Dear Edgar #2 The Duc de L’Omelette

French, it was the Lingua Franca of the early 19th century, the language of trade, of science , of advancement and enlightenment, much as it had been in the 18th century. It is also where we get the term Lingua Franca from in the first place.

Most everyone spoke at least a smattering of French, while professional men were required to be able to read and write it with reasonable fluency. This may also have been true of a great many ‘professional’ ladies, for French was the language of romance, love and you could charge an extra shilling or two for your charms if you could whisper sweet nothings like a Parisian born, or at least say Ola-La in a vaguely convincing way, which is a well established ‘fact’ thanks to all those scenes in hack westerns set in frontier brothels…

Those same hack westerns would led you to believe that only suspicious plantation owners and occasionally slight poncy individuals trying to appear clever, and working girls ever spoke any French, but actually it remains the third most widely spoken languages in North America. While in Poe’s time it was spoken far more widely. Thus when Dear Edgar’s ‘The Duc de L’Omelette’ was published in the Philadelphia Saturday Courier, the fact than it contained more than a mere smattering of the language would be less of a hindrance than we might otherwise assume.

This was also only a generation after the Louisiana purchase, much of the deep south and mid west up to and including parts of Canada had been French territory less than thirty years before. Though admittedly much of that territory had been French in name only and still rightfully occupied by indigenous peoples at the time.

So French in the 1830’s remained both widely read and the language of intellectualism. Thus putting a smattering for French in a short short, particularly if that smattering of french is where you put all the jokes, makes a story look smart and intellectual as humorous…

At least, I suspect, that is what Dear Edgar and the publisher of the Philadelphia Saturday Courier thought in 1832…

The Duc de L’Omelette is the tale of an aging French aristocratic, the original title being The Duke of Le’Omelette. As with Metzengerstein, it was first published without its authors name and the title was changed for later editions, Duc being the French for Duke. The main reason for the change of title was presumably because the original title was not pretentious enough.

The story begins with the Duc dying while dinning upon an Ortolan. After which he finds himself in a finely furnished apartment belonging to the devil. Cast as he is, straight down to hell. Now for a little context let us talk about what he was devouring when he died…

An Ortolan is a small migratory bird not much bigger than a sparrow. For centuries if they are unlucky they get caught crossing the Pyrenees on there way down to Africa for the winter by the local mountain folk in large nets. A practise which has led to a French delicacy from the people who brought you frogs legs and escargot The captured Ortolan’s are caged and kept in the dark. They react to the absence of light by gorging themselves on grain or millet until they are so fattened they could no longer fly if released. Not that they are released… Instead they are then drown in Armagnac Brandy, then roasted for eight minutes before being plucked. They are then served to be eaten whole by lowering the bird into the dinners mouth, feet first. The traditional dinner on such a fayre also wears a towel or napkin on their head while doing so. No one is entirely sure why the towel is required…

Also, spitting out the bones afterwards is permissible, but it is more proper to swallow them as well. Occasionally however there is some justice to the universe and a dinner on this delicacy will find themselves choking on a hard to swallow bone. This is of course terribly sad, because most of the dinners don’t…

This then was how the Duc died, choking on the bones of a small bird that had been force feed then drown in brandy for his culinary delight. He is surprised, all the same, when he finds himself in Lucifer’s palace contemplating the roaring fires of hell. Naturally his first thought is not of remorse for a life of sin, let alone remorse for eating the Ortolan that killed him. Instead he contemplates how he might best avoid his fate. Luckily for him it appears the devil has a taste for games of chance, specifically cards. Something the Duc has a fondness for himself.

The Duc is also something of a cheat, which is the kind of thing that can lead to damnation in the first place yet apparently Old Nick is not sharp eyed enough to spot he is being cheated.

Humour ensues…

Or rather it probably does if your were reading this story in 1832, had a good foundation in the French language, and didn’t need to use googles translate to figure out what was going on. I say this because most of the punchy lines are in French and translating them on the fly to make sense of it all somewhat robs the story of any impact. Like this bit below I have translated…

cet oiseau modeste que tu as deshabille de ses plumes, et que tu as servi sans papier!

this modest bird which you stripped of its feathers, and which you served without papers!

This story is by repute one of Dear Edgar’s better pieces of humorous endeavour. Which may well be true though I hope not as I personally struggled with it, mainly because of all those lavishly imparted lines in French. I can see why he has put them in there. I understand that the French language was the original Lingua Franca and the language of the intellectual in the early 1800’s. But I don’t read French, I don’t even have a schoolboys smattering, because I ditched the language as early as I could.

Dyslexia and foreign languages doesn’t mix well and there were better uses of my time at school I thought…

In the end the Duc beats the devil in a game of chance and pontificates with some arrogance upon doing so. Frankly though I didn’t care, which is the problem. Hoping between languages makes it the story awkward and drags my interest away. In the end it is neither not funny nor interesting, it is at best a mildly dull that is a tad fatuous… It’s main character is equally fatuous and that he gets away with cheating the devil at cards and thus saves himself from hell just doesn’t sit well as a story.

But besides all that when it comes down to it, while I am not a veterinarian by any means, I find it hard to sympathise with anyone who puts a towel on their head to eat a bird that’s been force feed and drown in brandy.

You can call me picky about this, but C’est La Vie…


Should your read it: Do you have a good grounding and comprehension in the French language, because if not. I would give it a miss.

Should you avoid it: Apart from the culinary habits of the french there is nothing offensive here and frankly it doesn’t go into any details, which is probably for the best, I mean who wants to read about drowning force fed birds in brandy…

Sorry about that.

Bluffers fact: The eating of Ortonlan’s, the ‘feast’ that killed the Duc, is illegal in the EU and as such in France. The french government enforce this ban with stiff fines, they never impose. It is illegal to buy a meal of traditionally prepared Ortonlan anywhere in France. It is however perfectly legal to buy a single glass red wine for and outrageous 500 Euro’s and to be give a complimentary aperitif that happens to come complete with a towel to wear on your head while you consume it.

50000 of these birds are captured each year in the Pyrenees…

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4 Responses to Dear Edgar #2 The Duc de L’Omelette

  1. Nimue Brown says:

    That was educational. And also bloody hell, why on earth would anyone want to put that in their face?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: Dear Edgar #2 The Duc de L’Omelette – Glyn Hnutu-healh: History, Alchemy, and Me

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