I’ve attended Bastille Days, one of Milwaukee’s oldest festivals, several times previously, yet each year I’m amazed by all of the questionably French things found there.
Giving it one last shot this year, Eric and I decided to scour East Town and ferret out all of the things that make Bastille Days the supposed “Parisian playground.”
For 28 years, the free four-day festival has been held annually in Cathedral Square, located in Milwaukee’s East Town district. As it turns out, Cathedral Square is an ideal spot for all of the festivities, considering the land was once owned by Milwaukee’s first mayor Solomon Juneau, who originally hailed from – wait for it – FRANCE.
I always admire East Town’s charming downtown location as it provides a unique setting for the various vendors and music stages, and the conspicuous 43-foot Eiffel Tower replica.
On Friday evening, all of Cathedral Square was brimming with people who were either trolling from music stage to music stage or from food vendor to food vendor. Eric and I merged with the crowd and made a quick lap around the festival grounds, scoping out all of the food and beverage stands.
Festival food pretty much runs the gamut from Qdoba burritos to roasted corn. (Of course it makes perfect sense that there would be burritos on hand at Bastille Days, because there’s nothing more French than beef, bean, cheese, and pico de gallo stuffed tortillas.) Among the more than 30 vendors situated throughout the festival grounds, there also were some local restaurants that offer, if not French food, their own specialties. The profusion of American fried foods, German schnitzel, Middle Eastern falafel, and Chinese egg rolls was slightly confusing; I swore I was attending a Parisian-themed event, not perusing a local food court.
Thankfully for those whom the term “culture” holds a primary focus, this year’s Bastille Days also featured a couple of vendors that offered some real French-influenced food. Cedarburg’s Cream & Crepe Café featured a variety of delectable dessert crepes and East Side’s very own Trocadero served up fried calamari, hot ham and cheese sandwiches, and a cone filled with French fries (if French fries really count). Additionally, Milwaukee’s Alliance Francaise dished up bona fide French fare, including beignets, a fancy French donut, as well as cheese plates and ham sandwiches provided by Larry’s Brown Deer Market.
I also saw an abundance of hardier Cajun dishes from indie restaurants such as Bayou and Crawdaddy’s. Considering Cajuns are decedents of France, I suppose jambalaya counts as French food. Still, that doesn’t mean there are any real correlations between fried alligator on a stick and fine French cuisine. Maybe if it was called “le gator”? Whatever, I’ll let it slide this time.
At any rate, Eric and I were starving, so we opted for the sandwich at Trocadero and an order of fries. As Eric and I stood patiently waiting for our food, I noticed a mime dressed in the standard bowl hat and white gloves with a painted face. He was crouched down and playing peek-a-boo with a toddler in a stroller nearby. I had read that Bastille Days features impromptu European street performers, roaming minstrels, and other interactive entertainment, but this was the first time I had actually seen one!
So far, so good.
As Eric and I devoured our semi-authentic French dinner, we heard a singer/songwriter performing on the Kilbourn Street Stage. As the man perched on a stool in the middle of the stage, he gently strummed his acoustic guitar. He played a set of three songs all sung completely in French, which was a refreshing alternative to the booming sounds of the cover band playing on the main stage. In traditional Bastille Days style, acts from across the musical spectrum – Zydeco, Cajun, Rock, Blues – and the country are interspersed with Milwaukee festival staples.
Just like the wide-ranging musical acts, Cathedral Square was also sprinkled with an eclectic assortment of vendors selling everything from homemade crafts to kitschy knickknacks and random collectibles. I was a bit turned off by the lack of interesting merchandise. There were wind chimes, Bob Marley paraphernalia, and many things you could probably get at a flee market, nursing home bingo tournament, or in a Happy Meal.
Next, Eric and I scouted for the beverage stations, which sell Miller products, French wines, and champagne served with fresh strawberries. At the Bastille Days Wine Bistro, Eric and I found an extensive list of wines that included a variety of blush, white, red and sparkling libations all from, you guessed it, FRANCE. Very impressive. We took a few minutes to browse the list and eventually settled on a glass of Gala Rouge Pinot Noir for me and Mouton Cadet Rouge Red Bordeaux for Eric.
Wine in hand, we made our way over to the Alliance Francaise Culture Tent, which we figured was bound to have something French. Here we were pleased to see a variety of merchandise from France, including art, apparel and one-of-a-kind souvenirs. Simple French lessons were also available to Bastille-goers several times each day so that folks could learn the basics in the language of love. A man from New Orleans, who was hanging out at the Alliance Tent, told us that people had been speaking Cajun and Creole to him all day. We also met a group of pirates who claimed to be French. Apparently, everyone has some sort of connection to France, or maybe they just like the culture.
Having been able to celebrate our favorite aspects of French culture – food, wine and music – we decided to head back home. Though it still seems a little hit or miss, Bastille Days is a charming street festival with many surprises. And while some attractions don’t really fit into the French theme, there’s certainly something for everyone, and, as I found out this year, something French, too!
From the miniature Eiffel Tower and the Creole-speaking street performers to the French food and wine, each of these French-influenced elements created the fascinating atmosphere of an international festival while still exuding the comfort and appeal of a local event. As it turns out, Bastille Days is a great celebration of both French culture and Milwaukee-style summer revelry all wrapped up into one location.
I guess I just had to look a little closer to realize this.
Bastille Days 2009
Cathedral Square Park
E Wells Street & N Jefferson Street
Milwaukee, WI 53202
Thursday, July 9 to Sunday, July 12, 2009
Admission is FREE