Mark the Spring Equinox by destroying Le Nain Rouge (and eating baked French Toast)

Let New Orleans have its Mardi Gras!  Detroit has the Marche du Nain Rouge, a unique parade designed to force the Red Dwarf (Le Nain Rouge) from the city.

This isn’t necessarily a story about food, but I wanted to do something related to the Spring Equinox and I found the legend of Le Nain Rouge intriguing. Supposedly whenever Le Nain has been sighted, a great tragedy has happened in the city.

First sighted in 1701

Le Nain Rouge was first seen by Detroit’s founder, Antione de la Mothe Cadillac, in 1701. He was strolling just outside the walls of Fort Ponchartrain, site of the original settlement, when Le Nain crossed his path. Cadillac drove it off, but it cursed him as it retreated.

Cadillac’s life was never the same. He was indicted by the French government on charges of illegal trafficking, removed from power and imprisoned. Although he was eventually cleared, he never regained his fortune or land in Detroit.

A portent of disaster

Later, Le Nain was spotted before a disastrous clash between the British and Chief Pontiac’s tribe; 58 British soldiers were killed. People claim to have seen Le Nain Rouge in 1805, just before a fire destroyed much of the City of Detroit.

During the War of 1812, General William Hull surrendered Fort Detroit without firing a shot after he reported seeing a dwarf dancing nearby. He became the only American officer sentenced to death for military incompetence (he was reprieved by President James Madison).

More recently, Le Nain was spotted in 1967, just before a week of civil disturbances erupted in Detroit, and in 1976, just before one of the worst ice storms the city ever experienced.

How will you recognize Le Nain Rouge if you see him? He’s not a very attractive character. He’s supposed to be child-sized and wear brown clothing with red or black fur boots. He has blazing red eyes and rotten teeth.

Drive him out!

La Marche du Nain Rouge drives the red dwarf out of Detroit, preventing him from plaguing the city and its residents for another year. It’s held on the Sunday closest to the Spring Equinox, which is appropriate timing, since the Spring Equinox symbolizes rebirth and new beginnings in numerous cultures.

La Marche du Nain Rouge is a parade and street carnival, similar to Mardi Gras and other Carnival celebrations.

A local dresses up as Le Nain Rouge, with a mask to conceal his (or her) identity. Le Nain leads the parade, followed by 12 Detroiters called La Bande du Nains. The band consists of a man, woman and child from each of four continents: Africa, the Americas (North and South), Asia and Europe. They dress in 18th century costumes, like the Detroiters who first drove Le Nain from the city, and carry pots and pans, sticks and canes.

Le Nain and La Bande are followed by musicians, floats and individual marchers. Costumes run the gamut from supernatural creatures and historical and political figures to just wild and crazy.

Originally La Marche du Nain Rouge followed one of Detroit’s oldest streets south to the Detroit River, where Le Nain was thrown. More recently, the march has ended at a city park where an effigy of Le Nain is burned.

If you’re anywhere near Detroit next Sunday, come join the fun! The march starts at 1 p.m. in the parking lot of the Traffic Jam and Snug, Canfield and Second, and moves down Cass to Temple, ending in Cass Park.

A not-really-French recipe

What does all this have to do with food? Not much, as I’ve already admitted, but I thought this was a cool story. In looking for a recipe to conclude this column, I remembered a great recipe for baked French toast. OK, so that’s not really French–but it’s a wonderful dish! It comes from a bed & breakfast we once stayed in called the Music Box Inn in Whitehall, Michigan.

You can use low-fat milk instead of the half & half if you want to reduce the fat, and it will still taste good – just not as good! With the half & half, it’s very rich and extremely delicious.

Be sure to use real maple syrup, not any of that god-awful fake stuff, and note that you need to start preparing it the night before you plan to eat it.

(The photo with the recipe is by Baking Junkie, via Flickr Creative Commons.)