What is the origin of the song "There's a place in France/Where the naked ladies dance?" Are bay leaves poisonous?

February 23, 2007

Dear Cecil:

Everyone is familiar with the song that goes, "There's a place in France where the naked ladies dance." What's the origin of this mysterious song and its seemingly Egyptian melody?

Egyptian, you say? Not a chance. Middle Eastern at least? We can't rule it out, but the evidence is thin. Try midwestern - specifically, Chicago circa 1893. We're not sure who the composer was, but we do know the pivotal figure in drawing attention to this unforgettable tune (which, admit it, is running through your head right now). It wasn't some eunuch in a caliph's court, but rather a California impresario (and later New York congressman) named Sol Bloom.

Bloom was in charge of entertaining the rustics at the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition. His assignment: set up an amusement park outside the main fairgrounds as a counterpoint to the more highbrow offerings inside. Located on a tree-lined venue known as Midway Plaisance, what became known as the Midway was a huge success - the sideshow portion of state fairs and such has been called a midway ever since. Bloom contributed one of the biggest attractions himself, namely a traveling Algerian village he'd acquired the rights to that had been first shown at the Paris Exposition of 1889. The village was a hit mainly because it featured belly dancers, previously unknown in the U.S.

Wishing to see the novel art form at close hand, the Press Club of Chicago invited Bloom to bring some belly dancers over for a private showing. The young entrepreneur gladly accepted but on arriving at the club was dismayed to find the piano player at a loss for suitable music. Bloom later claimed he hummed the tune you're asking about, then picked it out on the piano. The melody caught on and, since Bloom didn't copyright it, was soon appropriated by Tin Pan Alley tunesmiths for their own compositions. Eventually it became the standard musical accompaniment for cartoon portrayals of snake charming and other exotica. (When sung with bawdy lyrics - there are several variants of uncertain provenance - it's often known as the "Hootchy-Kootchy Dance.")

Not buying Bloom's story? Here's a more plausible scenario: he swiped (or at least riffed on) a traditional melody played by the Algerians, and songwriters who later saw the show at the Midway did likewise. In his Book of World-Famous Music, James J. Fuld says the tune's opening five notes are identical to those of "Colin Prend Sa Hotte," which appears in a French songbook from 1719. According to Fuld, a 19th-century compendium of old tunes called Echos du Temps Passé lists "Colin Prend Sa Hotte" as a dancing song and says "the first phrase of the melody resembles almost note for note an Algerian or Arabic melody known as Kradoutja [that] has been popular in France since 1600." That can't be confirmed as no printed version of "Kradoutja" is known to exist. Whatever the facts, let's give an old BSer his due: Bloom introduced the tune to America, if only by paying the fare.

Dear Cecil:

Ever since I was a kid I've heard that it's okay to use a bay leaf as seasoning in cooking but if you eat the leaf itself it's poisonous. That never made sense to me. Why would moms put deadly poisons in their cooking that might be accidentally eaten? - Chuck Devlin, Toronto, Ohio

Shrewd thinking, Chuck. You're right - bay leaves aren't poisonous. Cooks remove them before serving because they don't get soft unless you cook the bejesus out of them, and no one wants a bay leaf shard stuck between their teeth. But there are still circumstances in which you should fret.

Once woven into wreaths signifying various honors, the fragrant leaves of the bay laurel tree, Laurus nobilis, have been used in cooking and medicine for thousands of years with few ill effects. Some people can get dermatitis from picking the leaves, and I heard about some Mexican specimens being infected with bacteria that could cause intestinal distress, but overall they're about as safe as any other common kitchen herb.

What could get you into trouble is that bay leaves look much like the leaves of their less edible relatives, such as the California bay laurel (Umbellularia californica), as well as unrelated and definitely inedible shrubs and trees such as the cherry laurel (Prunus laurocerasus). The aromatic leaves of the California bay laurel have been known to cause skin rashes and probably shouldn't be cooked with, though they sometimes are. The cherry laurel is downright poisonous - its leaves contain a deadly compound of glucose and prussic acid. In 1783 an English alchemist, James Price, deliberately drank a fatal mixture prepared from cherry laurel leaves after he'd been challenged by the Royal Society to prove he had transmuted mercury into silver and gold. You want to tempt fate with fresh herbs plucked from the forest, be my guest. Otherwise stick with the version that comes in a tin.

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