When I was a kid, my mom and I used to watch Saturday afternoon cooking shows on PBS. One afternoon, as we watched the chefs dice and saute, a funny looking lady with a funny sounding voice was making things with funny names that looked funny and delicious. I remember watching and getting hungry, seeing the food go from raw form to finished product with enthusiasm, vigor, and laughter. That’s how Julia Child first imprinted on my brain.
With such a strong first impression, I’m hesitant to admit that before this week, I’d never cracked open Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had a variety of feelings towards the epic tome, as I thought the recipes were finicky and precise, and I was intimidated. I love to cook, but I don’t love following recipes: I cook on sensation and taste, and get irritated when I’m told to cook in alternate fashions – my independent streak rears its giant head. And piling on to my independent streak, my pot and pan collection is eclectic and not always sufficient (what, pray tell, is an "asbestos mat" and where would I find one?). My spice drawer and liquor cabinet are miniscule. And, icing on the cake (!), I am a twentysomething with an entry-level-job-income and all of the limitations on foodstuffs and cookware that that imposes.
But it’s Julia’s birthday. She'd have been 100 today, her image fixed in our minds as one of the first chefs to become a pop culture icon, book and television star, her hooty voice brimming with adventure and good cheer as she whipped up her creations. She is historical and contemporary, a balancing act through the decades. Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is a staple of aspiring chefs and great home cooks and wannabes. And what better time to celebrate an iconic chef and conquer my fear of the book than by actually hiking through a recipe or two?
So I was flipping through the recipes, trying to find something that took under 24 hours and wouldn't break the bank or overly tax my basic cookware capabilities. And then I stopped flipping, started reading the recipes, and began falling for Julia. The woman could write. The recipes were serious, poetic, witty: instructions where the warmth of a generous personality beamed through. I was smiling as I read her recipes - have you ever done that? Read an ingredients list, and grinned? It puts you in the mood to cook, like a friend in the kitchen with you, lending a helping hand when necessary, and pouring you a glass of wine when things go more seriously awry.
Saturday's dinner menu was Coq au Vin, brown braised onions, and sauteed mushrooms from Julia (green beans and roast potatoes were my own basic recipes). I overcooked the chicken, but the sauce was a revelation. I’d never made a butter-flour paste and whisked it in to a boiling wine/chicken stock/bacon bits reduction, a method that seemed too complicated. But watching the elements meld together, thickening into a burgundy richness that I wanted to consume by the bucketful, I mourned for the sauces I’d missed. And the brown braised onions? Meltingly good. As were the mushrooms, buttery, woodsy, juicy silver-brown nubbins. All from following Julia. I've been cooking mushrooms and onions for years, but these techniques, quite frankly, elevated my cooking, making me rethink my exclusively DIY modus operandi.
Dessert was clafouti, another Julia classic. A pancake-y batter encases cherries and blueberries: simple, stunning, bursting with sweetness, in an eggy shell.
Julia encouraged innovation and a fearless attitude, accepting mistakes and incorporating them into her cooking. And from her letters, she revealed her own mile-wide independent streak, blazing past societal barriers to create the French golden-standard cookbook. But it’s not just the laboriously tested, glorious tasting recipes that make us return: I think it’s the can-do attitude, the idea that food can be a fulfilling creative process, imperfections and all, with room for both a template and variation. And I liked it. I liked listening to her directions, putting in my own additions when I thought it would improve a dish to my taste. And so my resolution is thus: keep experimenting, and learn from Julia. Happy birthday, Julia Child, and bon appetit!