Wednesday, November 4, 2009


“Paul strode ahead, full of anticipation, but I hung back, concerned that I didn’t look chic enough, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists.”

- Julia Child, My Life in France

I am having a Julia Child moment. It began when I saw a trailer for the “Julie & Julia” movie, which made me reminisce about watching Julia Child’s cooking show on PBS in the 1970s. Her voice and mannerisms entranced me, as did her way with a chicken. In Julia’s later episodes, it was sad to see that she’d declined, stooped next to a younger chef. When I first moved to Cambridge, I liked that we lived in the same city, though she moved shortly afterwards. And I liked the idea that her kitchen was being removed to become an exhibit in the Smithsonian. Until the movie, that was the extent of any thoughts about Julia, her cooking, and her life.

Apparently, Julie Powell thought about her more – enough to cook every single recipe in, Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year and to blog about it. That got Ms. Powell a book deal, which turned into a movie deal (Lucky woman). I haven’t seen the movie, but as I mentioned in another post, I read Julie’s Powell’s book, Julie and Julia. In it, Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France was mentioned on several occasions.

Next, I began to read, My Life in France, which I recommend. I related with: Julia’s struggle to figure out who she was, her love of French cuisine, holding her own in chef school, taking a chance by writing the cookbook, and experiencing the agony of rejections, which caused her to doubt her project on several occasions. The cooking and cookbook writing were labors of love. While I do not desire to become a chef, I appreciate reading Julia’s journey to master her passion.

The urge to excel at something has always afflicted me. My three passions are writing, teaching, and cooking. I want to master writing, become an authority about specific periods of history that I innovatively teach to students, and be a more creative, confident, competent cook. Perhaps there is no way to accomplish all of this if I spread myself too thin. Whether I should remedy my dilemma by working more at each interest or dropping some expectations in favor of narrowing my scope, I have yet to figure out. Julia and Julie each had a clarifying moment that transformed their lives. Julia Child ate her first meal in France at La Couronne with her husband, Paul, and immediately fell in love with the food, which she called, "an epiphany". Julie Powell had a dismal day, when her husband suggested she write a blog, and something stirred inside her. Will I have that moment or has it happened, and I’ll look back and realize it?

Around the time I was reading Powell’s book, WBUR was doing their fall fundraiser. One of the optional gifts for contributing was, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I thought, why not? When I married, I began cooking, but rarely did I make anything complicated, since I first worked full time. Later, I worked part-time while going to graduate school full-time. When my son was born, I worked part-time while going to graduate school part-time. In other words, I was busy. But I became more interested in cooking seven years ago, when I took a year off after my daughter was born. Having an infant and a four-year-old son didn’t provide me with oodles of time (as anyone who has ever been a stay-at-home parent can attest), but it did leave me with a desire to make my spare time more valuable. And so, I began to experiment with more complicated recipes. I found the more I cooked, the better a cook I became, the more compliments I received, and the more I enjoyed eating my own cooking. When it went well, making a meal went from being a chore to bringing me satisfaction.

Now I have a decent repertoire of recipes under my belt, but there are many dishes I’d like to attempt, but I’ve been too intimidated to try. Soufflés can collapse; croissants (or anything that requires pastry and butter) seem tricky; except for preparing roux, I shy away from butter and flour (no pie shells or pastries attempted); my knife skills are abominable; and because desserts often require exactness (which is less fun than experimenting), my cakes usually wind up dry. I excel at soups (often made with homemade broth), I’m pretty proud of my pastas, and most of my Mexican dishes come out well (Including a labor intensive Mole). And while I’ve played around with some of my favorite foods from India and the East, I could use lessons. In fact, I’ve toyed with the idea of taking classes at The Cambridge School of Culinary Arts. I own two woefully inadequate French cookbooks, whose recipes which do not produce nearly as rich dishes as the ones I had in Paris. Since visiting France, I’ve wanted to expand my culinary prowess.

I am in a culinary rut. As I’ve mentioned before, now that I’m substituting, my cooking has suffered – I often rely on the same tired recipes because I know they’re quick and easy. The cookbook just arrived, but I have yet to open the envelope. When I do, I know that I’ll immediately want to make, and also be intimidated by, the recipes. From reading the Powell and Child memoirs, I know that the dishes in, Mastering the Art of French Cooking require patience, planning, persistence, and passion. I’d like to save the book for a day when I have the luxury of time. Then I can tackle something I’m intimidated by – the theme of my life these days. At least with a successful meal, I don’t have to rely on a publisher or a principal to tell me I’m worthy. Maybe I’ll make a soufflé.

“The meal was just as sublime the second time around, only now I could identify the smells in the air quicker than Paul, order my own food without help, and truly appreciate the artistry of the kitchen. La Couronne was the same, but I had become a different person.”

- Julia Child, My Life in France


  1. Hi

    Oh Julia Child DESERVES a movie all of her own! I've never heard of her until the film and thanks to the fabulous Ms Streep, am now more interested with who she was.

    I hope you do expand your culinary prowess! Not that you need to - you're cooking sounds fantastic! I mean MOLE is hard! :-) So well done you.

    Take care

  2. Thanks, Old Kitty. Recently, I made her Beef Bourguignon, and it came out better than any beef stew I've ever made. I loved her memoir.

  3. Soufflés get a bad rep, but they are a lot easier (provided you have a decent oven) than they are reputed to be... Besides, even if they do deflate, they still taste good... As they are relatively simple and not too time consuming to prepare, they are good to experiment with. And once you get the hang of them, they are hard to get wrong... And because of their reputation, you can wow your guests by making them.; j

    If you want to make croissants, I'd recommend starting with margarine. It's a little easier as it doesn't melt as quickly. Many professional pastry kitchens have refrigerated (sometimes even marble) counter-top working areas that makes the folding process a lot easier.

    For me Julia Child was the lady with the funny voice who flipped an omelet out of her pan on youtube. An abstract entity really. I had no idea how big a deal she was til I saw the movie and heard about my lover's mother to whom she was an inspiration.

    Anyone who moves people to think about what they're eating gets two big thumbs up in my book. : j

    I think part of the difference you might be feeling in the taste of food in Paris and the ones you make in the US is the ingredients... Especially the butter. Average butter in the US has a MUCH higher water content. I can't use french butter and follow the proportions of my american cookie recipes, I have to cut the butter by almost half or else get cookies that taste of nothing else than sweet greasy butter. Considering how ubiquitous butter is in french cuisine it's hardly surprising reproducing the richness is taste would be difficult. I'm told you can get good butter at a farmers market (haven't checked that), but I know that many US supermarkets now stock in "irish butter" that is quite good!

    Yikes, sorry! I got carried away talking about food. : p

  4. Alesa, I get carried away talking about food too.

    Besides Julia Child, for many years nobody else was talking about French food. When I was a kid, I thought the same thing about her.

    We love Irish butter here. I wonder if French recipes have less calories because less butter is used.

    Thanks for the info about souffle. When I take my cooking class the fall, I'll learn how to do it.

  5. Less butter? How do you figure?

    For example...
    I don't know Julia child's Boeuf Bourguignon, but most of the recipes I know start with browning the cubed meat with what would be a quarter stick of butter...
    String beans as a side? Brown shallots in butter! Stick the beans in their til they're done.
    Need a sauce? Dilute those pan scraping with wine, thicken with butter. : j

    Traditional French restaurant food is loaded with butter (setting aside cuisine nouvelle, and experimental cuisine)... I can't talk about calories, because I don't pay attention to that. But perhaps because they are served in such smaller portions it works out?

  6. @ Alesa, thanks for the tips.

    I don't count calories much I figure if you need less butter when you bake, it's probably less calories overall.

    I'll check out the article. Thanks!