Taste of France for July 14 fete

By Cathy Free

Deseret News

You won't find any hot dogs or barbecued ribs at Catherine Thorpe's annual summer French potluck, and anyone with the gumption to show up with Jell-O salad or funeral potatoes risks being banned from the fete forever. By now, it's a rare associate of Thorpe's who doesn't know what is required on July 14:

A fresh salad nicoise, perhaps, or a caramelized onion tart and a lemon soufflé. The more adventurous might show up with a steaming pot of bouillabaisse or a platter of crepes made with Grand Marnier.

And of course, champagne is always welcome – both alcoholic and non-alcoholic — so that everyone can properly celebrate Bastille Day, the beloved holiday honoring the beginning of the French Revolution.

But Thorpe's annual bash has become much more than an excuse to sample gourmet cuisine made with the three French staples of cheese, cream and butter.

It's a way for French natives and French wannabes to hold on to traditions and savor a little bit of Paris in a pioneer town better known for fry sauce than foie gras.

"It keeps me from getting homesick," says Thorpe, a mother of five from Paris who is 60 plus but looks years younger, thanks to a lifetime of consuming more coq au vin than cheeseburgers.

"Speaking French and listening to French music is a way to retain my heritage and pass it along to somebody else," she says. "I have friends from France who have lived in the United States 20 years, and they no longer speak the language or carry on the traditions. They've lost their French, and to me, that's terribly sad. I do not want that to happen to me."

There is little danger of that, since for the past 18 years, Thorpe has run Salt Lake City's Vive la France School, where she teaches everything from conversational French to how to travel in France.

In her country-French living room filled with photos of France taken by her American husband, her students learn French history, listen to Edith Piaf and other French artists on the stereo and are taught correct pronunciations so that native Parisians won't race for the door, covering their ears.

On yearly treks to France, Thorpe expects her students to leave most of their English at home as she shows them hidden treasures off the beaten path taken by most tourists.

When I joined her for a Lunch of roast lamb with baby potatoes and carrots at the Paris Bistro, she had just returned from two weeks in Burgundy, touring wineries and castles and spending a few days with her mother, who lives outside Paris.

An only child, Thorpe grew up in an apartment near the Paris Opera, surrounded by beautiful Baroque buildings and open-air flower markets. She never dreamed that she would trade Paris for a high-desert American town, but romance had her packing her bags for Utah at age 25.

A Mormon convert, she married Salt Lake City photographer Don Thorpe and settled into a cozy colonial house near East High School to raise a family.

As soon as she stepped off the plane, "I was in demand to teach French and translate," she recalls, "so my husband encouraged me to open a school. I didn't think there would be enough interest, but I was wrong."

With dozens of former and current students joining her to sing the French national anthem on Bastille Day, "it's very heartwarming," says Thorpe. "They are learning the French traditions of enjoying life, relaxing, not worrying so much about making money."

Not to mention a few tips on throwing the perfect potluck. "Chips and salsa? No, nobody would dare bring that," says Thorpe with a laugh. "They know better." But potatoes Lyonnaise and fruit with fromage? "Of course," she says. "The more cheese and cream, the better."

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