Whenever I need to pretend that I live in a vast, romantic, sophisticated and important city -- instead of dear, battered little old New Orleans which is, don't get me wrong, a wonderful place in most respects -- I head up to the swank French 75 bar at Arnaud's on Bienville Street. I find so much to love about this place: the warm lighting, the hex tile floors, the polished woods and big swinging doors with etched glass panels, the starched livery on the barkeeps, career professionals all. And every table has an ashtray. Picture Harry's New York at Sank Roo Doe Noo in Paris. That's two vast and important cities in one mention. See where I'm going?
Depending on the day and the hour, French 75 can be packed and rowdy, or quiet and cozy. Last night, a Monday, it was quiet when I drifted in to meet my friend Sally, and her friends in from Atlanta, Joyce and John. How demure and beautiful these women appeared roached up together on a Charles X settee covered with animal skins as twilight's last golden glow poured through the windows facing Bienville Street! I pulled up a chair, and so began a most convivial hour before going for sandwiches at Cochon's butcher shop.
Alas, I gave up the drink many years ago and can no longer indulge in the signature cocktail of the place -- the potent "French 75," made here with champagne, cognac, a dash of Cointreau sometimes, and served in a flute. Another recipe calls for champagne mixed with gin. Either way, I can still remember the sparkling audacity of this concoction and more vaguely, its effects.
The bar and the drink were named for the legendary French 75MM field gun of the First World War. It's quite a story. During the late1890s, French engineers labored in secret in their state-run arsenals to develop an advanced recoil system that virtually eliminated any "kick" -- from the gun, of course, not the cocktail. Thus, there was no need to re-position and re-aim after each round, permitting an extraordinarily rapid rate of fire. The gun's powers were kept secret for more than a decade until the very outbreak of war with Germany. In 1914, the 75s were unleashed in the pivotal Battle of the Marne to rain torrents of shrapnel on the advancing Hun, stopping them before they reached Paris and conquered France. Ah, sweet victory, drink up mes amis!
The 75 was also used by British and American forces, including our city's own Washington Artillery who brought a few pieces home after the war. I've heard there's an antique 75 somewhere in the Jackson Barracks at the butt end of St. Claude Avenue. Hopefully it's still working and pointing downriver should we ever need to defend Orleans Parish from St. Bernard Parish.
Now for the fun part. Here are a few clips of the French 75MM in heat. You'll love the slow-motion horses and caissons around .45 seconds, and the amazing rapid-fire sequence that follows. Boom, boom, boom.