While the food world is populated with really wonderful known and very unknown behind the scenes professional people who whip up food in all its guises every day, there are not many who would be really considered beloved.
If you circulate in the food world, from chef to culinary student to gourmand diner, you would know the name of Julia Child. Her speaking voice is unique and immediately able to be recognized no matter where you would hear it. Now with writer/director Nora Ephron’s movie of Julie and Julia, there is tons of buzz on not only Julia Child as a persona celebrite, but the advent of her celebrity with the story of how she wrote Mastering the Art of French Cooking during the 1950s in France. A zillion more people, including those who would never brandish a whisk, will know about her too. There is this fabulous B&W photo of Julia sitting in a solitary pose all writers know well, in a quaint garden in southern France at the tiniest of tables with her typewriter. That photo tells it all.
In a TV world that reflects the illusion of perfection that most every ego yearns to reflect upon itself, Julia was, well, sensible. She looked like she could be your neighbor waving over the fence at you as she took out the trash. No big hocking diamond on her finger as she worked with a whole fish or deep plunging neckline to detract from folding the egg whites into the soufflé base. She brought a respectability to wanting to become a better home cook and enjoying the fruits of your labor with your friends. I think this might have been when the word gourmet came into the mainstream. Remember this was a time before going to culinary school was chic and a viable career, rather than something you did if you couldn’t succeed at anything else. Her professional generosity was sincere no matter where you inhabited the food chain.
There is renewed interest in her recipes: restaurants are offering Julia Child menus (you know you are in for a good meal), cooks are buying their first copy of Mastering the Art in droves, and I predict there will be vats of Coq au Vin and Boeuf Bourgignon bubbling away. Probably most of the recipes in existence for these two recipes are knockoffs of Julia’s original perennial recipes based on a combination of her Le Cordon Bleu training and Simone Beck’s knowledgeable authentic style. While these dishes are both considered old-fashioned French homestyle cooking, in America they became dinner party fare. While Julia is the best known author of Mastering, her co-author collegues, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, were both well known published food writers and cooking teachers in France by the time they met Julia. In later years, Americans would journey to France for the adventure of their cooking classes. Simca’s were held in her home in Provence.
When her legendary TV show aired in 1962, I was 12 years old, so I wasn’t around to watch TV during the day. The White House chef was Rene Verdon, who I heard of since he caused a sensation when Jackie Kennedy brought haute cuisine back to diplomatic America. He later wrote French Cooking for the American Table in the wave of interest sparked by Julia’s plowing the field of cooking for home cooks.
The 60s and 70s were the hallmark of this complex stylized cuisine classique in juxtaposition to the abandonment of hippie down home vegetarianism and sprouting fast food chains. French cooking is notoriously disciplined and the techniques were just about set in stone until nouvealle cuisine. Nowhere globally did the French inhabit that their techniques did not become part of the local cuisine, not only in the West such as in regional New Orleans cooking, but even in Asia with countries like Vietnam, where locals learned to cook for the occupying diplomats. The Japanese trained in France so they could have their own Poilane country bread shops. “Anyone can cook in the French manner anywhere,” wrote Mesdames Beck, Bertholle, and Child, and the adorable animated movie Ratatouille picked up this sentiment inspiring a rat in a French restaurant to master the art.
My first introduction to Julia was on my 18th birthday when my Aunt Joan gave me my first cookbook, the
newly published The French Chef Cookbook. The book was divided into 119 chapters, one for each show. I still have the copy and you could say Aunt Joan started me on my food writing career. The book was easier to read than Mastering and less intimidating. The five French chocolate cakes were a clear contradiction to our towering fluffy Devil’s Food layer cakes. When Alice Medrich opened Cocolat in Berkeley, she put Julia-style French pastry shop dense chocolate cakes into the American culinary linga. We made those inch-high cakes finished with the poured-on chocolate glaze, like Reine de Saba, like mad.
The first recipe I made was Potato Leek Soup, from Volume 1 of Mastering The Art, which I call the workhorse of the French kitchen, and it is still the same recipe I use today since it is just simply perfect. The original adapted recipe is in the first NYM Slow Cooker book with a bunch of my variations on the efficient flavor alchemy (like Pea and Watercress). There is a luscious Fennel Potato Leek Soup (page 32) in NYMSC for Two. Once you know the base proportions, you can add any vegetable, especially spinach or cauliflower, with spectacular results. Those were the days of cooking special for dinner parties and searching out, piece by precious piece, culinary equipment for my kitchen as my skill grew. It can take years to equip your kitchen with your special blend of tools and cook pots. I built my pots and pan collection by giving myself a new piece every year for Christmas.
I carefully constructed Coquille St. Jacques sprinkled with really expensive Gruyere Swiss cheese in individual gratin dishes, a dish that really intrigued me as the essence of French restaurant fare. I made the homey version of French Onion Soup with just water and wine, since in my early days of cooking a can of beef broth was outright scary to a vegetarian, letting it set in the refrigerator overnight to strengthen the flavors. Letting those onions cook on low for hours was absolutely bizarre. What other vegetable can take such abuse and turn out so unctuous? Many of the recipes from Mastering could easily take all day to concoct.
My most memorable Julia Child recipe was one for a fresh berry tart. The bakery-style one with the thin layer of custard underneath the fruit made in a removable bottom fluted pan. I was living in a rural mountain cottage that overlooked the Pacific Ocean. It was constructed by an architect who built it to make money to move to France because he didn’t like the politics in the US in the 50s. It was in the shape of a hexagon with a flat roof like a butterfly. The kitchen was a cubby in one of the angles, two steps long and one step wide with barely 1 ½ feet of work counter. It goes to show you don’t have to have a big super outfitted kitchen to be a good cook. Look at photos of Julia in her kitchen in Paris; it looks similar to my little kitchen with its 1940s hinged oven door without a thermostat, just low, medium and high. I had a thin shelf over the stove with six cookbooks; they included Mastering Volume 1 & 2 hardbacks.
It was my first pastry crust and it must have taken over 2 hours to make, roll out, and God forbid, prebake. I remember timidly stirring the pastry cream, not knowing what I was doing, dreading every lump. I came to appreciate the whisk as an essential tool at that point, although I made it with a wooden spoon that first time. Then carefully arranging all the raspberries, a real luxury fruit at the time, one berry at a time. Then currant jelly was melted and spooned over to bind the whole thing; I didn’t own a pastry brush. I was exhilarated and exhausted by the whole venture and proudly carried my perfectly constructed 9-inch tart to dinner at a friends’. I overheard the wife of my friend saying in the kitchen to her husband, “What type of person brings a dessert like this to dinner with four adults and a bunch of kids to feed,” noting that it was way to small to adequately serve the sweet-crazy group. I was silently crushed. Each person got barely a sliver of that delicious labor lost.
Since Julia was around for so long and such a common fixture on the food scene, as a home cook I lost and found her many times. She was sort of the base rock of my mental repertoire. Often pondering a recipe, I will find myself muttering, what would Julia do, then go look up one of her recipes for consult. Once I heard of a vegetable casserole she made for a large gathering and I wanted to make it for catering in the 1980s. I wrote her in Cambridge and she ever so graciously responded by writing me back on a piece of notepad imprinted with her name saying she couldn’t remember the dish.
A friend of mine worked as busgirl at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill in Berkeley in the early 80s Jeremiah Tower days. In between instructions for real Savoie mountain Raclette with steamed potatoes, pickled onions, and cornichons Jeremiah-style, she would tell stories about when Julia was in town (her sister Dorothy lives in Marin County and she was active as founder of the American Institute of Wine and Food (AIWF) in San Francisco), she would show up for dinner at 10ish pm, at the close of the dinner shift. The chefs would stay late, often until the wee hours, cooking for Julia and Jeremiah.
In my opinion her best work was what she considered her magnus opus, The Way To Cook, which came out in 1989. If you own one Julia Child book or plan to give a Julia book gift, this one is it. Her marinade for lamb anything, from BBQ chops to roast leg, has made my mother famous (see Julia Child’s Mustard Marinade for Lamb in separate blog post). It is always a requested recipe and the recipient becomes famous too. My mom gives Julia full credit. Frankly just about any Julia recipe can make even the most timid or novice cook famous and totally French in spirit. It is just like when a guru says, “Follow me step by step and you will become just like me.”
Here are two recipes from my Not Your Mother’s series, one from Julia, which is adapted for the slow cooker. The other is from Simca and is made in a conventional oven.
Recipe and text copyright Beth Hensperger 2015.
Please enjoy the recipes and make them your own. If you copy the recipe and text for internet use, please include my byline and link to my site.