Articles in Television
When you visit the Smithsonian, you see Julia Child’s kitchen literally enshrined. It is surrounded by plexiglass, but you can see all of it and even “step inside” at places, while the kitchen itself is surrounded by videos of Julia. You get a sense of the real Julia, while you are also awed to be in the actual space inhabited by the First Lady of Food Television. Her seminal series “The French Chef” has just been re-released on the online TV site Twitch — bringing Julia once again into the public spotlight.
I was reminded of the cultural status of chefs at the Smithsonian’s Food History Gala. It was a public event to present the first ever Julia Child Award to Jacques Pépin. Taking place in the grand hall of the Smithsonian’s American History Museum, the location made it clear where chefs stand today in the pantheon of American greats. They stand right next to “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Literally.
Todd Schulkin, executive director of the Julia Child Foundation, felt the space was appropriate. “It was very meaningful to be in the flag hall,” he said “under the image of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner.’ ”
An ‘anonymous labor’
Marcus Samuelsson, author of “Yes, Chef,” reminded the distinguished guests that “being a chef was an anonymous labor for a long time.” Their high-flying cultural status is newfound. Even the evening’s celebrant, Jacques Pépin, spent the early part of his career as the corporate chef for Howard Johnson’s.
And it’s not just food stars, but food itself that has become a cultural touchstone. The Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend, kicked off by the gala, was followed by two more days of events and workshops that showcased innovation in American food culture. And the conversation didn’t stop with the weekend. The Smithsonian has embraced food history with the American Food History Project. It features monthly events that place food culture on the same level with such celebrated icons as Abraham Lincoln’s stovepipe hat and Dorothy’s Ruby Slippers.
But there was a wistfulness underpinning the gala dinner. Many of the speakers of the evening — including the celebrated Chef Pépin — remarked on the strangeness of being cultural superstars. They all seemed to feel a sense of concern: being “enshrined” can also mean losing touch. A classic artifact like Julia’s Kitchen must be preserved by plexiglass. But a chef shouldn’t be. Superstars can find themselves living in a bubble, and it takes work to avoid this fate.
A sense of fun
Most of the pantheon at the gala seemed to be deeply aware of this. Sara Moulton pointed out that Julia’s real métier was television — the great leveler. In Moulton’s first job in television, Julia Child told her: “smile for the camera.” Now on her own television series, Moulton keeps that smile and counsels her guests to “smile constantly and for no particular reason.” It’s not an act — it’s an acknowledgment of the reality of the joy of food. While setting up a food demo on a set, Julia said to Sara: “Aren’t we having fun?” Moulton had to think about it, then the truth dawned: “Yes, she said, “Yes, we are!”
It’s the sense of fun, the sheer joy of preparing food, which made Julia Child an icon — the first food superstar of our culture. The joyous face of Jacques Pépin as he accepted the Julia Child Award made it clear that he is a fitting inheritor. Perhaps there’s no better recipient than the man who has been creating food television since 1997. As Marcus Samuelson put it: “Julia started it. Jacques caught the baton.”
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I got a sudden shock of the humanity of our great chefs on the last day of the Smithsonian’s Food History Weekend. I was leaving the American History museum when I ran into Anne Willan and Todd Schulkin coming in the doors. Willan, of course, is the founder of the iconic cooking school École de Cuisine La Varenne and author of “La Varenne Practique.” I was delighted to see them, and Willan explained she was coming to the Smithsonian to experience Julia’s Kitchen. “I’ve never seen it,” she said. Then she stopped with a frown, “Well, I have, of course, when I cooked in it with Julia. But I’ve never seen it…” She stopped again. “I’ve never seen it behind glass,” she finished.
The Smithsonian and the Julia Child Foundation are well aware of the danger of putting something behind glass. “Enshrining” both preserves — and distances. So on the same floor as Julia’s Kitchen, children can now interact with a miniature version of Julia’s Kitchen at the “Wegmans Wonderplace” exhibition, allowing them to grab pans from the famous pegboard wall and whip up a hollandaise sauce on the pretend stove.
Events like Food History Weekends, and awards for populists like Jacques Pépin, can keep food culture personal, intimate and connected.
Main photo: Visitors can tour Julia Child’s kitchen at the National Museum of American History. Credit: Courtesy of the National Museum of American History
Along a neon strip of Hollywood Boulevard, sandwiched between the Cabo Cantina and a male strip joint called the Hollywood Men, the Musso & Frank Grill does not catch your eye until you step inside. The room is packed with wooden booths, red leather banquettes and white tablecloths. The original wallpaper, a restful art deco mural of woodland and pastures, has faded to gentle browns and beige.
Take Imported Sardines for instance. I haven’t tasted one of those luscious, melting, silvery canned fish, soaked in olive oil, for at least 30 years. They were one of the few edible items at my boarding school. Not everyone liked them, so with luck I would get my neighbor’s portion too. Corned Beef and Cabbage, Musso & Frank’s Tuesday special, was another school regular — made without much beef and a lot of rather stinky cabbage. Musso & Frank’s is far, far better.
I’m also happy to say that Musso & Frank remains a destination for the celebrities who live in the mansions just down the road. Perhaps next visit we’ll ask for the Marilyn Monroe or the Charlie Chaplin table, the one at the front where we could observe the antics of the passersby. Perhaps they were an inspiration for Chaplin’s classic mimes? Meanwhile, our waiter bounds up to the table. “You’re sitting in the Mickey Rooney seat,” he says. “Did you know?”
He is wearing a traditional tailored short jacket in bright red with black lapels, and to my delight, the kitchen uniform is equally traditional, all white of course, with cloth buttons to withstand laundry bleach. The sous chefs sport puffy, Escoffier-style toques, becomingly collapsed to one side, with white pillboxes for the commis, the least-trained members of the team. The chef himself is easily distinguished across the kitchen by his towering starched toque, not a hint of collapse there.
A glance at the menu shows why the kitchen staff is so large. Well more than a hundred dishes are on offer at lunch and dinner. Some, of course, are prepared ahead such as French onion soup and macaroni au gratin, but the vast majority are cooked to order. Boneless garlic chicken has the caution “Please allow 20 minutes.”
Vegetables come separately and you choose your own, be it broccoli with Hollandaise, French fried onion rings, or garlic toast (Why has that almost disappeared — it is so good!). At least a couple of gems such as shrimp Louie date back to the late 1800s. Chicken à la king, that staple of the 1960s fundraising circuit, was mentioned in the New York Times in 1893.
Timeless for a reason
Like Mozart, there’s a reason why these dishes are timeless — they are quite simply the best. Caesar salad was very probably on Musso & Frank’s original menu in 1919. Julia Child remembered eating it when she was a little girl in the early 1920s. Mind you, there can be ulterior reasons for their survival. When I once mentioned lobster thermidor to a French-trained chef, he smiled mischievously. “That’s a dish for Mondays, after the weekend closure. The seafood leftovers go in there so the Cognac and mustard sauce can mask the stale taste.”
No stale food here though; the sautéed scallops, lump crab cakes and grilled meats are spanking fresh. Fried oysters, baked escargots, grilled lamb kidneys, calf’s liver with onions, smoked tongue sandwiches like those my mother made to fortify me on the miserable journeys back to boarding school. All these bring a distant look to my eyes. Half-forgotten flavors, long-treasured treats. When all is said and done, eating well is the best reward!
I haven’t had deep, dark sautéed mushrooms since I lived in Paris in the 1960s. Musso & Frank’s version is “secret.” Nothing is secret in the kitchen, so here’s my version. These mushrooms are delicious with polenta, brown rice, or your favorite steak.
Prep time: 3 minutes
Cook time: 6 to 9 minutes
Total time: 9 to 12 minutes
Yield: Makes 2 servings
1/2 pound white button mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
1 clove garlic, chopped
1/2 cup Madeira
1/2 cup consommé or veal stock
Squeeze of lemon juice
2 teaspoons grated Parmesan cheese
Ground black pepper
1. Trim mushroom stems level with the caps and cut them in quarters.
2. Melt the butter in a frying pan, add the garlic and fry until fragrant, about 1 minute.
3. Add the mushrooms and sauté, stirring often, until tender and liquid from the mushrooms has evaporated, 2 to 3 minutes.
4. Add the Madeira and simmer until reduced by half, 1 to 2 minutes.
5. Add the consommé and reduce also by half, 2 to 3 minutes longer.
6. Sprinkle the mushrooms with the lemon juice and Parmesan with a little pepper and continue simmering until they are glazed, about 1 minute.
7. Taste, adjust seasoning and serve.
Main image: Musso & Frank’s lobster thermidor: A classic done right. Credit: Nicole Quessenberry
During the first O.J. Simpson trial in 1995, I was working at the Los Angeles Times, about three blocks away from the L.A. County Courthouse. Once in a while I would wander up there to gawk at the sidewalk circus that was in progress.
One fellow in the colorful crowd was selling an amazing souvenir of those days: a plastic mold you could use to reproduce the face of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito in gelatin. As I like to say, there’s always a food angle.
Several members of the trial’s cast of characters used it as a springboard to fame: the late attorney Johnny Cochran, police officer Mark Fuhrman, party pal Kato Kaelin (not that much fame, in retrospect) et al., including Robert Kardashian, of course, who bequeathed us a pack of telegenic daughters the world might otherwise never have heard of. Judge Ito took a more dignified route and continued an honorable career on the bench.
The gelatin mold looks kind of like the judge, but not exactly. It’s based on a life mask of the owner of SKS Sibley Co., which mostly makes molds for Halloween purposes such as brains, hands and eyeballs. At any rate, it looked enough like the Honorable Ito that people recognized the resemblance at the time. The mold came with a pair of glasses made from construction paper, which were not really very close to what the judge wore.
Of course I bought a mold. Shortly afterward, the judge expressed a desire that the maker cease and desist, or something to that effect, so it has become something of a rarity.
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That day I took it back to the Times Test Kitchen and we made it following the accompanying instructions. They created gelatin with a color a little like a flesh tone, more orange than one might like for the purpose, except perhaps on the Jersey Shore. The hair? More of a problem. The idea was to use food coloring (gelatin is food, people), but black food coloring is hard to find. Blue with a few drops of red gave a very deep purple hue that read close enough to black for the gag to work.
It takes a long time for the gelatin to set, but the next day we had it ready, and we proudly carried it all around the Times building to show it off. Everybody found it highly entertaining … everybody, that is, except the City Desk people who were covering the trial. They didn’t get it at all.
Today with O.J. nostalgia in full bloom, I dug that mold out, a little surprised to find that I’d hung onto it through the years and that I still had the recipe for the quasi-flesh tone gelatin. I had to make new fake glasses, of course – construction paper is less durable than plastic. So here it is, one for the “Remember Those Fabulous Nineties?” book.
By the way, here’s the gelatin recipe that came with the mold. You can use it whenever you need a flesh-colored dessert. In the absence of a suitable mold, you might chill it in custard cups and then paint eyeballs or something when you unmold them.
- 3 (6-ounce) packets of peach-flavored gelatin
- 4 cups boiling water
- 1 cup cold water
- 1 (12-ounce) can nonfat evaporated milk
- 3-4 drops of green food coloring
- 6 or 7 drops blue food coloring
- 3 or 4 drops red food coloring
- Dissolve the gelatin in the boiling water.
- When dissolved, stir in the cold water and the evaporated milk.
- Add three drops of food coloring – if the color is still too peachy try another drop.
- Refrigerate until quite firm, seven hours or more.
- After the gelatin is firm, squeeze the blue and red food coloring in a small bowl and stir. If it doesn’t look black enough for you, doctor it with more drops.
- Apply the blackish coloring carefully to the appropriate areas of the gelatin with a small brush.
Main photo: Twenty years after the O.J. Simpson trial, Charles Perry digs out his Jell-O mold of Superior Court Judge Lance Ito to revive an unlikely recipe. Credit: Charles Perry
Can the kitchen hold the recipe for romance — or is the gender divide too great?
On a reality TV show known for romantic fantasy, a recent cooking-themed date fizzled more than it sizzled when “The Bachelorette,” Andi Dorfman, sought to heat things up with Brian (one of about a dozen eligible bachelors at her disposal) on a foodie date in the most romantic of locations — Marseille, France. But like a stubborn soufflé, the evening fell flat.
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Before Andi and Brian enter a kitchen in which one can imagine Julia Child herself finding passion, contentment and satisfaction within the pleasures of French cuisine, they snuggle together in a private cinema. Andi and Brian view “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a cinematic adaptation of Richard C. Morais’ best-selling novel, in which a cross-cultural culinary rivalry yields compassion, transformation and love. The film inspires Andi to bring its plot to life. She and Brian visit local markets and shops, gathering ingredients for a French feast, an experience that Andi describes as one out of a movie or fairytale. Beyond a gastronomic adventure, however, Andi hopes to cook up some romance, to find her own recipe for love.
But instead of the sumptuous cooking and feeding scenes that viewers associate with food films, the passion quickly cools between Andi and Brian. As a man who does not cook, Brian admits that he is “outside of his comfort zone” and grows so uncomfortable in the kitchen that he emotionally shuts down, communicating with only curt responses and making no displays of affection. As they chop carrots, marinate frog legs, toss a salad and slice a baguette, they are spatially separated, standing back-to-back or on opposite ends of the kitchen space. Mimicking a scene from “The Hundred-Foot Journey,” a disappointed Andi waves a limp asparagus spear in the air, the vegetable’s figurative impotence displaying the date’s failed chemistry.
Cooking, gender and the celebrity chef
Andi and Brian’s disastrous food-focused date echoes a collision of expectations that surround cooking. Although the gender divide is softening in many households, conventional roles dictate that women are expected to cook in the home. Men more often are not. Rather, it is typically men who cook in professional kitchen as chefs. This episode of “The Bachelorette” taps into the increasingly commercialized sex appeal of celebrity chefs, who, even as female chefs make great strides in restaurant kitchens, continue to be mostly male. For example, a study from the Restaurant Opportunities Centers United found that women are hired for only 19% of chef positions, a gender gap worthy of our ire.
And, in the American media, popular chefs exude a particular brand of rugged masculinity. Consider this description of Todd English in the New York Post: “By turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, he’s the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island.” The iconic male chef is always in control — of himself, his knife, his ingredients, his suppliers and his staff. He is commanding. He is as “hot” as the roasting, boiling and sautéing that take place around him in the kitchen that he manages with an unwavering authority.
An unfulfilled food fantasy
Held to these standards of professionalism and macho masculinity, Brian fails to fulfill his role as the sexy chef in Andi’s food-film-inspired fantasy. He is not knowledgeable on cheese. He cannot describe how he prepares broccoli. He fails to seize the moment in every way. Beyond not playing his part, by not complimenting Andi’s command in the kitchen, he also fails to validate her femininity.
Cultures map gendered expectations onto food and cooking. Who cooks, why, how, what and when speak volumes about how a culture defines masculinity and femininity, professional prowess and familial devotion. There are also literal connections between food, sex and desire — from aphrodisiacs to food foreplay à la “9 1/2 Weeks” or “Tampopo.”
In the end, though, eaters need not hold themselves to professional standards or aspire to culinary fantasy. It is always an option to “just leave cooking to the movies,” as Andi and Brian did, rekindling their budding relationship at a restaurant over beef bourguignon, a dish whose depth and richness they can only hope their love might come to emulate.
We English love our eccentrics. Clarissa Dickson Wright, the renowned cook, TV personality, author and countryside campaigner, who died on March 15 at age 66, is a case in point.
One of the stars of the BBC’s “Two Fat Ladies” cooking show, Clarissa (always known by her Christian name) was a remarkable, if somewhat flawed, person. Despite the advantages of intellect, privilege and money, she had to overcome a very difficult family background, as described in her 2007 autobiography, “Spilling the Beans.” Her father, a distinguished surgeon, eventually became a violent alcoholic who terrorised and sometimes attacked Clarissa and her mother. Formidably intelligent, she began her career as a lawyer and was the youngest woman ever to be called to the bar, at age 21. But after the death of her beloved mother, she plunged into alcohol addiction and was disbarred for misconduct.
Wright attributed her substantial bulk to damage to her adrenal glands from the quinine in the four pints of tonic water she drank each day during this period (not to mention the two bottles of gin and half a bottle of vodka that went with them). She subsequently swore off the drink, but the resulting damage to her health may have contributed to her relatively early death.
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She found salvation in TV presenting, cooking and powerful, articulate support for country life. The launch pad of her recovery was “Two Fat Ladies.” Her partner in this activity was Jennifer Paterson, a well-known figure and sometime cook at the Spectator magazine. They traveled the length of the United Kingdom in a motorcycle and sidecar combination, visiting places that were associated with traditional British food and good cooking, often of a hearty nature.
They would stop, apparently casually, at interesting locations where the TV crew had just happened to be waiting, to cook and present dishes to the camera. The Fat Ladies were far from politically correct, only moderately concerned with hygiene (although nobody ever got ill from their cooking) and were very good, rather than truly outstanding, cooks. The series was only brought to an end by Paterson’s death in 1999.
That series and her subsequent TV show, “Clarissa and the Countryman,” which she presented with Sir John Scott, was at least as much about country values as about food. She was always a passionate believer in, and defender of, good, basic ingredients; sustaining and well-flavoured cooking; the countryside and its traditional values and sports.
Interestingly, she articulated her support for country sports at exactly the time the U.K. was changing into a genuinely multiethnic, multicultural society where so many traditions were being questioned. It appeared she found comfort in supporting a way of life that was coming under fierce attack from some.
She positively relished a fight, both intellectually and physically — she was reputed to have left two muggers who attacked her in an intensive care ward. She was quite unmoved by the hate mail she received from animal rights activists on account of her support for hunting. She even threatened to display the letters publicly — which, as it turned out, discouraged many of the writers.
A magnet for controversy
She certainly provoked strong emotions. In 2012, Clarissa suggested eating badgers, which were being culled because they were believed to carry bovine tuberculosis. Brian May, guitarist with the band Queen and a major opponent of the cull, retorted: “I think we should seriously consider eating senseless people like this Clarissa whoever-she-is. She’s obviously outlived her usefulness. I wonder if she would be best boiled or braised.”
Despite this and her considerable personal eccentricities, most people who met Clarissa liked her. Notwithstanding her strong views, she was extremely open to new people, the most generous of hosts and friends, and paid no attention to whether they were rich or poor. In fact, she herself went from inheriting several million pounds to declaring bankruptcy because of her lack of financial prudence.
Perhaps she was so popular just because she made no effort to fit in with convention. The publisher Tom Jaine, who regularly shared a stall with her at Oxford food festivals, remarked in his obituary of her that each year she wore not only the same skirt but that it even bore the same stains.
She is going to be greatly missed by very many people, including at least some of those who loved to disagree with her.
Top photo: Clarissa Dickson Wright. Credit: Cristian Barnett
If the average food magazine were a castaway on the ’60s TV show “Gilligan’s Island,” it would be Ginger: glamorous, worldly and somewhat unattainable. Cook’s Illustrated magazine, on the other hand, would be a hybrid of Mary Ann and the Professor: wholesome, intelligent and oh-so-accessible.
Just look at a cover of Cook’s Illustrated and you’ll see what I mean. Rather than seducing readers with gorgeous food-porn photography, Cook’s presents still-life illustrations of basic ingredients, such as walnuts or heads of garlic. Inside the magazine you won’t find profiles of celebrity chefs or reviews of the hottest new restaurants. You won’t even find color. Cook’s is printed in no-nonsense black and white, and most of its images are simple line drawings.
By the editors of "America's Test Kitchen"
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While the glossy magazines present features about how to entertain your impossibly beautiful friends on the rooftop deck of your Manhattan apartment, Cook’s chronicles its 37 failed attempts at roasting the perfect chicken before discovering the best technique.
To put it another way: Cook’s Illustrated is a cooking magazine for nerds. Nerds like me.
Through its pages I learned to make wonderfully creamy scrambled eggs by cooking them slowly over a low flame and gently stirring with a heat-resistant rubber spatula. I learned how to avoid making a watery, gray scramble by cooking the eggs and vegetables separately and combining them just before serving. I learned to make a nearly foolproof pie crust by adding vodka.
Kimball’s food publishing adventures
I have Christopher Kimball to thank for all that kitchen know-how. Kimball founded the original Cook’s magazine in 1980 and ran it as editor and publisher until 1989, when he sold it to the Bonnier Group. The magazine eventually folded under its new publisher, and in 1993, Kimball relaunched the magazine as Cook’s Illustrated. Its audience has since grown to more than a million subscribers.
America’s Test Kitchen isn’t just a TV show, it’s a working test kitchen outside of Boston where three dozen cooks, editors, food scientists, tasters and equipment experts collaborate.
It was this team, led by Kimball, that created ATK’s impressive new book, “The America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook.” This mammoth 822-page tome isn’t merely a collection of exhaustively tested recipes, it’s an education in essential cooking techniques. The book covers not only the “how” of each technique but also the “why,” and provides useful tips on such diverse topics as perfecting knife skills and choosing cookware.
We checked in with Kimball about ATK’s new book, the philosophy behind Cook’s Illustrated and the evolution of American home cooking.
What sorts of dishes did your family eat when you were growing up? Were your parents good cooks?
My mother was an early promoter of organic foods and ripped up the front lawn at our home in the ’60s to plant a large, organic garden with only partially composted fertilizer. The neighbors loved it! But she was not much of a cook. The food I loved the best was cooked at the Yellow Farmhouse in our small town in Vermont where we spent summers and weekends. Marie Briggs cooked the standard meat and potatoes but her specialty was baking — Anadama bread, molasses cookies, nutmeg doughnuts. I am still a meat and potatoes guy.
How did you learn to cook?
Marie taught me a lot on rainy days when I wasn’t out haying. I started using the old Fannie Farmer book when I was about 10. I eventually met Malvina Kinard, a friend of Jim Beard’s and the founder of the Cooks Corner retail stores. She taught me classic French cookery including coulibiac of salmon and how to make pate brisée.
In a world of glossy cooking magazines and celebrity TV chefs, why do you think Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen” have been so successful?
We ain’t glossy! The secret of teaching cooking is to put oneself in the shoes and kitchen of the typical home cook. They experience a great deal of fear and frustration (and failed recipes). That’s why we always start off with “bad” food. We make people comfortable by showing what can and often does go wrong. Then we fix the recipe together and explain why a recipe works. It’s taking the time to explain why things go wrong that is important — an educated cook is a better cook.
How many variations are typically tested at ATK before a recipe is deemed ready for publication?
The typical Cook’s Illustrated recipe is tested at least 50 times over a period of weeks.
What was involved in creating the “America’s Test Kitchen Cooking School Cookbook”?
Lots of aspirin and long nights in the kitchen and at the computer. We tried to put what we know about cooking into a form that was both in-depth and easy to approach and digest. The book is really a culmination of over 20 years of kitchen work.
Why is it important to know why a particular technique works versus simply knowing the technique itself?
If you understand why, you are much more likely to do it right. When you don’t understand what you are doing you are less likely to do it, and then you end up doing something really stupid like substituting shrimp for chicken (a true story from one of our readers).
Are Americans better cooks today than they were when you started Cook’s magazine?
Yes, no question. The 1980s were a low point in American cooking. Women had fled the kitchen and left for the workplace. Convenience was at a premium and the food industry exploded with more and more bloody-awful products that nobody questioned at the time. These days, balance is being restored. More parents are choosing to stay home. Health is a major consideration, which places the emphasis back on home cooking; it’s the best way to control what goes into your body. And, finally, a whole generation of kids had grown up in households without parents that cooked much and they wanted to find out what they were missing. Plus, the emergence of food television has also brought many folks into the kitchen.
How much of being a good cook is science versus art?
There is very little art in cooking unless one is a top chef. There is also not much science to it unless you develop recipes professionally. That is, you don’t really need to know that flour does not contain gluten per se, it contains glutenin and gliadin, two proteins that interconnect to form gluten in the presence of water. Cooking is really about paying attention and caring about what you are doing.
How important are improvisational skills in the kitchen?
Too many people want to improvise rather than follow a recipe; they think that doing it step by step is beneath them. That is, however, the only way to become a good cook. Then, later in life, with many thousands of recipes behind you, the art starts to come into the process. First, you have to know what food should feel, look, smell, sound and taste like.
What’s your idea of a perfect Sunday dinner at home?
Pot au feu — boiled beef with a salsa verde, horseradish and simmered vegetables such as cabbage, potatoes and carrots. And don’t forget a couple of bottles of a great white Burgundy while you are at it, and a good store-bought baguette.
Top photo: Christopher Kimball of Cook’s Illustrated and “America’s Test Kitchen.” Credit: Courtesy of “America’s Test Kitchen”
It was a sweltering day outside the classroom at The Greenbrier when Julia Child came to visit. She would come each year to teach and enjoy a little vacation with us in West Virginia. And, in the air-conditioned classroom where we held Ecole de Cuisine La Varenne classes, she seemed larger than life.
By Anne Willan
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Towering over the demonstration table, she had total command of the crowd with her unmistakable voice and her larger than life persona. I stood in the back of the classroom in support of my friend, admiring her expert movements and ability to multitask while narrating her every move.
This visit and many others came to mind as I worked on my new memoir, “One Soufflé at a Time: A Memoir of Food and France.” The times I’ve shared with my good friends gave me a treasury of stories and recipes. Julia was describing every detail of making a Hollandaise sauce, that silky combination of clarified butter emulsified in a mousse of egg yolks and water. Whisk, whisk, whisk, Julia first added the butter drop by drop and then in a slow steady stream. The sauce should thicken creamily but it remained obstinately thin. Fat spears of asparagus were simmering, the oven was calling with cases of puff pastry already browned. It would be fatal to stop whisking because the butter would separate.
“Anne, Anne, come and save it!” cried Julia, and I sprinted to the stage. Whisking like a maniac, I peered at the sauce. It was not lumpy and curdled, so not overcooked. I had seen Julia adding the ingredients and the proportions were good. Could it be too cold? Had the Greenbrier’s blasting air-conditioning got to it?
As Julia yanked baking sheets from the oven and drained the asparagus, I raised the flame — a dangerous tactic with delicate Hollandaise. But it worked, the sauce thickened just at the right moment and Julia gave me a congratulatory hug for the camera.
Top photo: Anne Willan and Julia Child at the Greenbrier in West Virginia. Credit: Courtesy of the Greenbrier
The enormous popularity of British television’s “Downton Abbey” is a great boon to PBS, which is airing it in the United States, and I suspect its huge success may have come as a surprise. Though PBS anticipated Emmy awards last year for costumes and for Maggie Smith’s performance in the juicy role of an aristocratic dowager, the show also walked away with awards for best writing, directing, cinematography and for the best miniseries or movie. Audiences love the story lines that zip between the behavior and happenings of upstairs gentry and the gossip and activities of below-stairs servants who make possible the gracious style of living enjoyed upstairs.
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One should never underestimate the American fascination with the British class system. We love to learn the details about the contrasting problems facing each class, and how they deal with them. The upper class has time on its hands and must figure out which fashionable outfit to wear for dinner, while those below stairs in their aprons and caps must slave away to get elegant meals on the table. What both classes share, however, is a knack for getting into interesting sexual entanglements. So, in the end, “Downton Abbey” turns out to be a soap opera with great clothes. As always, food serves as a reliable way to distinguish the classes not only by what is eaten but where and with whom it is eaten, and in the case of “Downton Abbey,” who cooks the food, who serves it and who gets to sit comfortably while being served.
Food and British social history
This series has inspired a small industry of books, some offering behind-the-scenes photographs and chat about the actors and sets; others dipping into social history to give the reader a bit of context. Even cookbooks with Edwardian recipes written by contemporary writers are coming along. But, for me, the best book that relates to the show was written many years ago by Margaret Powell, an English girl from a poor family who worked her way up from kitchen maid to cook in several great houses. Her memoir is said to have inspired Julian Fellowes, writer of “Downton Abbey.”
Born in 1907, Powell went into service when she was 15, landing in several upper-class homes first in the kitchen doing the dirtiest jobs in the household and eventually as a respected cook. Her memoir, “Below Stairs” gives us an authentic picture of what life was like for servants before World War I and after, the years portrayed in “Downton Abbey.” Happily, Powell also wrote a cookbook that informs us of the dishes served to the well-born. We do not find here English foods with such amusing and, sometimes off-color names as Bubble and Squeak, Toad-in-the-hole or Spotted Dick. Instead, we get dishes clearly influenced by French cuisine, an array of proper recipes for stocks, and directions for such classic pastries as choux and pâtefeuilletée. This is not surprising since the fame of French cooking was spread by the presence of French-born chefs in many of the British great houses and gentlemen’s clubs. This prestigious fare then trickled down to the smaller private homes of gentry who cared about status and saw to it that guests were served impressive French dishes. But we know Powell’s cookery book was written by an Englishwomanwhen we come across recipes for such British classics as treacle tart, the pub favorite known as Scotch eggs and curried eggs, which is a dish that reflects the British rule in India.
American-style success in a British class system
Learning how to cook was not easy for Powell who, in her first job as kitchen maid, faced a mean-spirited cook unwilling to teach her young assistant. Instead, Powell found herself stuck with such nasty jobs as cleaning smelly game that had been hanging for weeks, and skinning dead rabbits in one fell swoop. In another job, when Powell told her employer that she wanted to attend cooking school, she was given the time off, but had to pay for lessons herself out of her meager salary. When she did, she found herself taken in by a fraudulent Englishman pretending to be a French chef. She quit when she realized that his frequent outbursts of “oui, oui” and “mais non” were the extent of his knowledge of the French language, reflecting as well his limited knowledge of French cooking.
But Powell soldiered on, moving ahead as a cook, revealing her deepening knowledge by saying, “the less cooking you know how to do, the more competent you feel. … The more experienced I got the more I worried. I soon realized when a dish wasn’t perfection.” These are revelations of a real cook that could have been uttered by Thomas Keller today.
Powell left service when she married a milk-delivery man and set up her own household, earning extra money from time to time by catering events. She later took courses and began writing books, including novels as well as her popular memoir “Below Stairs.” Her later success was in contrast to the lives of most British household servants who remained poor and subservient all of their lives. Being stuck like this intrigues Americans who have always seen themselves as living within a fluid society in which success is attainable. At the same time, we are a bit scornful of the idle classes who spend spare time shooting small birds and animals for others to clean and cook.
Scotch Eggs, adapted from “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book”
1 pound plain, uncooked sausage meat
1 teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon black pepper
½ teaspoon dried thyme
¼ teaspoon nutmeg
1 cup dried plain breadcrumbs
Olive oil or cooking oil
1. Heat oven to 425 F.
2. Place eggs in pot and cover with water. Bring to a boil, then cover pot and turn off the heat. When the eggs and water are cool the eggs should be hard-cooked. Peel eggs.
3. Mix salt, pepper, thyme and nutmeg into sausage meat. Divide the meat into six parts. Roll each portion thin enough so that it can cover an egg completely.
4. Dredge each sausage-covered egg in bread crumbs until completely coated.
5. Roll eggs in oil and place on a baking sheet and bake, turning three or four times until the crust in brown, around 20 minutes.
Season 3 of “Downton Abbey” premieres on PBS on Jan. 6
Top photo: Book covers of “Below Stairs” and “Margaret Powell’s Cookery Book.” Credit: Barbara Haber