Monday, July 12, 2010

‘Let Them Eat Tastykake,’ Philadelphia Celebrates Bastille Day

The ominous castle-like Eastern State Penitentiary Historical Site in Philadelphia’s Fairmount neighborhood was transformed to the infamous 18th Century Parisian prison-fortress for the tongue-in-cheek reenactment of the storming of the Bastille. The 16th annual event—a promotion of the neighborhood restaurants, businesses and the Eastern State Penitentiary—was held July 10.

With the Eastern State Penitentiary in the foreground and the guillotine in the background, the crowd awaits the start of the reenactment. Above, Queen Marie Antoinett addresses her angry subjects.

It was a glorious day for a beheading. An early soaking rainstorm gradually gave way to a bright sunny sky at 5:30 p.m., when the reenactment began. Before and after the main event local restaurants had stands selling French-themed food, such as crepes and garlic sausage sandwiches. Plastic cups of the French lager, Kronenbourg 1664, were available for $3 apiece. The event, which had humble beginnings, has grown into a four-day celebration with local restaurants hosting special French dinners, brunches, a bar crawl and other activities.

The spokesperson for the people confronts the queen.

The crowd may not have been thirsty or hungry Saturday, unlike their counterparts in the 18th Century, but they were looking for the blood. Some brought water pistols as they crowded around the prison to confront Queen Marie Antoinette, played by Terry Berch McNally, owner of the London Grill. The spokesperson for the disgruntled people shared a stage across from the old prison with the guillotine, which by the way was the real deal with a 30-pound steel blade. He led the crowd in song, rhymes and chants.

At first the queen appeared confused, taking the angry mob for a crowd associated with the World Cup. She blew into a Vuvuzela … poorly. She mocked the spokesperson for the people. They traded quips, mixing French revolution rhetoric with modern day references—including Arizona's immigration law, LeBron James, BP, and the Philadelphia Phillies. The queen calls the army. They appear on top of the prison armed, not with muskets, but with more Vuvuzelas.

She showed total disregard for the people. When they begged for bread, she proclaimed, “Let them eat Tastykake,” the brand name of the line of snack cakes made by the Philadelphia-based Tasty Baking Company. Her army then threw thousands of snack cakes over the wall, the vast majority of which were Hostess Twinkies to shame of the local company.

The people and the queen’s army battle while the Twinkies fall into the crowd like soft, spongy missiles covered in plastic wrap. The prison doors open and the first prisoner carried out is former governor of Illinois Rod Blagojevich, who is immediately returned to the prison. Then the queen appears and is slowly marched through the crowd, “perp walk” style to the song “Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye,” to the guillotine.

The executioner was played by Fergus "Fergie" Carey, co-owner of the Belgian Café in the neighborhood and Monk’s Café in center city. Before the actual beheading, two watermelons were used to test the guillotine. It performed perfectly.

Preparing the guillotine to cut the watermelon.

Then it was time for the crowd to determine the queen’s fate. They wanted her executed but instead the organizers chose to give her “a fate worse than death.” They traded the queen to the Washington Redskins and presented her with a personalized jersey.

They never said what they received in the trade.

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