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Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Bastille Days

Le Repertoire Culinaire & Vin

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America may have had its differences with the French—think freedom fries—but we must give credit where credit is due: The French really know how to enjoy the delicacies of life. This year’s Bastille Days will give the rest of us four days to do the same. Milwaukee has one of the largest Bastille Days celebrations in the country and, at 27, it’s one of our city’s oldest festivals.

To fully appreciate Bastille Days, it helps to know a bit of its history. The Bastille was a fortress prison in Paris that exemplified the tyranny of King Louis XVI’s monarchy. On July 14, 1789, the people of Paris took to the streets and stormed the Bastille. The taking of the Bastille was seen as a symbol of the uprising of the modern French nation and is celebrated every year as a national holiday.

Milwaukee adopted this celebration as our own and, in true American fashion, made it four times longer. For us, it isn’t as much about independence—we have our own holiday for that—as it is about celebrating our favorite aspects of French culture. But whether you are conscious of it or not, when you’re sprinting past the miniature Eiffel Tower in Milwaukee’s “Storm the Bastille” run, you’re following in the footsteps of independence.

Delicious Food, Exceptional Wine
France is synonymous with delicious food and exceptional wine. Every day starting at noon, Bastille Days hosts three 45-minute cooking classes, each taught by a different local chef. Experts from local restaurants, including executive chef Robert Ash of Kil@wat Intercontinental Milwaukee and executive chef Nicolas Sandoval of Cafe Metro, will demonstrate how to cook French and Cajun specialties while sharing cooking techniques and fielding questions. And if free cooking classes from the area’s best chefs aren’t enough, audience members are given samples and the recipe for the prepared dish at the conclusion of the demonstration.

Each day, immediately following the chef demonstrations, wine masters from the Pfister Hotel will be serving up a full spectrum of French wines during free wine demonstrations. It’s a perfect gathering in which to twirl, gargle and gulp as if you were a French aristocrat.

On Saturday at 11:30 a.m. in Cathedral Square Park, participants will be challenged to create a captivating Cajun dish in this year’s Battle of the Chefs. The Wicked Hop, the Pfister Hotel and the Mason Street Grill are just a few of the restaurants that have put a representative forward. Following the contest inside the kitchen is the contest of those who are forever running in and out of it: the WKTI Waiter/Waitress Race. On Sunday, Milwaukee’s swiftest, most agile waiters and waitresses will be faced with an all-new obstacle course, specially designed to foil their attempts at attaining the title.

Authentic Cuisine
Among the more than 30 vendor booths situated throughout the festival grounds, expect to find a variety of food, not just French. Authentic French cuisine is, in reality, very difficult to prepare in a street-fair setting, so expect to see simple French creations like crepes, with a larger selection of hardier Cajun dishes from restaurants such as Bayou and Crawdaddy’s. For some people, visiting the Wisconsin State Fair and eating a cream puff are inseparable acts. The cream puff of Bastille Days is called a beignet, a French doughnut made from deep fried dough and covered with powdered sugar. The Alliance Francaise booth is famous for these authentic New Orleans favorites.

The East Town Association, which organizes the event, operates the beverage stations and will be selling Miller products, French wines and champagne served with fresh strawberries. Unlike typical street fairs, where there is an unrelenting commitment to cold hard cash or, worse, tickets, Bastille Days is now accepting plastic. The East Town Association is a nonprofit downtown Milwaukee business organization that has celebrated Bastille Days in Milwaukee since 1981. Spend your money guilt-free because proceeds from the festival are returned to the community through neighborhood improvement programs and events such as Jazz in the Park, East Town Farmers’ Market and Gallery Night and Day. The association does an excellent job of creating an atmosphere of an international festival while still running a local event.

In between all the wine and the delicious food, try to find time to enjoy the myriad of engaging activities, such as roaming entertainment, shopping, dance lessons from the Milwaukee Ballet, art instruction from the Milwaukee Art Museum, mini French lessons and four stages of live music performances, including traditional French music, jazz, blues, folk and rock. Bastille Days is free and open to the public July 10–13 in Downtown’s Cathedral Square Park and the surrounding four-block area. Hours: 11 a.m. to midnight Thursday, July 10, through Saturday, July 12; 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday, July 13.

What’s your take? Write: editor@shepex.com or comment on this story online at www.expressmilwaukee.com.
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