This is an open-ended blog ranging from news about my latest gigs and publications
to ruminations about politics, world affairs, culture and whatever piques my interest—or ire.

Sunday, June 27, 2010


Imagine that an important U.S. cabinet member is also the treasurer and chief fund raiser for the Republican Party. Now imagine that this same pubic servant has a wife who is a financial advisor for a firm that manages the fortune of the wealthiest woman in America. Now imagine that this wealthy woman's butler secretly records telephone conservations between her and her financial advisers indicating that they are involved in massive tax evasion, and that she is discovered to have $100 million stashed away in tax-sheltered Swiss banks accounts. Finally, imagine that this same cabinet member is the key player in pushing through a controversial pension reform that will require his countrymen to tighten their belts and work two years longer before they can retire. How long after these revelations would an American President allow this cabinet member to keep his job? My guess: 24 hours.
But French President Nicolas Sarkozy, faced with precisely this situation, declares that he retains "total and complete" confidence in his embattled Labor Minister, Eric Woerth. Though no one has proved that the Minister or his wife have broken any laws, the strong presumption of conflict of interest, and possible wrongdoing, might preclude a more cautious President from expressing such unconditional loyalty. (Remember how quickly Obama dropped Sen. Tom Daschle as his pick for Secretary of Health and Human Services in 2008 when questions emerged about Daschle's underpaid taxes.)
Here are the facts in the French case:
Woerth's wife, Florence, works for the management company that handles the finances of Liliane Bettencourt, 87, heiress to the l'Oréal fortune. Now Florence Woerth's boss, Patrice de Maistre, is a friend of Eric Woerth (who decorated him with the Legion of Honor last year). De Maistre is just one of Woerth's many friends among the mandarins of France's financial, industrial, and business elite. These contacts are quite useful to Woerth when he dons his fundraising hat as treasurer of Sarkozy's UMP party. Sound complicated? Perhaps a little. Does it raise ethical questions? Big time.
I'd like to think that such a situation in the U.S. would lead to a prompt dismissal or resignation once the facts were revealed. But maybe I'm wrong. Remember Dick Cheney hunting with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, or his inviting the top honchos of the oil industry to help make U.S. energy policy (while refusing to reveal their names), or his ties to Haliburton at a time when that company was getting major no-bid contracts in Iraq—or, for that matter, Clinton's pardon of fugitive financier Mark Rich. The memory of such shameful episodes makes me reluctant to point my finger at the French. So I'll point it instead to all those public servants who cozy up to wealth and power and show contempt for the interest and opinions of the people they govern. J'accuse!

Friday, June 25, 2010


In these latitudes, June 21 is the longest day of the year. In France, it also marks the annual Fête de la Musique, when musical groups ranging from amateur guitar strummers to whole symphony orchestras and brass bands play all over town well into the wee hours of the morning. So my wife Sylvaine and I took the train from our suburb into Paris hoping to enjoy the festival, but most of what we heard was abominable.

Apparently it’s far cheaper for a restaurant or café to hire one D.J. with a trunkfull of electronic equipment than it is to hire a group of real musicians. So we were assailed with ear-splitting “techno,” an electronically produced cacophony based on breaking sound up into stroboscopic fragments, setting it to a machine-generated beat, then cranking it up as loud as possible. This is the kind of music kids dance to in discotheques while grooving on ecstasy. Admittedly, I have never done this—my generation just smoked grass and danced to the Rolling Stones—so perhaps I am clueless as to the real charm of techno. I get the impression it’s pretty much dépassé elsewhere, but the French are still into it and think it’s cool (they also think Jerry Lewis is cool). Last year, we heard Pierre Boulez direct the Orchestre National de Paris in a superb concert of Stravinsky under the Pyramid of the Louvre. The contrast between that and the techno D.J.’s was a striking comment on the decline of Western civilization. On the other hand, maybe we could have looked harder for some decent music.

Instead, we decided to have dinner in one of our favorite restaurants, the Epi d’Or, near the Louvre. Our links to the Epi d’Or go back to the mid -70s. Sylvaine used to go there when she worked on costumes and accessories at the Comédie Française theater, which is just a few blocks away. She and her fellow decorators would go there to celebrate after finishing their work on a new play. Sylvaine thought the place was wonderful and took me back there some time later.

And it was wonderful. L’Epi d’Or (“the golden shaft of wheat”) is one of the dozens of restaurants that surrounded the old central market, Les Halles. Since the Middle Ages, Les Halles had been the place where Parisian butchers, fishmongers and greengrocers procured their wares. Trucks would come there from all over Europe, and their drivers would wait while workers emptied their cargo and supervisors filled out the paperwork. To kill time, the drivers would hang out in local bars, visit the prostitutes that frequented the area (cf. the film “Irma La Douce”) or eat hearty meals in the late-night restaurants that surrounded the Halles pavilions, joining wholesalers, vendors, buyers and ordinary Parisians seeking out some colorful nightlife. L’Epi d’Or was one of these restaurants. Les Halles was closed down in the 1970s on orders of President Pompidou, who decided that having the wholesale food market in the middle of Paris caused too much traffic congestion. So the beautiful wrought iron and glass pavilions were demolished, the market activities were moved to the distant suburbs, and the empty space was turned into a garish underground shopping mall that is now a center for drug dealers and pickpockets.

The good news is that many of the traditional restaurants have remained, including l’Epi d’Or. When I first went there, the tile floors were covered with sawdust to soak up the blood dripping from the butchers’ smocks and the ashes from the vendors’ cigars and cigarettes. The waiters sported leather aprons, traditionally worn by workers in the meat market to prevent them from cutting out their own entrails, or worse, while wielding their razor sharp knives. The sawdust and leather aprons are gone now, but otherwise the place looks exactly as it did in the 1970s, and probably the 1870s for that matter.

The walls are covered with a dusty ocher fabric, many times painted over. The ceiling is the same dark mustard color, with a patina of smoke and a spattering of dark brown spots —perhaps the result of an exploding wine bottle a century or so ago. The spots were there the first time I ever entered the place and successive owners have had the good sense not to clean them off. They are part of the history of the restaurant, of Les Halles, of Paris. On the walls hang small paintings of rustic scenes, wheat fields, windmills. There are also some ancient wooden implements associated with wheat farming—a hand-carved pitchfork and a winnowing fan. On the left, on entering the room, there is a long zinc-covered bar. There are half dozen tables with starched white tablecloths and leather-cushioned benches along the walls. Another room in the back has four tables.

We were greeted by our usual waiter, Dominique, clad in the traditional style: black pants, white shirt with a black bow tie and a white apron. That used to be what waiters wore in every café and restaurant in Paris. Today, you see waiters (and waitresses) dressed in everything from trendy black shirts to polo shirts and even T-shirts. Not Dominique; he’s old-style. We have known him for about 20 years, but he never seems to age. In fact, his hair has become noticeably darker, going from brown in the old days to coal black today. Dominique, not at all surprised to see us after a year’s abence, gave us a choice table near the bar though we had no reservation. A few minutes later a couple without a reservation was turned away, so we felt privileged. (Maybe we were just lucky.)

The menu is traditional Paris bistro fare—the sort of hearty stuff that nourished the truckers and all-night Halles workers in the past. We started with a lobster salad (Sylvaine) and sautéed duck livers (me). The lobster salad consisted of one whole lobster tail on a bed of lettuce. This is not the oversized, butter-dripping Maine lobster we’re used to, but a smaller species, homard, that has a more delicate taste and consistency. My duck livers were just lightly sautéed with some balsamic vinegar. They were so soft and tender I could cut them with a fork and they almost melted in my mouth.

Surprisingly, considering all the bread we ate to soak up our sauce (considered de rigueur in France, not at all bad manners), we were still quite hungry when the main dishes arrived. Sylvaine had a navarin d’agneau, a slow-cooked shank of lamb, with green beans; I had a grilled barbue, a flat fish resembling a flounder but thicker and, to my mind, tastier. For dessert, Sylvaine had a clafoutis, a sort of flan with cherries, and I had a tarte tatin, an upside-down apple pie served warm with fresh cream. We topped it all off with a couple of expressos. By this time it was 11:20 pm, but the place was still full and more late night revelers were coming in the door. (We have trouble finding a New Orleans restaurant that will serve us after 9:30.)

As much as we enjoyed the food—actually, in France you “savor” food—I think our greatest pleasure came from revisiting a familiar place with long roots in our memories and seeing that everything remained the same. It seems to be a sad rule of life that when you really become attached to a restaurant, you can be sure that sooner or later, some idiot will decide to redecorate it, or “update” the menu, or change the chef, or sell the place, or a hurricane will destroy it, and it will never be the same. I have seen this happen to dozens of restaurants all around the world. And it happened to l’Epi d’Or.

When we visited Paris in the early 80s, after moving to New York a few years earlier, we were shocked. There was a new proprietor, and though he had the good sense not to touch the décor, he totally changed the menu and the food was mediocre at best. We resolved never to go back there. But when we moved back in 1992—I was sent over to run Time Magazine’s Paris Bureau—we decided to give it another try. To our surprise and delight, a new couple had bought the place and restored the Epi d’Or to its former glory. They kept the old look, but revived the Halles-style menu (with a few innovations) and hired a chef who knew what he was doing. We rejoiced over the phoenix-like revival of l’Epi d’Or and have eaten there regularly ever since. A good meal there can make up for a lot of bad music.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010


The timing could hardly be worse for French President Nicolas Sarkozy. Only days after his government announced plans to make the French tighten their belts and work two years longer before qualifying for retirement pensions, the French satirical weekly Canard Enchaîné revealed that Christian Blanc, Under-Secretary for the Paris metropolitan area, had been caught spending 12,000 euros (about $15,000 a year) of taxpayer money on cigars! That news has not amused feisty French unions, who called for a crippling national strike today (June 24) to protest the pension reform.
Sarkozy's embarrassment over his underling's cigar binge compounds his—and the nation's—consternation over the disastrous performance of the French soccer squad at the World Cup in South Africa. The diminutive French president is so disturbed, in fact, that he has called for an emergency meeting with his Prime Minister and Minister of Health and Sports today to investigate the causes of the French rout and propose ways to improve the national team's performance. At least President Obama, who has a lot of other things to worry about, will not have to lose precious time trying to manage a national soccer crisis: the U.S. team qualified for the second round yesterday by uspsetting Algeria 1-0.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010


Finally soccer fans in Paris got something to cheer about! The only problem is that the jubilant crowds that thronged the streets of the French capital yesterday were Portuguese immigrants rejoicing over their team's 7-0 trouncing of North Korea. (Take that Kim Jong-Il! Apparently it's easier to sink a boat than to score a goal.)
As for French fans, they were only slightly less humiliated than the North Koreans, after South Africa's 2-1 victory over the "bleus" eliminated the 1998 champions and 2006 runners-up from the competition. Not only did the French squad play lackluster soccer (one goal scored in three matches); they managed to cover themselves in ridicule with a scandale that started with some salty locker room epithets from striker Nicolas Anelka and ended with the entire team going on strike to protest Anelka's expulsion by trainer Raymond Domenech. Leave it to the French to reinforce their own national stereotype with a fingerpointing labor dispute in the full glare of the international spotlight. (For the whole pathetic story, related with humor and attitude by my son Julian in Vanity Fair, check this link:
Julian and I are thinking of handing out tricolor paper bags to put over theFrench fans' heads, thus reviving a practice from the bad old days when the New Orleans Saints were the laughingstock of the National Football League. Courage, les bleus! Those same Saints came back to win the superbowl—but it took them 43 years. Oh, and they never went on strike.

Friday, June 18, 2010


No more New Orleans gig lists for the summer, jazz fans—my wife Sylvaine and I have returned to our “other” home, in Saint Germain-en-Laye, France, where we will stay until mid-August dodging the New Orleans heat and gorging on French food.

We wasted no time on that front. Our first night back, Wednesday, June 16, we went to one of our favorite restaurants, the Brasserie du Théâtre, which specializes in traditional “bistro” food and shellfish. Our first taste of English Channel oysters brought ears to our eyes. Tears, in my case, because it made me think about the plight of our Gulf oysters in the wake of BP’s catastrophic oil spill; in Sylvaine’s case, they were tears of pure joy on rediscovering her “home style” oysters. They were outstanding. These oysters are brinier than the Louisiana version, fleshier, with a cold, deep-sea taste that you never get in the warm, brackish waters of the Gulf. They have gray-green rims and are less opaque than Louisiana oysters. They are also calibrated for size and classified by place of origin, like wine vintages—Cancal oysters, St. Vaast, Quiberon, etc. Also classified by type of oyster—fine de Claire, Spéciale, belon, papillon. Sylvaine prefers the papillons (the word in French means butterfly), smallish deep-sea oysters that have a nutlike, almost sweet flavor under their tart, iodate brininess. I like the Spéciales, bigger, somewhat fatter. They are served very cold on beds of shaved ice , which may account to some extent for the firmness of the flesh. Another big difference: the shells are clean, not mucky, and people here put them to their lips and savor the juice after the oyster has been eaten. No one would think of putting ketchup and Tabasco on their oysters here. (Nor would they dream of frying them in batter.) They just squeeze a little lemon juice on them, or vinegar with finely-chopped shallots. I also add a little black pepper. No saltines or soda crackers here; the oysters are accompanied by thin-sliced brown bread and fresh butter.

Sylvaine somewhat chauvinistically refuses to acknowledge that “her” oysters and Gulf oysters belong to the same biological species. I disagree, attributing the differences to environmental factors like water temperature and salinity. The final products, and the manner of eating them, are very different. But I like both kinds for their respective merits. And while enjoying my Spéciales No. 3, I have a little aftertaste of sadness and something almost like guilt because my fellow Louisianans are deprived of their oysters and the culture that goes with them.

After my half-dozen oysters ($20 worth!), I relished a main dish that probably few New Orleanians would be tempted to try: a steak tartar,—ground beef (filet, not hamburger meat) with a raw egg yellow, finely chopped onions, capers, Tabasco and Worscester sauce (yes, the French do use Tabasco, but not on their oysters). The tartar was accompanied by French fries as only the French (okay, maybe the Belgians) can make them.

The Brasserie itself was a welcome and familiar sight. The interior is 1930’s style deco, with white tile floors, a long wooden bar, framed photos of old French movie stars—like Jean Gabin, Louis Jouvet, and Fernandel—on the walls. Apart from the décor, a huge contrast with most New Orleans restaurants is the low decibel-level of the conversations. Though the place was packed, people here speak more softly and discreetly, and the acoustics are more sound-absorbant, so that I can actually have a conversation with Sylvaine without cocking my hand to my ear or raising my voice to make myself heard. Most New Orleans restaurants (think Galatoire’s, Clancy’s) are as noisy as the flight deck of an aircraft carrier, but no one seems to mind.

The Brasserie has an open terrace that looks out on the Chateau de Saint Germain, where Louis XIV was born. Next door is the church where James II of England is buried. Exiled in France after the English kicked him out during the Glorious Revolution, he lived the latter part of his life as Louis’ guest in the Chateau de Saint German. In fact, Louis turned the whole chateau over to James and his retenue, preferring to live at Versailles or the Chateau de Marly nearby. On warm evenings, you can dine on the terrace al fresco and contemplate all this history along with your oysters.

But these are not warm evenings: since our arrival, the temperatures have been in the low 60s or high 50s even though we are in the second half of June. The locals have complained of a rainy, cold spring and early summer, but Sylvaine and I welcomed the cool weather after the near 100-degree heat and tropical humidity we left behind in New Orleans. We are wearing sweaters these days and have the heat on at home. It will get warm eventually, perhaps even into the 90s. When that happens for any prolonged period in France, it’s a national emergency. Almost no one has air conditioning in their homes, and their bodies are not conditioned to sustained high temperatures. When France had two weeks of 95-degree weather in 2003, 15,000 people died!

We had great pleasure in rediscovering our favorite local café, the Café de l’Industrie, on the central market square. On days when there is no market (there are three per week), the tables are spread out over half the square, sheltered from the sun by maroon-colored parasols. A rival café on the other corner of the square puts gray parasols over its tables,; from a distance the scene looks almost like two rival armies lining up for battle, each flying its own colors. We were greeted by our favorite waiter, Franck, who acted as if he had seen us only yesterday instead of a year ago.

We were there at breakfast time, and ordered café crème (which is what the French actually café au lait) with fresh-baked croissants. No comparison with the doughy industrial croissants we get in New Orleans coffee houses: these are light and fluffy on the inside, browned and flaky on the outside, and not at all greasy.

After breakfast, since this was a market day, we did some open-air grocery shopping. The market consists of at least 50 covered stalls, selling everything from clothes and books to fish, meat, poultry, vegetables, fruits, cheese, milk and cream, olives and nuts, flowers. Most of the vendors keep up a steady chatter, talking to the customers, joking with one another, hawking their wares with rhythmic chants. Nothing is pre-packaged. You want cheese? Tell them how much you want and they’ll slice it right there and wrap it up in colored wax paper. Same with meat—beef, veal, lamb, pork, horse, rabbit, chicken, duck. All cut and prepared to order. Ditto the fish, gutted, cleaned and scaled before your eyes.

Sylvaine bought some veal, mushrooms, new potatoes, cheese and fresh cherries for dinner. The veal here is a light beige color, not red as one finds it in most American supermarkets. When Sylvaine told this to the butcher he scoffed. “Red veal? Ha! They’re no calves, they’re broutards.” He explained that French veal is made from calves that are still drinking their mothers’ milk. Once they start to eat grass—brouter in French—their flesh turns red and no longer has the same taste. When Sylvaine prepared dinner that night, veal with sautéed mushrooms, I had to admit that the aroma coming from the kitchen was different from when she cooks veal in New Orleans. It was delicious, of course, along with the tender new potatoes served with salted country butter, and topped off by three varieties of cheese with a crunchy baguette and fresh cherries. It made me glad to be back in France, where I have spent more than half my adult life. But, as I tell Sylvaine all the time, it is pointless to constantly compare New Orleans with France. In each culture, there are wonderful things that you don’t get in the other. I try to enjoy the moment, in the present tense, wherever I am. And even though I am indulging in shamefully hedonistic pleasures over here, I am missing the things I love about New Orleans.

One big disappointment since we got back was the pathetic performance of the French football (soccer) team against Mexico in the World Cup last night. The Mexicans beat them 2 – 0 and that score did not begin to reflect the lopsided quality of play.

The Mexicans dominated the French from the first minute. Now everyone here, wistfully remembering their heady 1998 World Cup victory, wants to guillotine coach, Raymond Domenech, on the Place de la Concorde. Our son Julian sent us an email from New York right after the match that read: “Les Francais puent!” (Literal translation; The French stink.) Let’s hope the Saints don’t plummet as dramatically from their Super Bowl heights.

Friday, June 4, 2010


Jason Berry wrote a nice review of our recent "Classic Jazz Trio" CD in the latest issue of New Orleans Magazine. He deftly intertwines the use of music and memory in the "Tremé" HBO series with our approach to celebrating the culture with two clarinets (me and Tom Fischer) and a guitar (John Rankin). I can't quibble with Jason's conclusion: "The Classic Jazz Trio is a gem. New Orleans-Style is a world of melody that makes people dance in a town where music is a continuing performance of memory."