I was shopping for a dress. A dress for my daughter's wedding. In order to get there I had to pass the book store...honestly I did. Really. I decided I could not buy one...more...book. I made a pact with myself. Not one. But...I mean, what's a person to do? (Oh hush up.) So, there I was...suddenly finding myself in the book store...and there was Dearie, a biography of Julia Child by Bob Spitz. And on sale! Yes, yes, I know. I need to find the right shoes. I need to find the right dress. Sometimes, however, serendipity leads you to just the right book as well. It's all good.
In the long ago past I was a young bride eager to use her Lenox wedding china. I was married to a military man, and we lived very simply and frugally. We made friends with an older couple. They owned a Lincoln car dealership, had a beautiful home with an in-ground pool and sauna, and ate at very fine restaurants. Intrepid as I was in my youth, I invited them to what was to be my second "important" dinner party. (The first was Thanksgiving. I made a turkey, invited my boss and his wife and the local parish priest. The bird was lovely and golden brown. I carried it sizzling to the table with great pride to the hoped for "ahhhs". My (then) husband proceeded with the ceremonious carving and as he attempted to get through the neck stuffing, he asked, "Did you stuff this with cheese?" I looked on horrified as he attempted to pull out a melted white strand that looked a lot like mozzerella and which eventually shot out of the bird, catapulted across the room and hit the wall with a loud splat. It was, of course, the plastic bag containing the giblets. "Um...gravy anyone?" Never let them see you sweat.)
And so, for that second dinner party, I turned to Julia Child and my copy of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking, which I received as a wedding gift. I made Homard Thermidor. The two lobsters required for four people took up an entire week's food budget. I mixed and dribbled and sieved. I worried and fretted. It was delicious, although I did overcook the lobster. We ended the meal with Soufffle au Chocolat. I was dead exhausted by the time my guests left the house, but fell into bed that night with the comforting knowledge that Julia was to be my kitchen salvation. If I followed her instructions, I could do it. I did and I have. Today, without even thinking about it, I brought home chicken breasts and made two exactly as she suggested I should...the way I have been doing them for decades without giving it much thought: Supremes de Volaille a Blanc (only made without the blanc). To her, eating was the art as much as the cooking.
My original copy of Mastering has long ago lost both its front and back covers. Several pages have fallen out and have been lost, a few more are stuck haphazardly into the falling apart book. Pages are splattered with DNA evidence of balsamic vinegar, clarified butter, and wine. A few years ago, at a library big book sale, I found another copy for $1. What a lovely bargain. It belonged at one time to Darris Plumb, so says her bookplate. And in the margins dwell her wonderful notations: "Very good," and at Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons she notes "Betty says this is good." I didn't trust Betty until I made it myself. Betty was spot on.
In the early morning of Christmas Eve I make Julia's boeuf a la bourguignonne. I make it in my Le Cruset rip-off and put in the oven to warm for Christmas dinner. I make it exactly as she instructs. I read the recipe and listen to her as she guides me step by step. No fudging, no winging it. Elegant enough for that important occasion, and yet easy for the end of a season that has been filled with stress and excitement. Thank you, Julia.
Naturally, Julia Child is known mostly for her TV shows. She kept me company when my children were small. When I was pregnant with my second child, I put my first child down for his nap at 12:00 noon. It was also the same time The French Chef was aired on PBS. When I was expecting my third child, I put my two children down for their naps at noon, and there was Julia again. Like a "big sprig" companion.
Russell Morash, the original producer of her show on WGBH-TV, recalled her voice as being "a cross between Tallulah Bankhead and a slide whistle." I think a statue should be erected to Mr. Morash.
Since I just brought the book home today I can't tell you much about it or whether I will enjoy it, but I can't imagine not doing so. And, as another bit of serendipity the movie "Julie And Julia" is playing on television tonight. My only criticism of which is that they spent time making the "Julie" part of the movie. How cool would that movie have been if it had concentrated on Julia's life only. She's the real story, after all. Well, in reality it will be a love story. As Paul Child wrote to her before their marriage, "I want to see you, touch you, kiss you, talk with you, eat with you...eat you maybe. I have a Julie-need." Whew! Is it just me or does anyone else think it's getting hot in there? When I finish Dearie I will tell you all about it.
Thursday, September 11, 2014
Sometimes I amaze myself with my inventive genius. It (my inventive genius) first manifested itself when I was about 8 years old. I was on my way to ballet class – walking (we were not “driven” places back in those days since families usually had only one of everything: one car, one television, one telephone) and kids were expected to either walk or ride a bike to get where they were going. Apparently, my parents did not spend an inordinate amount of time worrying about my being kidnapped. Considering I never was I guess they were justified. However, getting back to my story, I was wearing my pink tights and carrying my black ballet shoes slung over my shoulder as I passed by the window of Neisner’s Five and Dime on Cermak Road. That is when and where my first inventive genius hit. I stopped and stared at the legs on display. If you’re old enough you remember those legs. They stopped at mid-thigh, were bent at the knee with the arch of the foot raised and on the legs were “nylons.” They were in a chorus line, each encased in a different shade of stocking: the kind of stocking that had to be held up with a garter belt. The revelation hit me like a bolt and was so clear that I remember it vividly still. “Why,” I wondered, “can’t they make stockings like they make my pink ballet tights.” I should have run home and called the first patent and trademark attorney in the phone book. Instead, I went to class where I learned the pas de chat, and jete, and grand battement. And as I blissfully glaced my way across the wooden floor I lost my fortune, my moment, my idea. Because here is the sad fact: I invented panty hose at the age of 8. I was a prodigy; I could have been a contender. Fast forward many decades later and I am now living in an era when women hate wearing panty hose. We wear long dresses or slacks or get a spray tan. Still, panty hose had a good run (no pun intended) and I could be drinking Dom...if only.
I eventually got over it, of course. Dwelling on missed opportunities sours summer wine, so I didn't. That is until last month when, as I was watching a PBS program, I leaped out of my easy chair and was very nearly apoplectic. Part of my distress was the programming. I don’t watch much television, but there are certain programs on PBS on Saturday afternoon that are “mine.” Jacques Pepin, for instance. I was already grumpy because it was that time of year (again and again) when the station decided, in its infinite wisdom, that it was a whiz-bang idea to interrupt their normal scheduling of programs to bring the viewing public “special” ones, the purpose of which are to make you feel like a thief for watching PBS absent making a contribution “to keep these programs on the air”. The logic of these “special” programs has always escaped me. It would seem to me that, since people are tuning in to watch PBS with the expectation that they are going to experience – let’s say, Jacques - it might actually be a good idea to give people Jacques. Why, if I wanted to see Jacques, would I be more inclined to contribute to PBS if I am not allowed to see Jacques but instead am bestowed the unasked for opportunity to see Dr. F? He refers to himself a “nutritarian.” Cute... very cute. I have long thought that the FDA’s food pyramid was wobbly and so built my own. I am neither a vegan nor a vegetarian; I make a standing rib roast on Christmas Eve, boeuf bourguignon on Christmas Day, and Turkey on Thanksgiving. But on an ordinary day I will use one small pork loin chop to make an entire wok of stir fry – enough for dinner and leftovers. Or a single chicken breast in a large pot of soup filled with vegetables and beans and other good stuff. I should have written a book about my pyramid – which is essentially the “nutritarian” pyramid. I could have called it something like the "Gradian Pyramid." Veggies on the bottom, making up the bulk of the diet, and meat used as more of a condiment than as the center of the plate. It’s just common sense, people. So once again I am haunted by panty hose; they chase me in my nightmares – disembodied legs in multiple shades of beige and smoke. I’m not a nutritionist or a medical doctor but I have a lot of common sense and have lived like a nutritarian for ages. I just never gave it a moniker. Had I only known that writing about MY pyramid could have landed me a gig on PBS, not to mention book revenues, I would not have given a fig about pre-empting Jacques Pepin. Although, he is a whole lot cuter than Dr. F... and he eats butter.