Sometime between Thanksgiving and Christmas, my husband, Brian, and I watched the film Julie & Julia. Inspired by both Julia Child, who didn’t learn to cook until after she moved to Paris at thirty-six, and Julie Powell, who managed to produce Julia’s complicated French meals in her tiny apartment in Queens, New York, I decided that it was time to improve our cooking skills.
To properly explain, I should first provide a little background. Brian is athletic, very fit, and is someone who can eat anything he likes and never gain weight. Because of this, he’s an omnivore who is capable and desirous of eating food in large quantities—so large, at times, that it can make me queasy just thinking about it. I, on the other hand, have always had to watch my weight. Not only am I careful about what I eat, I’m also somewhat particular; there are a number of foods that I refuse to eat simply because I don’t like them. When we began living together, this fundamental difference between us caused some conflict, especially because, although Brian loved to eat, he didn’t know how to cook. When we first met, he could hardly boil an egg. Although I knew how to cook (well, sort of; I’d been a semi-vegetarian for years, and knew almost nothing about cooking poultry, pork, or beef), I didn’t like to cook. At the time, my usual dinner consisted of that culinary classic, Organic Salad From a Bag. It was strange for me to be the more experienced cook, but stranger still was the unnatural frequency with which he ate meals: three times a day. He ate real meals, too, not just a cup of yogurt, or a small salad, or an apple along with a handful of nuts and raisins, or a few pieces of chocolate—things that I might consider a meal. Almost every evening, we had this conversation:
Brian: (peering into the refrigerator) “What do we have for dinner?”
Me: (puzzled) “You want to eat dinner?”
“But we ate dinner last night.”
“You want to eat dinner again?”
“What did you have for lunch?”
“Nothing much—a couple of appetizers, a Caesar salad, half a roast chicken, some mashed potatoes, a side of mixed vegetables, a whole baguette, and a slice of chocolate cake along with a large latte. Oh, and I ate most of my partner’s meatball sandwich.”
“And you want to eat dinner?”
“What is wrong with you!?”
“Nothing’s wrong with me! I’m normal! It isn’t normal to subsist on nothing but two raisins and a spoonful of yogurt!”
Brian: (peering into the fridge again) “So, what do we have for dinner?”
Me: (shrugging) “There’s always organic salad.”
This went on for a while, a long while, but gradually we both learned to cook. What was nice is that we learned to cook together: we bought cookbooks together and tried out recipes together. I’m more of the “eat to live” not “live to eat” school of thought, and cared most about eating fresh, healthy foods; happily, we reside in an area where organic foods are abundant. Brian had loftier aspirations. He would more often be the one gazing with longing at the pages of a Williams-Sonoma catalog, and sometimes during our shopping trips together I would find him mooning about the gourmet food sections of Andronico’s or Whole Foods, staring wistfully at bottles of hazelnut oil or preserved truffles, even though neither of us had any notion of what to do with them.
Gradually, we learned, and after a few years we had accumulated an impressive culinary oeuvre that included salmon teriyaki, roast chicken with vegetables, pork loin with port wine sauce, tender beef filets seared to a perfect ruby-red. And I’d usually prepare a green salad or some vegetables to go along with the entrée.
Then Julie & Julia came out. After watching the film, I read Julia Child’s autobiography, My Life in France, and I decided it was time to expand our repertoire—an early New Year’s resolution that Brian heartily endorsed. Not that we imagined we could accomplish what Julie Powell had accomplished, 524 recipes in 365 days. Our goal was slightly less ambitious: 20 or 30 recipes in, say, two to three decades. Taking advantage of Christmas sales, I bought a Cuisinart, a complete set of Sur La Table stainless steel cookware (it’s a less expensive version of All Clad, and, in my amateur opinion, it’s terrific), and the two-volume boxed edition of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which entailed going to three bookstores (everything related to Julie & Julia was selling like hotcakes).
We both read (more like skimmed) Mastering the Art and chose a few recipes to try out. I settled on the roast chicken, since I was pretty good at it already using my own technique, which is, not coincidentally, exactly the technique described in Joy of Cooking. I thought it would be fun to try it Julia’s way. When I read the recipe, it seemed fairly straightforward.
Mais non! There are directions in Poulet Roti that defy physical reality. For instance, “Place the chicken breast up in the roasting pan. Allow the chicken to brown lightly for 15 minutes, turning it on the left side after 5 minutes, on the right side for the last 5 minutes, and basting it with butter and oil after each turn.” (Italics mine.)
Ever tried to turn a chicken on its side? If you have, you will have discovered that chickens don’t have sides. I improvised with a roasting rack, but turning a blazing hot, five-pound chicken was no piece of cake. And then there’s the instruction to baste, not only after turning, but for every ten minutes thereafter during the entire cooking time. This meant that no sooner had I sat down in the living room than I was up again, popping in and out of the kitchen door like a bird on a cuckoo clock. When I finally emerged two hours later, sweaty and disheveled, bearing the golden-brown poulet on a platter, I wondered if it was worth it.
It was tasty, certainly. Moist and tender. Why? Butter, of course: that chicken had soaked up more than a half-pound of butter. Delicious, yes, but not exactly…healthy.
A few weeks and a Boeuf Bourguignon, a Supêmes de Volaille à Blanc, and a Filets de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons later, I’ve discovered a few constants about cooking with Julia Child:
1. No matter how long you think a recipe will take, it will take much, much longer.
2. It’s almost impossible to cook from Julia Child’s cookbook without attempting to replicate her inimitable sing-song, loony-bird voice. Neither one of us does this very well, but this did not stop us and it will probably not stop you. The Julia Child impersonations will improve, or seem to, once you and your guests have had a few glasses of wine.
3. It’s important to have plenty of wine on hand, and not only because it complements the French food so well. Giving wine to your guests will help them overlook the fact that they are starving, and that you have said, “It’s almost ready!” seventeen times in the past two hours.
4. Keep some strong, French-roast coffee around, too, for apres dinner, because everyone is going to be absolutely shit-faced drunk by the time you put the meal on the table.
5. Butter, butter, butter! And bacon and cream. These are the “secrets” of classic French cuisine. I say, skip all the complicated recipes and just fry up some bacon with butter and cream—ooh la la!
Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing but respect for Julia Child. I loved reading about her life and her love for France, which I share, and loved that after she discovered her métier, she pursued it with an obsessive passion approaching religious fervor. I loved that she kept cooking and teaching and writing until she died in 2004, at 91. I don’t remember her cooking show, but I do remember Julia Child. She made a unique and indelible impression, and it’s been a pleasure to rediscover her. In the process, I’ve learned to be a better cook, and to enjoy cooking more. Being inspired to outfit our kitchen with the necessary tools was a good start.
Will I ever be a French chef? I doubt it. Sure, I like knowing how to make a perfect omelette and a curdle-free hollandaise, but I can’t imagine eating rich food like this all the time. Already, I’m craving a bowl of organic salad.