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Attention: Tomorrow Is le Jour de Broccoli

January 30, 2002|CHARLES PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

In their first giddy optimism, the leaders of the French Revolution figured they would just sweep away all the old traditions and substitute bright, shiny new ones. There was a certain goofy, naive charm to this idea--until it hardened into the fanaticism of the Terror, anyway.

They decided that the day would be neatly divided into 10 hours, each made up of 100 minutes 100 seconds long. From 1793 to 1806, the official calendar in all French-controlled territories began at the fall equinox and consisted of 12 freshly named months of three 10-day weeks, plus five holidays at the end of the year to use up the leftover days. (This "new" calendar was actually one of the oldest. The Egyptians had used the same basic plan thousands of years earlier.)

To replace the saints' days of the Catholic Church, the revolutionaries commissioned one of their number, a poet named Fabre d'Eglantine, to choose an official revolutionary name for every day of the year. About a third of the ones he came up with were food-related.

For example, he named the 28th day of Frimaire (Dec. 18) truffle day, Pluviose 12 (Jan. 31) became broccoli day and Ventose 25 (March 15) was dedicated to tuna. For some reason, all the names were for raw ingredients except Thermidor 2 (July 20), bouillon day. (Incidentally, there was no lobster day in Thermidor or any other month.)

Some months were relatively barren; Nivose (December-January) gave the cook nothing to work with but rabbit and salt. But one four-day stretch, Vendemaire 25-28 (Oct. 16-19), was practically a recipe in itself--beef, eggplant, red pepper and tomato--particularly if you could throw in some 3rd of Messidor (June 21): onions.

Obviously, this wacky system never caught on. In fact, there's serious doubt that even back then anybody but Fabre d'Eglantine could have told you offhand that Prairial 11 (May 30) was strawberry day.

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