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Everything Changed With Her: Julia Child at 100

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Wednesday, Aug 8, 2012
Julia Child wielding a knife in the television studio, circa 1970
When Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, gustatory elegance meant canned cream of mushroom soup and TV dinners. Julia Child, a too tall, plain woman happily waving a knife, changed all that for the immeasurably better. Everything changed with her.
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Mastering the Art of French Cooking Boxed Set: Volumes 1 and 2

Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck

(Knopf Doubleday; US: Dec 2009)

“AND LET US NOT FORGET: JULIA CHILD. Everything started—everything changed—with her.”
—Anthony Bourdain, The Les Halles Cookbook


In October 1961, Knopf Publishing released a 732-page cookbook entitled Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  The authors, Louise Bertholle, Simone Beck, and Julia Child, were unknown writers. The book was expensive ($10 dollars!) and unwieldy, its recipes complex. The interested cook needed time, equipment, and courage. Publishers Alfred and Blanche Knopf were sure they’d never earn a dime.  his was an era of gustatory shame in America, a time of speedy meals comprised of processed foods. But a young editor named Judith Jones, herself an excellent cook who had lived in France, insisted there were American book buyers ready and willing to prepare dishes like oeufs à la Bourguignonne (eggs poached in red wine) and oie rôtie aux pruneaux (roast goose stuffed with prunes and foie gras).
  
Jones was right. What nobody at Knopf had banked on was the book’s American author, Julia Carolyn McWilliams Child, a 49-year-old, 6’ 2” force of nature. Born in Pasadena, California, Child was raised in a conservative, wealthy home where hired cooks prepared classic American foods: large roasts, potatoes, gelatin molds. She was expected to marry well, vote Republican, and attend ladies’ luncheons.


After a few dutiful years of this, Child volunteered for the war effort and was sent to Ceylon, India, to organize the Office of Secret Service. She was 34, virginal, and naïve. In Ceylon she met Paul Child, an artist, musician, photographer, and poet. It was Paul who tapped Julia’s latent intelligence.


After the couple married, Paul was posted to Paris. There Child’s love of food and eating rapidly blossomed into an all-consuming passion for cooking. While training at Le Cordon Bleu, Child met Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle. The women were working on a French cookbook aimed at American cooks, but needed somebody fluent both in English and in America’s cultural mores. Enter Julia.


The road to writing and publishing Mastering the Art of French Cooking is well documented in many fine works by and about Child. The story is but one example of Child’s quintessential Americanness, a set of qualities becoming as dusty and antiquated as her books. Both, at this centennial of Child’s birth, merit dusting off.


Let us begin with The Book. It’s easy to dismiss the long, complex recipes with their calls for pounds of butter and rivers of cream. Few of us are willing or able to eat that way any more. And because Child was catering to American shoppers, who lacked quaint markets loaded with shallots and lovely piles of endive, she concerned herself less with ingredient quality than with improving available foods. While she always suggested fresh vegetables and fruits, Mastering the Art of French Cookingincludes canned and frozen produce with advice on gussying them up.


Child accepted that most Americans were not going to make their own broth, and lists canned broth, clam juice, and bullion cubes as alternatives. She accepted American meat, poultry, and fowl unquestioningly, though she was fanatic about freshness. Writing in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, she advises readers to open packaged food just past the cash register and sniff deeply. If the food is off, pitch a fit: “The store manager, after all, wants satisfied customers and a small public scene can be useful.” 


Child was an ardent believer in all American food boards, commending “our wonderful USDA”. Bizarre as Child’s faith appears in modern context, she was an optimist, often defiantly so. Working in a pre-feminist era, when men ruled professional kitchens, Child simply barreled through. Her wish to bring serious French culinary technique to Americans ran smack against the era’s prevailing advertising, aimed at getting women out of the kitchen. But Child wasn’t looking to please housewives; she loathed the term, if not the women. She was looking for serious, attentive people—men and women—willing to spend the time and effort to make something good. “You have to do it and do it, until you get it right.”


The cook versed in classical French technique was like the classically trained dancer: both had the groundwork to move into other fields. In dance, one always begins at the barre, no matter your chosen discipline. In cookery, you learn the white sauces, the brown sauces, how to prepare a demi-glace, how to butcher. You may now take your skills, along with your sharp knives, into any cuisine.


Child was an incredible stickler for technique. Dismayed by commercially available bread, she set about replicating French loaves in her kitchen, a project she recounts in My Life In Paris as taking two years and 284 pounds of flour. She approached all cooking thus, working for hours in the kitchen, tweaking, making notes, failing, trying again. “Run ideas over your tongue,” she wrote. “I do think every cook should keep notes on his or her own experience. That is the way to develop not only confidence but also your own special way of doing things.” 


Of offering several takes on braised beef: “This was a difference with a purpose, since few cooks, once they have mastered a recipe, want to do it exactly the same way twice—that’s a pedestrian and boring way to cook. “


Child was dauntless, and wanted her readers to be, too. She felt anyone willing to make the effort could bone out a duck or bake le gâteau Deblieux (cake in a caramel cage). Women had yet to be liberated by Betty Friedan or Gloria Steinem. Yet here was this tall, plain woman with a fluting voice and open manner, happily waving a large knife, exhorting us to head into the kitchen and, merde alors,have fun. It didn’t matter if you were from Washington or Wichita. All you needed was to care. And that care raised cooking from dreary necessity to an art form.


Child brought more than better food to American tables. She restored a food culture that had been willingly discarded. We’d done our best to whitewash ethnic diversity and the cuisines that came with it, opting for a postwar vision of cleanliness, hygienic food practices, home freezers and the many products frozen to go into those freezers. The “efficient” housewife’s kitchen was a modern, odorless marvel of immaculate surfaces and speedy meals.


After all, why scrape and chop raw carrots when frozen ones of equal or better nutritional value were available, ready cleaned and cut into perfect batons? Why bother with a sauce when elegance could be achieved by pouring canned cream of mushroom soup over whatever poor food lay smothered beneath? Because you could, and in so doing, you could bring France to your table. For the beauty of life lay not in the spotless kitchen, but in the mess of it. Child made it okay, even desirable, to plunge your hands into a raw chicken. To get your fingertips smeared with butter. To get flour on the floor. Hell, to drop that damned chicken on the floury floor, dust it off, and serve it forth. After all, she asked, who was there to see?


Interestingly, it wasn’t Child’s insistence on technical perfection that made her famous. She demystified French cooking, but it was her personality that clinched the deal. When Boston’s WGBH began running her cooking shows, they were avalanched with letters. People adored Child. There was her appearance: nobody looked or sounded like Julia Child. Nobody else had the chutzpah to go on live television and flip a potato cake too soon, sending shredded spuds everywhere. Who else would unmold a tarte tatin (an apple dessert made in a cast iron pan; one is to flip out the bottom, which become the dessert’s top) only watch it crumble without panicking?  Child stuck the thing back together: “There. I think that actually makes a more interesting dessert.”


For a taste of Child on air, gamely fencing with an obnoxious David Letterman and faulty equipment, watch this. Notice Child’s gracious good manners and humor, even as Letterman spits out her steak tartare!





From Julia Child’s Kitchen, a work Child called her most personal book, is full of hysterically funny anecdotes amid the usual serious and seriously complicated food. Of a “named deleted” cook who irked her, she suggested the offending individual be fed, bit by bit, into a food processor. Writing about wild fennel used in preparing fish, she describes of her own attempts at foraging:


“Fennel grows also wild in America, but don’t go gathering it unless you really know what you are about because many members of the look-alike umbrellifers (the plant group fennel belongs to) are among the most poisonous known to man… these include water hemlock and poison hemlock… (which) produces an almost immediate total paralysis and death. Well, and here I had been gathering what appeared to be wild fennel or anise or caraway all these years until a botanist friend pointed out the danger. Anyway, the smoke from French fennel twigs is really more for drama than flavor, and you can forget this part of the recipe.”


Her disquisition on Chicken Marengo, served to Napoleon after he won the eponymous battle, goes into imaginative raptures envisioning the chef on the battlefield, hacking his chicken with a sabre, dressed in chef’s toque in apron. With this battlefield dish, drink “one of the greatest of the great white burgundies, Corton Charlemagne.” A quick net search revealed a cheap bottle of Corton Charlemagne begins at $86 American, going up from there.


This approachability, open manner, and humor won her more than accolades: Julia Child was loved. The combination of careful recipes and a uniquely winning personality sent Americans into their kitchens, and maybe even more importantly, into their markets, where they began demanding shallots and leeks and endives. They started buying the dubious-looking fish and asking where that meat came from. A newer generation of cooks, looking to Julia, grounded themselves in French classical techniques but started removing or reducing the cream and butter, allowing pure taste to lead a dish. But those cooks, and the people who patronized their restaurants, would never have happened without Julia. Julia also brought more wine to the American table, always listing the best (invariably very expensive) accompaniments to dishes without ever condescending.


Without Julia I would not be writing about food; you would not be reading this blog or the many others proliferating on the net. We would not be using “artisanal” to describe sausages or jams. Our bar for good food and drink would have remained just high enough for the prepackaged onion soup mix to shimmy under. We’d be drinking PBR without irony. Nobody would be arguing about soda machines.


You can read all the books by and about Julia Child. In fact, any serious cook should. But the best thing you can do to honor and thank this singular woman on her birthday is to cook one of her dishes. I suggest artichauts braisés, mirepoix. Even somebody with no counter space, one pot, and no dishwasher can handle this one. The recipe calls for four artichokes, outer leathery leaves ripped off, the stems trimmed. You can scoop out the chokes or leave them; I left them. Make a mirepoix: a quarter cup each carrots, onions, and celery, diced fine. Cook these in a stovetop pan that will comfortably fit your veggies. Start with the mirepoix, browning it gently in butter, olive oil, or a combination of the two. Add the artichokes, fitting them down into the vegetables to prop them upright. Pour over white wine or dry French vermouth. I’d never cooked with vermouth before, so I tried it. I was happy I did. Squeeze over a some lemon juice, add a bay leaf, and cover. Baste occasionally.


The recipe says your artichokes will be ready in 30-40 minutes. Mine took an hour, but it was worth the wait. Child suggests adding a little more butter at the end, but I did not. The vegetables and winey juices were more than ample, obviating the need for a dipping sauce. The vermouth coated the artichokes, making them silky. The mirepoix was so good alone that I ate the remainder for lunch the next day.


I will cook more from Julia’s books, for I don’t want to be what she called a “flimsy”, or non-serious cook. Besides, one of the great joys of cooking is one never reaches the end; there’s always something new to try. And even those of us who have mastered classical dance vocabulary return daily to the barre, lest the fundamentals be forgotten. And so, because of Julia, I renew my pledge to beurre blanc and bechamel.


Bon Appétit, Julia. Happy birthday. And thank you.


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