Here’s a tip for 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 Bessieres, 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 that he ordered all the town’s people to gather their eggs and to prepare an omelette large enough to, literally, feed an army.
Though the people of Bessieres 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 feeding the poor on Easter. Those who did the cooking even formed their own society known as the Confrere.
Napoleon tried to conquer the world but failed. The Confrere, on the other hand, has – sort of. In 1984, three residents of Abbeville, Louisiana attended the annual omelette event in Bressiers 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 (i.e., this past weekend during which the weather was threatening Saturday) people gather at Magdaline Square where there are booths, vendors, music and general partying. On that Sunday afternoon, there is parade in which the local members of the Confrerie d’Abbeville all dressed as chefs, march around the square accompanied by the official Tabasco Dancing Girls drill team. After their march, they gather at their work area parallel to the square where the logs are lit beneath a specially made frying pan practically big enough to be seen from the moon. (On a really clear day, with a really good telescope.)
I once visited the festival and watched as a crowd gathered as the cooks assembled to crack open 5,000 eggs to be stirred into in the pre-greased pan. With the precision of ballerinas going through their steps, the chefs tossed in spices, cheese and even crawfish while fellow colleagues stirred. Back at the workstations other chefs sliced the bread to be served with the omelette.
(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 lovely quaintness of the town and the magnificent church choir.)
Back at the frying pan, observing the proceedings was a delegation from Bessieres and representatives from Granby, Quebec where an omelette event is also held. There are now eight ordained places on the omelette tour including villages in Belgium and Argentina.
There was also a certified omelette-making super star at the gathering, San Franciscan Howard Helmer, proclaimed by the Guiness listing of world records to be the “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 had been on TV with the late Regis Philbin 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 Magdeline square once more the Confrere had fed the hungry and the curious. It was a noble effort although one wonders how the world would be different, and chickens more rested, had Napoleon been allergic to eggs.
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