J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Saturday, July 08, 2006

Nathaniel Tracy serves frogs for dinner

Samuel Breck was born in Boston in 1771. Later his family moved to Philadelphia, and after his death his memoirs were published there. That book contains some delightful anecdotes about the Revolution, no doubt a bit polished by repeated tellings.

Here are Breck's remarks on the reception of the French fleet in Boston after the king of France started to formally support the American independence movement. France had of course been the enemy for British colonists since the late 1600s. Patriots complained that the London ministry was becoming as tyrannical as "France or haughty Spain." As late as the fall of 1774, New England buzzed with rumors that the Crown would bring "the French" down from Québec to oppress them.

And then Silas Deane, Benjamin Franklin, and Pierre Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais forged an alliance between the new U.S. of A. and France. Suddenly the French were no longer enemies, but helpers. The anti-Catholic Pope Night holiday disappeared. Indeed, just after the war a Roman Catholic church with a French priest even opened in Boston on the corner of School Street and modern Washington Street (where the Irish Famine Memorial now, um, stands).

But old stereotypes die hard, as Breck recalled.

Every vulgar story told by John Bull about Frenchmen living on salad and frogs was implicitly believed by Brother Jonathan, even by men of education and the first standing in society. When, therefore, the first French squadron arrived in Boston, the whole town, most of whom had never seen a Frenchman, ran to the wharves to catch a peep at the gaunt, half-starved, soup-maigre crews. How much were my good townsmen astonished when they beheld plump, portly officers and strong, vigorous sailors!
This apparently refers to the arrival of French transports in Boston in May 1781. Those ships brought about 6,300 soldiers who would march north to the siege of Yorktown.

That same year, Newburyport privateer owner and merchant Nathaniel Tracy had bought a mansion in Cambridge that had been confiscated from the Loyalist John Vassall. (That mansion is now known as Longfellow House, a National Park Service site open for tours Wednesday through Sunday for the rest of the summer.) He decided to host the French naval officers and consul.
Mr. Nathaniel Tracy, who lived in a beautiful villa at Cambridge, made a great feast for the admiral and his officers. Everything was furnished that could be had in the country to ornament and give variety to the entertainment. My father was one of the guests, and told me often after that two large tureens of soup were placed at the ends of the table. The admiral sat on the right of Tracy, and Monsieur de l’Etombe on the left. L’Etombe was consul of France, resident at Boston. Tracy filled a plate with soup, which went to the admiral, and the next was handed to the consul. As soon as L’Etombe put his spoon into his plate he fished up a large frog, just as green and perfect as if he had hopped from the pond into the tureen. Not knowing at first what it was, he seized it by one of its hind legs, and, holding it up in view of the whole company, discovered that it was a full-grown frog. As soon as he had thoroughly inspected it, and made himself sure of the matter, he exclaimed, "Ah! mon Dieu! un grenouille!" then, turning to the gentleman next to him, gave him the frog. He received it, and passed it round the table. Thus the poor crapaud made the tour from hand to hand until it reached the admiral. The company, convulsed with laughter, examined the soup-plates as the servants brought them, and in each was to be found a frog. The uproar was universal. Meantime Tracy kept his ladle going, wondering what his outlandish guests meant by such extravagant. merriment. "What’s the matter?" asked he, and, raising his head, surveyed the frogs dangling by a leg in all directions. "Why don’t they eat them?" he exclaimed. "If they knew the confounded trouble I had to catch them in order to treat them to a dish of their own country, they would find that with me, at least, it was no joking matter." Thus was poor Tracy deceived by vulgar prejudice and common report. He…had caused all the swamps of Cambridge to be searched in order to furnish them with a generous supply of what be believed to be in France a standing national dish.

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