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PROVIDENCE — A photo revealing rows of garlic-broiled snails — escargot, a gastronomic delight in France — fills a large screen at Pot au Feu, the oldest French Bistro in America.
“We’re going to eat these in a few minutes,” says restaurant proprietor Robert Burke to a roomful of French language students from The Prout School in Wakefield.
The students, visiting Providence as part of a daylong immersion in the culture of “la République” that also found them surveying art at the Rhode Island School of Design Museum and participating in a French Mass at the cathedral, were nervous, but excited to try the Continental cuisine.
After taking a bite of the escargot all Devyne Doran could do was smile.
“I’m pleasantly surprised,” said the Prout junior, who along with her friends had imagined the French appetizer to be “definitely slimy.”
For more than 20 years, Pot au Feu has offered a similar educational luncheon to thousands of students who have come to taste authentic French cuisine as a complement to their classroom learning without having to get on a plane.
Along with encouraging the students to develop a taste for traditional French fare, Burke discussed with them the culinary history of the different regions of France, as well as the importance of learning a foreign language.
“If you move around the country of France, you are going to encounter a different cuisine,” Burke explained. “The French still largely believe that dining is a worthwhile endeavor. It’s about being able to sit down, and using that time to expand your mind with conversation, expand your heart by being with the people you care about, and your stomach — that is the message of French cuisine.”
This learning excursion brought about 35 juniors and seniors taking part in Prout’s French language program to the capital city for a full day of immersion in all things French. After the lecture and lunch at Pot au Feu, students attended a private French Mass at the Cathedral of Saints Peter and Paul, celebrated by Bishop Louis E. Gelineau. The day concluded with a tour of the French Art section at the RISD Museum.
Senior Chris Koretski, of Westerly, has studied French since kindergarten. With options to study other languages, including Spanish and Italian at Prout, Koretski felt the best decision was to continue to dedicate himself to French.
“I decided to stick with French because I believe that it is such a beautiful language,” he said. “I wanted to stick with something familiar when coming into a new school.”
Koretski added that it is important for students to take part in a French immersion day so that they can have the opportunity to appreciate many aspects of the language.
“I think it is important for us to see that there are ways that we can apply what we are learning on a day-to-day basis in the classroom into the real world,” he shared. “To do it locally is even better.”
During an intimate celebration of Mass with Bishop Gelineau, students gathered around the altar in the cathedral to pray “en français.”
The bishop, who speaks French fluently, shared how happy he was to celebrate Mass with students who “want to help keep the language alive.”
“I’m thrilled about this,” the bishop shared with the students. “It’s not so often I get to do this. I’m excited to celebrate Mass with you.”
The students shared that having Bishop Gelineau celebrate Mass for them was an amazing experience.
“To have Mass celebrated by a bishop is always a special event, but to have it done in French so well by our retired bishop at 84 years old was very special,” he said. “I know that I speak on behalf of the entire Prout community in thanking Bishop Gelineau for his wonderful gift to us.”
Joanne Welsh, head of the school’s French Department, said that the students were raving about the entire experience.
“I just wanted them to experience this,” said Welsh, whose upcoming student French trips will include Quebec and Montreal. “I try to teach them how important it is to be able to communicate with the world. I love being able to experience them seeing the world; that’s why I love to do these trips.”