A Really Big Omelette

Here’s a tip: The next time a general comes riding through your town with an army marching behind him, do not fix him an omelette. That, according to legend, is what the people of Bessières, France, learned when Napoleon Bonaparte showed up on his way to another conquest. The little general was hungry, so a local innkeeper served him a concoction in which he mixed several eggs together, threw in some spices and called it an omelette. Napoleon liked what he ate, so much so that he ordered all the townspeople to gather their eggs and to prepare an omelette large enough to, literally, feed an army.

Although the people of Bessières were apparently left eggless, there was some benefit from the experience. The idea of fixing omelettes in a large quantity became a local tradition, magnanimously modified to feed the poor on Easter.

Those who did the cooking even formed their own society, known as the Confrerie.
Napoleon tried to conquer the world but failed. The Confrerie, on the other hand, has — sort of. In 1984 three residents of Abbeville attended the annual omelette event in Bessières and were knighted as chevaliers. They were given official permission to bring the art of making a really big omelette to the new world with the American epicenter being Abbeville.

Now on the first full weekend of each November, people gather at Magdalen Square, where there are booths, vendors, music and general partying. On that Sunday afternoon there is a parade in which the local members of the Confrerie d’Abbeville, all dressed as chefs, march around the square accompanied by the official TABASCO sauce drill team. After their march, they gather at their work area, which is parallel to the square where the logs are lit beneath a specially made frying pan practically big enough to be seen from the moon.

As a crowd gathers to watch the spectacle, the chefs crack open 5,000 eggs. With the precision of ballerinas going through their steps, the chefs toss in spices, cheese and even crawfish while fellow colleagues stir.

This event was not the only creative moment in Abbeville that day. At a Mass in the nearby St. Mary Magdalen church, the local choir was so good that it could have been the house chorus for St. Patrick’s in New York or St. Peter’s in Rome. Even if you don’t like eggs, visit Abbeville for the quaintness of the town and the magnificent church choir.

Back at the frying pan, watching over the proceedings was a delegation from Bessières and representatives from Granby, Quebec, where an omelette event is also held. There are now eight ordained places on the omelette tour.

There was also a certified omelette-making superstar at the gathering: Howard Helmer, who holds the Guinness World Record of “world’s fastest omelette maker.” It is hard not to be in awe of a man who once cooked 427 omelettes in 30 minutes and who, on another occasion, flipped an omelette 30 times in 34 seconds. Why? He’s been on TV with Regis and with Oprah — and now he’s a star in Abbeville. That should be reason enough. Also, maybe he just likes omelettes.

So, apparently, did the hundreds of people who stood in line for a serving. As the sun began its slide west of Magdalen Square once more the Confrerie had fed the hungry and the curious. It was a noble effort, though one wonders how the world would be different, and chickens more rested, had Napoleon been allergic to eggs.

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