unleashing inflation and more misery as the men who came into power were members of the old bourgeoisie and the newly rich who had profited greatly from speculation (I see another parallel with the current economic crisis and dreaded austerity regimes). But first a little background on the “revolutionary” (folly, really) reasoning in inventing a completely and utterly different calendar that hardly anyone used or understood and lasted some thirteen years (it was used again ever so briefly during under the Paris Commune in 1871, 71 days to be precise).

With the establishment of the Republic in 1792, the entire French administrative infrastructure was carefully reviewed and the Academy of Sciences was ordered to produce a suitable French alternative to the traditional Gregorian calendar, (wrongly) seen as a vestige of royal tomfoolery (another emperor, Charlemagne, also tampered with the Gregorian calendar, a thousand years or so earlier). Enters Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine, known in certain circles as a speculative pamphleteer and in others as an actor/dramatist/revolutionary who named the months after the French climate and the cycle of its agricultural year.

The French Revolutionary calendar, as it was thus known, became the official calendar of France. Supposedly philosophical and mathematical in its basis, it was divided neatly into 12 months of 30 days. Originally, it was going to start either 1 January 1789 or 14 July 1789, Bastille Day. After much hesitation and haranguing the Assembly finally decided on January 2 1792 and as with weather-vane politicians, promptly changed their minds and the new starting date was officially given on October 24, 1793 but, yes but, it was somewhat decided that the newly minted calendar should be backdated to September 22, 1792 (which coincidentally was the autumnal equinox and the day after the proclamation of the republic) so that day became 1 Vendemiaire of the year 1 of the Republic. Imagine the confusion of the populace! Out of the window went birth dates, financial transactions records, property deeds, anniversaries etc.

Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine’s months names were rather on the poetic side, divided into four sections and distinguished according to seasons by their suffixes, the autumn months ending in “aire”, the winter ones in “ose”, the spring in “al” and the summer months in “dor”.

Vendemiaire (vintage month, September); Brumaire (fog, October); Frimaire (sleet, November); Nivose (snow, December); Pluviose (rain, January); Ventose (wind, February); Germinal (seed, March); Floreal (blossom, April); Prairial (pasture, May); Messidor (harvest, June); Thermidor (heat, July) and Fructidor (fruit, August). The remaining five days, called sans-culottides, were feast days and were named for Virtue, Genius, Labor, Reason, and Rewards, respectively. To complicate matters, leap years were introduced to keep New Year’s Day on autumnal equinox. But this turned out to be difficult to handle, because equinox is not completely simple to predict. Therefore a rule similar to the one used in the Gregorian Calendar was to take effect in the year 20. However, since the Revolutionary Calendar was abolished in the year 14, it made a mockery of this new rule.

So you ask: is there a recipe of Lobster Thermidor anywhere here in this diary? No, but I have inserted a photograph of this particular dish.

Well, since Thermidor was the 11th month of the Republican calendar and it turned out to be the hottest month (July) a dish was named after it. It consists of lobster tail meat that has been cooked and removed from the shell and tossed with a bechamel sauce flavored with mustard (to denote heat, I guess), then topped with cheese and browned in a broiler. Ha! But hang on: the actual Lobster Thermidor was created in 1894 by Marie’s, a Paris restaurant near the Theatre Comédie Française, to honor the opening of the play “Thermidor” by Victorien Sardou, not the French revolution. The play was not a great success and sank without a trace.

As for the architect of the “revolutionary”calendar,Philippe Fabre d’Eglantine, he went to the “French Razor” (guillotine) in April 1794, supposedly for financial fraud but really for opposing Robespierre’s policies and was seen distributing pamphlets on the way to his death, handing them out from the dreaded tumbril. I guess there is a moral somewhere in this diary but can’t quite put my finger on it!

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