Let’s admit it. Most of us have used or have heard the word “frog” as a derogatory term to refer to the French. But why? We don’t really know the origin of the use of the term in that context, but we do know that it dates back to the colonial period or even earlier. Britain and France had been archenemies at least since the Battle of Hastings in 1066, when the Norman victory resulted in England being ruled by French-speaking kings for more than three centuries.
The English, who were the predominant immigrants to America, harbored the same prejudices, stereotypes and hatred of the French, considering them the meanest and most abominable people on earth. They believed that they were “dwarfs, pale, ugly specimens who lived exclusively on frogs and snails—and a hundred other such stupidities.”
Moreover, the French had been the enemy in all the previous colonial wars, particularly the Seven Years War, known in America as the French and Indian War. Many residents had fought in that war and harbored bitter memories. Few Americans had ever seen a Frenchman except at the end of a musket and they had no inclination to dispel their prejudices. Yet, when the French began to arrive in America as its allies, there was great curiosity to see just what these “monsters” looked like.
When Admiral d’Estaing’s fleet arrived in Boston to refit after being severely damaged in a hurricane in August 1778, many Bostonians went to the wharves to get a glimpse at the gaunt, half starved, disfigured soldiers and sailors. They were quite surprised and couldn’t believe their eyes to see plump, portly officers and strong, vigorous warriors.
Some young soldiers were observed hunting frogs at Frog Pond (aka Quincy Lake and, later, Lake Cochituate) in Boston Common, one afternoon, as boys are wont to do to pass the time. The observers, convinced that the French—despite their appearance—were frog eaters, concluded that the soldiers were hunting for their supper.
Mr. Nathaniel Tracy, a wealthy Boston merchant and an agent for the French government, decided to invite Admiral d’Estaing and his officers to a grand feast at his villa which became a resort for the foreigners whom the Bostonians regarded with great curiosity. They found it incredible that people who were supposed to subsist mainly on frogs could be so plump.
Mr. Tracy furnished the house with fine ornaments and a variety of entertainment. He spared no effort to collect large frogs from the ponds and marshes of Cambridge to serve his guests with a generous supply of what he believed to be their national delicacy.
The banquet began with two large tureens of soup placed at the ends of the table. The Admiral sat on Mr. Tracy’s right and Philippe André Joseph de Létombe, the consul of France at Boston, sat on his left. Samuel Breck’s father was a guest at the banquet and frequently recounted the story.
Tracy filled a plate of soup and passed it to the Admiral. He passed the second plate to Mr. Létombe, the consul. Mr. Létombe dipped his spoon into the plate and fished up a large green frog. He did not quite know what it was at first. He then picked it up by one of its hind legs, discovered it was a full-grown frog and held it up in full view of the whole company. After inspecting it thoroughly and ascertaining himself what it was, he exclaimed: “Ah! Mon Dieu! Une grenouille!” (Oh, my God, a frog!). He then passed it to the officer to his left who received it and passed it around the table. By the time the frog reached the admiral, the entire company was overcome with laughter. Everyone examined their plates as the servants brought them and each one had a frog in it.
Mr. Tracy kept ladling, wondering why his guests were enjoying such extravagant merriment. “What’s the matter?” he asked. Raising his head, he observed frogs dangling by a leg in every direction. “Why don’t they eat them?” he exclaimed. “If they knew the confounded trouble I had to catch them in order to treat them to a dish of their own country, they would find that with me, at least, it was no joking matter.” There is no further account of what happened to the frogs or what delicacies comprised the rest of the feast.
The story remained virtually unknown until the publication of Samuel Breck’s Recollections in 1877. Newspapers across the country published book reviews or reprinted the story with occasional modifications.
Mr. Nathaniel Tracy’s villa was identified as what is now known as the Longfellow House (105 Brattle St. in Cambridge). He apparently acquired the house in 1781. He may have lived there as early as 1778, but Samuel Breck only states that the dinner was held at his villa in Cambridge. If one assumes that this was the location of Mr. Tracy’s famous dinner and he didn’t reside at the house prior to 1781, the guest list needs to be “corrected.” The guest of honor is no longer Admiral d’Estaing, as Samuel Breck specifies, but the Compte de Grasse who arrives in Boston in May 1781 with a fleet of transports.
Jean-François-Louis de Clermont-Crèvecoeur, “Journal of the War in America During the Years 1780, 1781, 1782, 1783,” The American Campaigns of Rochambeau’s Army, trans. ed. Howard C. Rice and Anne S. K. Brown (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1972), 1:17.
Samuel Breck, Recollections of Samuel Breck, with passages from his note-books. (1771–1862), ed. Horace Elisha Scudder (Philadelphia: Porter & Coates, 1877), 25-27. Louis Antoine de Bougainville was probably one of the invitees but couldn’t attend the dinner because he was confined because of a wound. He lost his arm about the time of the hurricane when the British ship Isisattacked his ship of the line Cesar.
Horace E. Scudder, “An Old Gentleman’s Recollections,” Harper’s Magazine (May 1877). For newspaper retellings, see New York Tribune, April 14, 1877, 4; “Frog Soup,” Patriot(Harrisburg, PA), April 14, 1877, 3; Daily Arkansas Gazette, (Little Rock, AR), April 25, 1877, 6; “A Boston Way of Cooking Frogs for Frenchmen,” Daily Evening Bulletin(San Francisco, CA), April 27, 1877, 1; Crawford County Bulletin(Denison, IA), May 17, 1877, 2; Juneau County Argus (New Lisbon, WI), May 17, 1877, 4.