Thursday, August 9, 2012

Still learning from Julia Child on her 100th -- Aug. 9, 2012 column


I remember my first Julia Child meal the way some people remember their first kiss -- in vivid, cringing detail.

In the early 1970s, I was a grad student in English at the University of Virginia. A young, almost-handsome professor more interested in reading Yeats than in marching on Washington invited me to coffee, lunch and then dinner at his place.

There would be no pot of spaghetti steaming up the windows. No strands flung against the kitchen wall. No cheap red. No Rolling Stones on the turntable.

The prof had a favorite recipe from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by Julia Child. I suppose I knew about her and her popular TV cooking show, but he was a devotee.

Julia, he said, as if she were a personal friend, was changing the way Americans cook and think about food.

On his kitchen counter were fine beef filet from the fancy butcher shop, whipping cream, real butter, fresh mushrooms. Mushrooms didn’t have to come from a can. On the stereo: Wagnerian opera.

He whipped up his culinary specialty, Sauté de Boeuf `a la Parisienne, the French version of beef Stroganoff with fresh instead of sour cream. It’s “good to know about,” Julia says, “if you have to entertain important guests in a hurry.” He poured a good red Bordeaux, just as Julia advises. Dining, even at home, should be a pleasure and an event, he said.

I felt pampered, mature, and elegant in the candlelight. Until I got the hiccups. These were not dainty, hide-behind-the-napkin hiccups. These were raucous, shoot-me-now hiccups. I fled the table and his apartment, red-faced.

But I got my own copy of “Mastering” and made the beef sauté. It was surprisingly easy but so rich. I took up running and put Julia on the shelf, favoring cookbooks that promised low-fat recipes fast. Food was for fuel, not for pleasure.

I became a reporter in Richmond, Va. Julia Child came to town to demonstrate cooking at a department store, but the editor gave someone more experienced the plum assignment. I was crushed. The reporter met Julia and her husband Paul in their hotel suite, and Julia, ever the ebullient hostess, poured cocktails. At the time, this was the height of sophistication.

Learning that the reporter had missed lunch, Julia produced a ham she’d received as a gift at her last stop and crackers and turned the interview into a party.

Julia mastered not only the art of French cooking but also of living.

And that’s why 100 years after her birth and eight years after her death, she’s still is teaching us about the pleasures of food.

In honor of her centennial this week – she was born Aug. 15, 1912 -- chefs around the country will host Julia-inspired meals. On Wednesday the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History plans an all-day Julia Child festival. There will be book-signings, showings of “The French Chef” TV show, and the reopening of Julia’s reconstructed kitchen from her Cambridge, Mass., home. The kitchen has been closed while the museum prepares an exhibition on American food and wine.

“Julie and Julia,” the movie written by the late Nora Ephron and starring Meryl Streep as Julia, inspired a new generation. “Mastering” shot to the top of The New York Times how-to bestseller list for the first time in 2009, nearly 50 years after it was first published. Julia’s Facebook page has more than 62,000 “likes.” And, of course, there’s an app for “Mastering.”

I rediscovered Julia this summer. At the library, I came across her autobiography, “My Life in France,” which she started writing with her Alex Prud’homme, her late husband’s grand-nephew. He finished the book after her death – two days before her 92nd birthday -- in 2004.

It’s a wonderful story of Julia’s long and happy marriage, her experiences at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, her life’s work creating the two volumes of “Mastering” and several other cookbooks, and her boundless enthusiasm for entertaining. Testing and retesting, she showered friends and family with variations of each recipe as she sought perfection.

I took down my old copy of “Mastering,” a slip of paper still marking the beef sauté. I’ll make the recipe this week to celebrate Julia and the art of living.

As Julia liked to say, Bon Appetit!

Hiccups and all.

(c) 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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