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Le Weekend 2/17/23: An All-Black, All-Female Battalion in France During WW2 & How to Cut Cheese 🇫🇷

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February 17, 2023

Dear Frenchly Readers,

There’s a scene in The Whalebone Theatre, a debut bestselling novel by an English writer, named Joanna Quinn, when one of the main characters is in France working as an unofficial (unofficial, because she is a woman) undercover agent for the British in partnership with the French Resistance, when she notices a man drinking a glass of Calvados. Just a word or two before, I had wondered where she was in France. And then, with the flick of a smart writer’s pen, I knew: Aha, she’s in Normandy. (Calvados is a lovely brandy made from apples or pears; I love to make a cocktail with it in the fall with freshly pressed apple and lime juices blended together). I love it when an author has their finger so on the pulse of their story and also is so sensitively aware of where the reader is as she follows the breadcrumbs. The novel, to zoom out for a moment, is a sprawling epic about an English family, from their lives right after the First World War, to just after the Second; and it takes place in both Britain and France. Some of the parts in France were my favorite. I learned about the Resistance, about the Brits who took part there, fighting, those who survived and then adopted France as their country, and those who went back to England, forever changed. I also learned about the women who were British undercover agents and parachuted down into the woods and fields of France but were never “officially” in France, and so, when they went missing, could not be searched for.

After reading the book, my interest was piqued. So I looked up female spies in World War II and read that female spies were often couriers, wireless operators, weapons transporters, and that they helped people evacuate Nazi controlled towns and regions in France. Then, I read, with an entirely new perspective, these words from the Los Angeles Public Library about Julia Child, who went to the war as an American secret agent: “Perhaps the most famous female OSS employee was Julia McWilliams, who worked her way up from secretary to senior intelligence officer. During an overseas post in Ceylon, she met fellow agent Paul Child. The two eventually married, and Julia later gained international fame as a chef.” The LAPL recommends several books on the subject of female spies in WW2, here.

Atlas Obscura published this intriguing piece about an all-Black all-female battalion, called the “Six Triple Eight,” which was stationed in England and sorted American service members’ mail in World War Two. This one battalion of women sorted 7 million pieces of mail in three months, when they were told they needed to do it in six. They went on to Rouen, France and continued to sort mail, with the help of French civilians, and then, at the end of the war, they went to Paris to sort the last of  the mail that had been sent for U.S. service members. They came back to the U.S. having sorted over 17 million pieces of mail, and having kept families in contact through a long, grueling war. Unfortunately, the contribution of over 1 million Black men and women to the war effort was not recognized the way it should have been. When they came home from the war, they were not celebrated. Many said they were treated better in France and England than back home. A new Netflix movie starring Kerri Washington and Oprah Winfrey is being made about the 6888 Battalion as I write this.

From the department of interesting synchronicity in the world of art and ideas, Andrea Meyer got the chance to interview both the director and star of a new French film, A Radiant Girl, about the German occupation of France as told through the eyes of a nineteen-year-old Jewish girl (see Q&A/Review below). What’s interesting about this movie is that the girl’s innocence, and almost insouciance (a word that has its roots in which French word, my friends?), is so palpable. She has no clue how dangerous the situation really is. Like most teenagers, she’s wholly preoccupied with her world. Menace and evil lurk on the other side of the curtain, barely out of view, but just enough so that she can keep pretending.

Speaking of things hiding in plain sight, this is a very interesting article, also on Atlas Obscura, about a Cezanne painting underneath another Cezanne painting. Apparently he painted a self-portrait under his “Still Life With Bread and Eggs.” The second painting was discovered during a routine cleaning, which led to an x-ray, and then, by sheer fluke, the painting was turned just right so that a conservator saw the portrait underneath. Read that story, here.

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À cuisiner, regarder et lire ce weekend:

This week I had the pleasure of reading and editing Philip Ruskin’s piece about wonderful tea shops in Paris. Part walking tour, part cultural and history lesson, part tea-finding treasure hunt, this piece is the perfect guide for finding a great cup of tea on an afternoon when you you’ll have been walking a lot through Paris and will need a nice hot cuppa and to sit down for a little bit. (Read it in full, below.) But don’t just think you have to go to Paris! Philip decided he wanted to go a step further and he asked the tea shops if they might give away some teas to Frenchly readers? They said yes. So, here, below, are the conditions:

Philip says, ‘Time to cross your teas, and your fingers and try to win some cool tea prizes.”

Try to answer both questions (emailed to me) by this Sunday at midnight:

1.    Name the tea produced by a woman owned business mentioned in my Frenchly article this week?
2.    What tea are we told goes particularly well with cheese?

First Prize: The first person to answer both correctly will win a gift from Betjelman & Barton: A 125 Gram tea tin & a copy of the tea pocket cookbook, 121 Grammes de Bonheur et de Thé, 65 pages of recipes, pairings and more. (In French).

Second Prize: A Dammann Frères Tea Gift Pack

It’s dreary, wet, muddy March in Maine where I live even if it isn’t March. February, thanks to climate change, is the new March. And every year right about now, I make this Sephardic clementine cake. Almond flour, clementines, vanilla (I add it; they don’t), chocolate ganache. What could possibly go wrong? And how wonderfully will this cake go with a cup of tea? Which fair tea would you choose? (If you win…)

Keith Van Sickle wrote an informative piece for the France-bound traveler on the importance of the French Pharmacy—it’s the first line of medical care in France, before a doctor. And the pharmacist can help with a myriad of things—Philip Ruskin told us a story the other day on our writer’s Zoom call about a pharmacist he knows who diagnosed a person having a stroke inside the pharmacy. There’s a reason French pharmacists go to school for 6-9 years. I love the French pharmacy. I’m crazy about the soaps and little medicaments and shampoos you can get there.

Finally, I got to write a short piece on the manners and ethics of cutting cheese this week. I mention one of our readers and cookbook author, Francine Chough, whose book, Bricks in a Pebble Sauce, is a treasure trove of simple French recipes, hacks, tips, manners and etiquette. It is a go-to in our house. Cutting cheese, according to the French, isn’t as straightforward as an American might presume. Make sure you read my piece (below) before you make and serve your next cheese plate! And consider serving cheeses with tea, as one tea shop in Philip’s article suggests it’s better than wine!

Ok, enjoy your weekend!

À bientôt,

Caitlin.

(Photo Credit: 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion)

PS: If you like these Le Weekends, please forward them — Frenchly is growing and improving and we want as many people to know about our writers and interesting subjects as possible!

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If you have missed any of my Le Weekends or are new to this newsletter, or want to go find a TV show or a podcast or a singer or a movie or a recipe I had in one, they are (mostly, I am often behind, please have patience!) all here on Frenchly.us.

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Le Ciné by Andrea Meyer

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Tables for Two

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The Discreet Etiquette of Cutting French Cheese

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Bastardization or Genius?

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Travel Tips from Frenchly

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Drumroll Please…

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