Commonplace Thoughts of a Residual Welshman: Mars and French Food

north windAnyone who has ever been outside in a severe and bitingly cold wind knows what wind can do to your face, if you have not wrapped yourself with a scarf. It can dry out your face, crack your lips, and shiver every timber of your being. It can, in short, almost take your face away, if you don’t protect it.

Even on Mars, apparently, there have been such winds, no doubt colder and more severe than even the bitterest of such winds on this planet. Solar winds (gusts supercharged by particles from the sun) have recently been determined—thanks to the interestingly acronymed “MAVEN” observatory spacecraft—to have taken away Mars’ atmosphere.[1] These same wind-driven particles would sweep ruinously over our own planet, too—and do touch down here, but only at the poles, creating our spectacular northern lights

Northern Lights
Northern Lights

—if it were not for our robust atmosphere, an atmosphere held in place simply because of our planet’s fiercely abiding magnetic field. In other words, when Mars lost its sense of north and south, its compass as it were, Mars surrendered its atmosphere to the winds. This did not happen all at once, scientists believe; it happened slowly over time until finally the winds dominated the atmosphere that had once protected and have entirely reshaped the landscape.


Even the dust that covers its surface is foreign to Mars. What appears to us to be, and has long been called the red planet, was once not red at all. It was once a fecund place, or at least had the possibility to be so. It might have looked a bit like earth. It might have been able to sustain life, even if not that of Matt Damon, MattDamon Martianat least some kind of life. Yet when Mars lost its atmosphere, it lost its capacity to do so. Oceans, rivers, everything that could have produced agriculture, and culture, were gone.

My great-grandfather died before I was born, as most do. (His story is recorded in the Curious Autobiography [pp. 169–73], where he is correctly portrayed as a chef for Welsh miners.) He brought his cultural identity—French, in his case—as a contribution to his existing family culture, of which at that time was predominantly Welsh. I was thinking about him (and Mars) recently because, even as I write this, I am in France attending a colloquium. (The colloquium is on philology, nor the most poultry area of study these days. If you wish to know more about this “p” word, I commend the fine book along with the series based on it: Portuguese Irregular Verbs, by Alexander McCall Smith. Portuguese verbs)

Aside from the obvious, such as being in France, sipping coffee in a delightful cafe or the occasional glass of Bordeaux, and superb French dining (from one dish of which I affix a recipe below, one that I understand from family lore my great-grandfather prepared, though what you will see below is not his recipe precisely, but my own recollection of what I ate just a few days ago), one interesting facet of such a conference is the opportunity for rich dinner-time or happy-hour conversations. Such conversations usually are held in numerous “scholarly” languages: German, English, Italian and, of course, French. (It was lamented by at least one Italian philologist that the Spaniards are so sorely underrepresented.) Nonetheless, in case you’re wondering, Mars was not discussed, so I will not yet tell you why I opened with that semi-scientific ramble. Instead, as is often the case with my European friends and acquaintances, topics that come up rather naturally are food (a tasteful subject, of course), life’s difficulties (particularly fiscal problems and taxes), politics, and sex (though chiefly only insofar as sex relates to political issues such as population growth or how impractical having children is, which of course it is for philologists). The first two of these—that is the incongruous coupling of food with worries about the economy—normally dominate the discussion, though I prefer the last of these topics, because I, in fact, like children. Yet at this philological “colloque” (to use the French appropriately), a rich discussion arose about cultural identity. So again, as I said above, I thought of my French great-grandfather, James Jacques, who bore in his person the family name that would later be spelled Jakes and would itself incongruously represent a culturally Welsh family.

To my new European friends, the problem was clear: the bitter chill of a wind of a new cultural identity has begun sweeping across the continent. This chilling wind was not, in the eyes of the person who was speaking to me with a low voice—low not out of shame or embarassment but out of, it seemed to me, grief or desperation—welcome. When I say “in the eyes of” this well-educated, middle-aged Italian professoressa (as such female educators are there known), I speak not of her opinion, but of the clear sense of sadness that I could see in those eyes.

“Italy’s borders are porous,” she said, “there is sea everywhere . . . Tanti musselmani vengono. So many Muslims keep coming in. Have you been to Genova?” She asked me. I nodded. “The culture there—the Italian culture is overrun. It is the same in France. Have you been to Marseilles lately?” she added. “We in Italy are losing our cultural identity. We are losing our food, our country, our heritage.”

Impolitically I added, “Some of that you sadly gave up when churches became mere museum pieces and when you gave your lire up for the Euro.”Lire billEuro

“It’s terrible,” another added despondently, “the loss of the lire, I mean.”

As the conversation ran its course, it became clearer and clearer to me that the professoressa (or any of the Italians present) was not “islamophobic.” She was not a hater of anything new or different. They all had high regard for religion and the shared moral code—what C.S. Lewis calls the “Tao,”[2]—that religions can offer. She was merely stating, as gently as she could, the  difference from the old days and the way cultural acceptance is nowadays mandated in a politically correct world. She was affirming but lamenting the obvious: now, instead of the immigrant trying, but ultimately failing, to hold on perfectly to his heritage, he expects society (and society tells him to expect) to accommodate his every wish. He expects full inclusiveness, so that if an author were to be foolish enough to write “he” instead of “he or she” or “he/she” or, now I have also read, “zhe” (for which many a German is secretly rejoicing), or viley to use “they” as if it were the singular pronoun, they would no doubt be pilloried, mocked, or at least corrected.

Yet as I am not politically correct (though I do try to be polite), I not only did not rebuke her, but agreed that the immigrant needs to adapt to the culture, not the other way round. “But we are losing our culture, and I am not sure what can be done about it,” she said raising her voice the way one might at the end of a sentence with a question.

At this point I want to be clear: this fine person was not saying that Italy and Europe should not have a heart for the poor and disenfranchised. Rather, she was saying that in her view solar-charged winds are blowing, winds capable of wiping out a culture. And she is right. “When I was in Paris,” one of the other interlocutors said, “I heard the subway announcements in French and Arabic.”

And then I thought again about Mars, and my great-grandfather. Mars was overrun by winds that destroyed its atmosphere. That happened because it lost its magnetic field. It lost its sense of north and south.

“Europe has lost its moral compass,” another added. “I remember when my grandparents would eat their dinner—even in a restaurant like this one, they would cross themselves and say a blessing—every time! Now, well, nothing, just ‘Buon appetito!’”

And then I thought, yet again, of Mars. It lost its atmosphere because it lost, as it were, its compass. That compass, for Europe had long been not some new, insufficient and intolerant form of impolitical political correctness. It has been, rather, for lack of a better word, the Church. “Now no one crosses himself,” she added, a few seconds later, despondently.

So I close this blog not with an answer, not the answer Elaine Jakes at the close of her autobiography espouses I once gave to a dour presbyter in Wales (Curious Autobiography, p. 253) but with a question. Has America lost its moral compass? Are we more concerned about accommodating others, so worried about ensuring the privileges of a few that we actually harm and debunk the rights of all? My French great-grandfather cooked in the French manner, but what he offered was a contribution to a preexisting society; he did not make demands of it. Even the predominant ethnic group learned the language of Pennsylvania, English. I have learned to speak Texan (as best I can). I would not expect Texans to adopt my predominently Phillyesque accent. Or cook me cheessteak at a barbecue. But I ask again, are we so worried about the privileges of a few that we could actually harm the rights of everyone? If we bow to the demands of a politically correct world, could we soon wind up in the position that Europe now finds itself?

You ponder that one. I will return to my delightful French food. I recommend the potato dish, below. I just had it in Claremont-Ferrond, a city so nice they named it twice.

Tartiflette[1] CNN news (11/5/2015).

[2] C.S. Lewis, The Abolition of Man, passim.

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