Now that I am afflicted with the world’s worst cold and not cooking anything beyond heating up canned soup and making weak honey tea (and feeling completely stir-crazy), I began thinking back to better times, which led me to recalling the enormous role that Julia Child played in my culinary development.
These days with the screening of Julie/Julia, everyone is reminiscing about Julia Child and their experiences with her in formation of their cooking lives. I thoroughly enjoyed the movie, and, like many others, wish that they would have just made a film of My Life in France with just Julia. Watching it though triggered strong memories, happy and fine memories of the rare good times I had being a child. Any most of those good memories revolve around food. And Julia was there.
JC & Co.
Coming home from school one day I found my older sister watching television, not her usual Soccer Made in Germany or The Monkeys, it was an odd looking show. Some woman was cooking dinner. I began watching with her, setting aside our vast differences and petty squabbles that occur between siblings spaced far apart in age. Silently we watched the black and white tv, only occasionally interrupting that iconic voice from the screen, saying, “wow, *we* could do *that*…” Mom would come home from work asking what on earth were we doing, and in time, soon Mom began to watch with us as well, if she didn’t have to work late. As a newly divorced parent, she, and then therefore we, all had to revise our responsibilities and often times my sister and had to make dinner. Some of those dinners were so awful (tarragon fish, remember that sis?). We learned a lot but we were struggling.
But after we began watching Julia Child & Co on PBS after school, things were different, what a revelation! You can mistakes in the kitchen and it is okay! Cooking a whole chicken is easy! Omlettes are simple, and good for dinner! You have no idea how reassuring that was for me, a child afraid to do anything wrong. Mom bought the companion cookbooks and we read them like novels. What do you serve the boss for dinner? Who is Rosie and why is her potato salad so great? What is a Buddah’s eye? How had we been cooking HB eggs wrong for so many years? Thanks to our family addiction to watching JC&Co our meals prepared without Mom improved drastically. We easily mastered lamb, rotisserie chicken, crepes suzette, and steak Dianne. Mom even bought a Cuisinart because Julia had one. It was terrifying to use, and to wash, but what speed! Grating Parmesan became my pet task.
Eventually our local PBS channel began running reruns of The French Chef, which we all adored. It was one of the few times my sister and I enjoyed spending time together during those days. We really began bonding over Julia’s shows with the common ground of cuisine. It was like having a favorite aunt or grandmother on television, guiding us along and always offering us the gift of the courage of our convictions. She gave me the courage to *have* convictions.
Mom is an exceptional cook and was a scientist, therefore our early kitchen training was also science-based. She used to make up little experiments for me in the kitchen, such as what would happen if I mixed lemon juice with baking soda, or having me take droplets of soup and examine them under my microscope, along with sugar and salt. I made dinner on my own when I was perhaps 8 (a story for another day) and began baking right after that. My sister cooked on a more grand scale: lemon meringue pies or eclairs were her after-school efforts, or, less-successfully, Indian pudding. But after having Julia in the kitchen with us, we began our journey to try new things and to cook old favorites with more skill and better results.
Mastering the Art of Fine Cooking
When I moved into my first apartment with my beau, my mom and sister gifted me with a huge, hefty Wüstoff chef’s knife and a copy of Joy of Cooking. Along the way I began asking for copies of family recipes and had my own subscription to Gourmet. My DB had been a chef before moving here and he loved taking me out to the best restaurants in the City. After our wonderfully romantic and sumptuous meals, he would challenge me to ask to speak with the chef and tour the kitchen. It was terrifying, and exhilarating; my heart was pounding and was only bolstered by my DB’s reassurances that they wouldn’t mind (that, and the wine we had consumed). I would screw up my courage and ask the waiter to relay my message. For the most part, the chefs didn’t mind; one even gave me some tips and invited me back anytime we dined there, so I did and it was wonderful. Then my DB he encouraged me to try to recreate those favorite restaurant dishes at home. Some were successful, some not so successful! There was that one incident where I forgot I had sprayed the oven with cleaning spray and days later planned Poulet a l’Orange, and drastically changed my technique when the kitchen filled with noxious smoke! By the way, Poulet a l’Orange on the Weber is a revelatory experience.
My first birthday with my DB, he surprised me with several pieces of Magnalite cookware and a boxed set of Mastering the Art of Fine Cooking, Volumes I and II. After I finished the requisite oooohs and aaaahs he suggested I pick out something to make, and, over our seven years together, challenged me to cook everything in the book. Well, not everything, I wouldn’t cook offal as I wasn’t raised eating “exotics” like kidney, sweetbreads or liver, except in pate. I did however have the most amazing sweetbreads at Domaine Chandon’s restaurant at one highly festive and sparkling wine soaked luncheon. DB’s friends became accustomed to having French sauces and tartes along with their grilled steak at our parties, and pate en croute for our picnics and camping. Through my nightly reading of MTAOFC my skills in the basic foundations of fine cooking were firmly grown, page by page.
Later, single again, I continued my expanding passion for cooking and began attempting to master various regional cuisine. Italian, Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Japanese and Greek, desk-bound in a poorly paid job I toured the world via my cooking experimentations. When the internet became accessible, it was not without some irony that I snuck time to read Julie Powell’s blog using my work computer. I kept saying to anyone listening, “Hey, I *did* that already”, but without her apallingly negative attitude about butter, recalling that my former DB would gladly return from Costco with boxes filled with pound chunks of butter on a weekly basis.
I wrote a lot during those years and a perusal of my journals are mainly about my angst or joy with my love life at the time, and cooking, lots of cooking, menu planning, or thinking of both. It reminded me of reading my journals from age 13. They were all about this cute boy or did that boy look at me, and then what we had for lunch. I guess I haven’t changed much! But throughout all of these notes were recipes scribbled down from tv, from Baking with Julia, to Cooking with Master Chefs and Julia and Jaques shows. I rabidly collected all of her books and read them cover to cover. She was my muse and my guide.
One year while in a market in Marin, I was in a great hurry and was racing through the produce department, scrabbling through vegetables, stuffing handfuls of beans willy-nilly into a bag; my beau at the time invited 8 people over for dinner, in 45 minutes!! A nice tall lady was standing nearby and must have overheard me saying, “green beans almondine, poached pears and sorbet to finish, stuff for salad, oh! Lemons!” as I raced around.
She smiled and said something like “My, you’re in a hurry tonight!”, and I replied, heedlessly stuffing beans, “Yes, Julia Child would not approve of the way I’m shopping today.”
She chuckled, and started helping me pick beans with more care, “Yes, my sister would look over every bean and pick out the best looking ones.”
I stopped, gobsmacked, mouth hanging open in an unseemly fashion, “Your….your *sister* is Julia Child?!”
She replied, “Yes” and smiled.
I think I bleated something completely silly like “Please tell your sister I love her and she’s helped me so much and I think of her all of the time and it’s so nice to meet YOU…”, gush, gush, gush like a malfunctioning toilet in the office loo.
She was really nice about it and I’m sure she heard this all of the time. This was the closest I would ever come to meeting Julia in person.
What I take away from all of this is that my interest in improving my cooking at home was sparked by Julia Child, and then her additional writings and shows fueled this interest to a raving passion. And, most importantly, that it is okay to have a passion and enthusiasm for food and wine, it is a worthy pursuit and one in which I will never stop working to improve. Julia herself never stopped learning new things, with a joie de vivre that I hope to emulate.
Thank you Julia!