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Julia Child

July 3, 2011

Note: This is longer than my usual post, because I wanted to include excerpts from the book.

Prior to seeing Julie and Julia, my familiarity with Julia Child extended only so far as her name. While my mom was French-Canadian, the only French food made in our house were crèpes and tourtière. I hadn’t seen any of The French Chef; and at the time I didn’t understand the concept of reading cookbooks for pleasure.

When I saw the movie, though, I was intrigued, and I decided to read My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme. I’m very glad I did.

What immediately struck me was Julia’s pure and unabashed love of good food. The descriptions of the meals she ate and, in some cases, prepared, are themselves divinely mouth-watering. Take, for instance, her first meal upon arrival in France with her husband, Paul.

“Paul had decided to order sole meunière. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said, ‘Bon appétit!’

“I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection….

“I tasted my first real baguette – a crisp brown crust giving way to a slightly chewy, rather loosely textured pale-yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and yeast in the odor and taste. Yum!” (p. 18)

Or her delight in trying new foods. “My tastes were growing bolder, too. Take snails, for instance. I had never thought of eating a snail before, but, my, tender escargots bobbing in garlicky butter were one of my happiest discoveries! And truffles, which came in a can, and were so deliciously musky and redolent of the earth, quickly became an obsession.” (p. 40)

This pure, sensual delight is still something I am slowly learning for myself, since it is not a traditional part of American culture. As Julia discovered when trying to find a publisher for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the majority of Americans still prefer quick meals or whatever is convenient, or worry so much about the calories that they can’t enjoy what they’re eating. I found myself envying that in her and wanting to emulate it. Although I have to say I did wonder what her experience would have been like at a more modest height than 6’2”, when she wouldn’t have been able to eat quite so extravagantly.

Even at that height, and with the amount of work she did (sometimes cooking from 6:30 or 7 a.m. to about 11 p.m., with breaks only for meals), she had some troubles with the food, both type and amount. For instance, both she and Paul suffered from stomach pains.

“A French doctor diagnosed my persistent nausea as nothing more than good old crise de foie – a liver attack, also known as ‘an American stomach in Paris.’ Evidently, French cuisine was just too much for most American digestive systems. Looking back on the rich gorge of food and drink we’d been enjoying, I don’t find the diagnosis surprising. Lunch almost every day had consisted of something like sole meunière, ris de veau à la crème, and half a bottle of wine. Dinner might be escargots, rognons flambés, and another half-bottle of wine. Then there was a regular flow of aperitifs and cocktails and Cognacs. No wonder I felt ill! In a good restaurant, even a simple carrot-cream soup has had the carrots and onions fondues gently in butter for ten to fifteen minutes before being souped.” (p. 94)

They also struggled a bit with weight at times, which, considering what Julia was doing, made sense. I was amazed by her description, and amused by Paul’s suggestion on how to approach the problem.

“Over the summer and into the fall of 1955, I finished my chicken research and began madly fussing about with geese and duck. One weekend I overdid it a bit, when, in a fit of experimental zeal, I consumed most of two boned stuffed ducks (one hot and braised, one cold en croûte) in a sitting. I was a pig, frankly, and bilious for days, which served me right. I was also running a continual set of experiments on risotto (finding just the right water-to-rice ratio), how to make stocks in the pressure cooker (determining proper timing, testing poultry carcasses versus beef bones), and various desserts. This sort of research was a challenge to our ongoing Battle of the Belly….

“Our goal was to eat well, but sensibly, as the French did. This meant keeping our helpings small, eating a great variety of foods, and avoiding snacks. But the best diet tip of all was Paul’s fully patented Belly Control System: ‘Just don’t eat so damn much!’” (p. 197)

Yet none of this kept her from her work, perhaps only slowing her down a little. I was impressed by her dedication to learning how to cook, and her acknowledgement that “the more you learn the more you realize you don’t know” (p. 69). But what truly astounded and delighted me was her absolute passion in crafting recipes for her various cookbooks.

“I checked every recipe in the manuscript [for Mastering the Art of French Cooking] on the stove and on the page. I also investigated old wives’ tales that weren’t in the regular cookbooks but that many people were ‘certain’ were true. This took endless amounts of time.

“Working on soups, for instance, I made a soup a day chez Child. On the day for soupe aux choux, I consulted Simca’s recipe, as well as the established recipes of Motagne, Larousse, Ali-Bab, and Curnonsky. I read through them all, then made the soup three different ways – following two recipes exactly as written, and making one adaptation for the pressure cooker [which was popular in American households]. At dinner, my guinea pig, Paul, complimented the three soups aux choux, but I wasn’t satisfied. One of the secrets to make this dish work, I felt, was to make a vegetable-and-ham stock before the cabbage was put in; also, not to cook the cabbage too long, which gives it a sour taste. But should the cabbage be blanched? Should I use a different variety of cabbage? Would the pressure-cooked soup taste better if I used the infernal machine a shorter time?

“I had to iron out all these questions of how and why and for what reason; otherwise, we’d end up with just an ordinary recipe – which was not the point of the book. I felt we should strive to show our readers how to make everything top-notch, and explain, if possible, why things work one way but not another. There should be no compromise!” (p. 133)

And later, for Mastering the Art of French Cooking Volume II: “It would eventually take us two years and something like 284 pounds of flour to try out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find. We used two French textbooks on baking and tutored ourselves on the fine points of yeasts and flours.” (p. 254)

I was inspired by reading all these accounts of food and cooking, but perhaps most by realizing that this was passion that came late in life. Julia and Paul didn’t even move to France until she was 36; until then, she hadn’t realized how much she would enjoy cooking, or how significant it could be. But one of the chefs at Le Cordon Bleu helped fuel that passion and put it into context.

“Bugnard insisted that one pay attention, learn the correct technique, and that one enjoy one’s cooking – ‘Yes, Madame Scheeld, fun!’ he’d say. ‘Joy!’

“It was a remarkable lesson. No dish, not even the humbledscrambled egg, was too much trouble for him. ‘You never forget a beautiful thing that you had made,’ he said. ‘Even after you eat it, it stays with you – always.’” (p. 61)

That’s such a wonderful concept, isn’t it? To put that much into your food that it becomes something that you will remember forever. Too often, I find that people here regard cooking as a chore, not something to enjoy, just trying to get something on the table quickly. I wonder how much that would change if people considered it from that French perspective.

I was also excited to think that if Julia Child, who has become synonymous with cooking in our culture, could find her calling at that age, then perhaps it’s not completely crazy for me to be attempting the same thing. My focus is different than hers, but it has definite overlap. If I can help even a few people rediscover food the same love of food that she found, I will be content.

“A careful approach [to cooking] will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.

“Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.

“In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite – tourjours bon appétit!” (p. 302) 

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