September 2009

Charlotte Freeman


Charlotte and Julia

On August 31, 2009, forty-eight years after its original publication, Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking will debut as the number one bestseller on the New York Times list. This is, of course, thanks to the Nora Ephron movie Julie and Julia (a movie I confess I have not seen due to a severe allergy to both Nora Ephron and Meryl Streep). However, some moviegoers seem to have missed the point entirely. The New York Times article claims that readers are horrified and quotes a woman from Florida, who when faced with the prospect of sautéing beef in a little bacon fat, panicked and bastardized the recipe into something she called "beef fauxguignon."

"I know why all of the greatest generation has died of heart attacks," she said. "I actually did a can of cream of mushroom soup, and a can of French onion soup, and a can of red wine -- it was the same can -- I filled it with the bottle that I had been drinking the night before."

You have got to be kidding me. Really? Is this what we've come to as a nation -- we're so afraid of a little pork fat that someone would seriously think that canned soup is a healthier alternative? If the world was mine to rule, I'd sentence this woman to cook her way through the whole book so that, like Julie Powell, she'd learn something not only about food and cooking, but about herself.

But alas, the world is not mine to rule. The public has spent the past fifty years being told by the food industry that cooking is tedious, and complicated, and takes too long, and that to cook with good wholesome ingredients will cause you to "die of a heart attack." This is a Big Lie, and unless you have some genetic predisposition to high cholesterol, eating real food that you cook yourself, around a table with people you love, and accompanied by a nice glass of wine -- well, far from killing you, it will most likely cause you to live as long and happy a life as Julia herself did (having a loving marriage like hers probably doesn't hurt either).

I am old enough to be a Julia Child lifer -- I was weaned on The French Chef on PBS as a child (it was my late brother's favorite show as a child. We teased him he could make a perfect bouche de noël at five); made my first soufflé (for my Girl Scout cooking badge) from Mastering, and in high school, cooked along as my 21-year-old stepmother worked her way through Julia Child and Company. I was also an early fan of Julie Powell's blog, which inspired me to snap up an original copy of Mastering at my local used book store (inscribed Dottie Gorman, 1965 in the front cover). While I loved the blog and often found it hilarious, I've been a little annoyed by the chorus of voices claiming that cooking from Mastering is so difficult, or that learning the techniques that Julia championed is some heroic task. Julia was not only a classically-trained master of French cuisine, but she was one of the most extraordinary teachers ever. Julia spent a career, and a lifetime trying to convince all of us "servantless American cook[s]" that "the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat" is a pleasure that should be pursued with attention and joy.

So in honor of Julia's debut on the bestseller list, I thought I'd look at some of her master recipes as they appear across her career. While Mastering was her masterpiece, Julia was no dinosaur. She produced 17 cookbooks, at least three of them in collaboration with other chefs, and so I was curious to see what changed across the decades. I looked at what was in my own house: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), The Way to Cook (1989), Julia and Jacques, Cooking at Home (1999), and Julia's Kitchen Wisdom (2009). Unfortunately, those copies of Julia Child and Company from which my stepmother Susan and I learned to cook are long gone, and my local library didn't have them either, so we have sort of a gap between the French Chef days and the Grande Dame days.

I started with soup, in part because I find canned (or boxed) soup sort of horrifying. Who knows what's really in there? Do you really want soup from a factory? Soup is so easy, a point Julia makes in Mastering, "… a good homemade soup in these days of the can opener is almost a unique and always a satisfying experience." Her potage parmentier is a miracle of simplicity, and remains nearly untouched throughout the several books. What's to change? A pound of leeks, a pound of potatoes, two quarts of water, a little salt. Chop, cook together, and then you have some choices -- puree and garnish with cream or sour cream. As far as how to puree, Julia recommends a food mill over the blender in Mastering but by The Way to Cook she has included instructions for the immersion blender, food processor and food mill. In Julia and Jacques she adds a couple of tablespoons of flour to the sautéed vegetables before adding the water, to make a sort of roux to thicken, while Jacques Pepin advocates the use of chicken broth instead of plain water. Myself, I'm a big fan of the original version. It looks deceptively bland but it tastes wonderful and is dead simple to make.

There's no excuse for soup from a can when you can eat this. Five minutes worth of chopping and peeling, ten minutes to sauté, then however long it takes for the potatoes to get soft and you have a delicious, filling, and cheap soup that people will love. And if you're freaked out by fat -- skip the sour cream at the end (although it's a pity, this dish is so lean that a dollop of sour cream adds a velvetiness that really makes the dish). In all four books, Julia gives any number of variations on this basic soup. The French have a real talent for taking leftover vegetables, simmering and pureeing them into lovely first course soups that are both thrifty and filling. If, like me, you work at home -- they make a perfect lunch with a little salad, or some toast.

One thing people forget is that before Julia (and Alice Waters, to be fair), salad was a wedge of iceberg lettuce with some mayonnaise-y dressing and a rock-hard tomato chopped into wedges. There was no such thing as mesclun, much less available in bags in isolated rural grocery stores like the one in my town. There isn't really a chapter for salads in Mastering of the sort that we've become accustomed to in most cookbooks. There is a small chapter, Cold Buffet, Préparations Froides which includes cold vegetable platters and composed salads and those meat-based aspics which have fallen so out of fashion, and a good recipe for vinaigrette in the sauces chapter. By the time we get to The Way to Cook in 1989, there is indeed a chapter on salads which begins with several pages on green salads and vinaigrettes. Of course, the fat-phobes will be horrified to see that variations include the Salade Mimosa with hard-boiled eggs, and the delicious Curly Endive with Bacon and Garlic Dressing salad. Julia and Jacques also contains a chapter on salads, in the headnote of which Jacques Pepin notes that when he first came to America, only iceberg and romaine were commonly available but that even in the supermarket now there is such an array of greens that delicious salads are available anywhere. (Really, it's true. Even the Albertsons here in Livingston, Montana has pretty good greens, and we're in the middle of nowhere.) The Basic Green Salad is the same as in her earlier books -- a simple mix of nice greens and a freshly-made vinaigrette while variations include a Caesar salad and a couple of versions of Salade Niçoise. Same goes for Kitchen Wisdom, a slight primer on greens and vinaigrettes, a couple of recipes including variations, and we're good to go. There's nothing excessively complicated here, except perhaps to some the idea of making a dressing instead of using one out of a bottle might seem exotic. My mother always did a quick dressing in the bottom of the salad bowl at the beginning of the meal, and the invitation to stick a finger in and taste for the correct balance of oil to vinegar is one of my most cherished family memories. To be asked, even at nine or ten, what one thought about the food is a great way to get kids involved early, and to get them thinking about food (and perhaps to prevent them from growing up to be the sort of person who thinks a can of cream of mushroom soup has any place in a beef stew).

According to the newspaper reports, sales of Mastering are partially driven by moviegoers inspired by the Boef à la Bourguignonne scene in the Julie and Julia movie. The same newspapers report however, that said moviegoers are finding the original recipe somewhat arduous. Which it is. I have a very clear memory of peeling 24 tiny white onions in the kitchen of an apartment my mother was renting on the south side of Chicago one winter vacation when I came home from college wanting to do some project cooking. It was quite likely after my semester abroad when I'd eaten much very fine, very cheap Paris restaurant food, and thus, thought I was the Big Expert on all things French. At any rate, Julia Child's version of boeuf bourguignion is a recipe that is worth cooking all the way through, by the book, at least once in your life. You will learn enough about the fundamental principles of stews and ragouts from this one recipe to allow for a lifetime of experimentation. And yes, that means blanching the bacon, and browning the meat in small batches, and blanching and peeling all those bloody onions and sautéing the onions separately. This is a master recipe. It is delicious. It's a special occasion dish. I've really only made it properly once, when I was twenty, and my mother, to her credit made me stick to my guns and cook the whole thing correctly.

Of all of Julia's recipes, this was the one I was the most curious to see how or if it had evolved over the years. In The Way to Cook, she substitutes a recipe for "Zinfandel of Beef" for her classic, although on the following page she lists "Boef Bourguignion" as a variation. The biggest difference I can see in the Zinfandel recipe is the substitution of California wine, and addition of tomato to the recipe. By the time we get to Julia and Jacques, however, she's recovered her senses and the original recipe remains mostly untouched -- Julia recommends tying up the onion and carrot and herbs in a large piece of cheesecloth rather than straining them out later, and Jacques gives an alternate method for sautéing the pearl onions with the mushrooms (of which Julia does not quite approve). In Kitchen Wisdom the recipe appears simplified, but that's only because they've split off the sautéed onions and mushrooms into a separate recipe, and have made the addition of salt pork lardons optional. The procedure for browning the meat, stewing with aromatics and wine, straining out the aromatics, degreasing, reducing and thickening the sauce and then serving it with sautéed onions and mushrooms remains untouched. In Kitchen Wisdom, however, this is the recipe that serves as master for all the braised variations: pot roast, daube, coq au vin, fricassee of chicken, and lamb shanks. As to the time-consuming nature of the recipe, in Julia and Jacques, Julia notes that you can do this recipe in stages, over a couple of days, and it will, in fact, only get better.

Personally, I'm a big fan of project cooking on a Sunday afternoon, and it just doesn't feel right in my house if there isn't some large dish bubbling quietly in the oven and filling the house with the scent of real food, food that can sustain me throughout whatever busy week is about to unfold, and a big delicious stew like this one is exactly the kind of thing I start to long for as the air takes on that fall tang (which is early this year, we seem to have hardly had a summer at all). This time of year in Montana, we all start peering into our freezers to see what we need to eat before the next big game season, and I'm thinking that a proper boeuf bourguignon might be just the thing for that last big elk roast that's lurking in there.

Okay, so what about desserts? That has to be where Julia is guilty of using too much butter, too much cream, and of writing recipes that take too much time, right? I mean, if there's anything Americans have a love-hate relationship with, it's sweets. No sane modern American could possibly get on board with Julia here, right? This must be where she's revealed as the old-fashioned crank that these newspaper reporters would like her to be. Well, don't ask me to go there. I have some chickens in the backyard, and I'm getting six eggs a day right now, and I order fresh milk from a local rancher once a week that comes with the cream floating on the top, so clearly I'm not a cholesterol-phobe. And since I had an excess of both eggs and milk this week, I decided to give the Crème Caramel a go. Julia's original recipe only calls for three whole eggs and three additional egg yolks for four-to-six servings, which doesn't seem too excessive to me. I mean, you're not eating this every night, and you're probably serving it for a party, where people are feeling festive. Give them something nice at the end of the meal for goodness sake -- not just store angel food cake and Cool Whip! Both the recipes in Julia and Jacques and Kitchen Wisdom are for 8-10 servings, so they use bigger quantities, but the crucial differences seem to be that "Jacques's Crème Caramel" adds half-and-half to the milk mixture, while the one in Kitchen Wisdom doesn't. I went with the original from Mastering in this case, as it seemed the simplest of the three, and with the summertime guests gone, my sweetheart and I didn't need 8-10 servings of custard no matter how blasé I am about cholesterol. I don't have a proper mold, so I did it in a 1.5 quart pyrex dish, and aside from the usual fright that making caramel entails (you have to watch for burns) and some sloshiness when pouring the water into the bain marie, it wasn't much more difficult than making a cake or making ice cream (which is custard-based much of the time).

So there we have it -- a proper French meal: soup, salad, a main course, and a dessert. Even I don't eat like this most nights, but when did cooking an ordinary dinner-party meal turn into some sort of stunt? If there's anything Julia wanted to impart to all of us, it was that cooking was a pleasure, not drudgery, and that with a little effort we could all eat well as a matter of course. While I'm thrilled that Mastering the Art of French Cooking is at the top of the bestseller list, I am still concerned by the tenor of the reporting about this phenomenon. Yes, Julia's original is a demanding book, as is Volume II (where you can learn to do charcuterie, another oddball passion of mine), but when did we all decide that demanding was antithetical to pleasure? The pleasure that comes with mastering a skill set is not a fleeting thing. I first made Julia's boeuf bourguignon 25 years ago, on a snowy Sunday during winter break from college. Yes, it took all day. Yes, it was arduous. Arduous is good. I learned lessons from that afternoon that I've used nearly weekly throughout my adult life. And while I'm sure many of these recent copies of Mastering that are flying off the shelves will languish, how many of them will pass down to daughters like I was? Daughters or sons who are curious? Who want to try, at least once, to cook a famous old dish the proper way? Who want to learn the techniques? Here's to that hope, that Julia's true project will continue to bear fruition even without her large personality to drive it, and that her passion and precision will live on through the recipes.