Julia Child’s Real Gift

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in: Book Reviews

Julia Child certainly needs no introduction or any prompting about her place in the annals of food history, especially since Meryl Streep’s performance in the “Julie and Julia” movie reminded us of why we all love Julia. Much has been said about her television work, the fun-loving Julia, hellbent on getting her viewers to enjoy food as much as she did. And most acknowledge that “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” though truly a masterpiece, is an impeccable manual but with no trace of the beguiling presence that Julia’s television series introduced. This is why I want to focus on another of her books, “From Julia Child’s Kitchen,” which is a far more personal book about food that includes touching and amusing anecdotes, and photographs and drawings by her husband, Paul. This is not to say that the book is less caring about proper instructions for getting a dish right, but that it is full of the magic of the Julia personality.

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"From Julie Child's Kitchen"

"From Julia Child's Kitchen"

By Julia Child, illustrated by Paul Child and Abby Walton

Gramercy Books, 1999, 677 pages

Published in 1982 when Julia was already famous, the book is written in a relaxed style meant as much to amuse and entertain as inform. It is as though she had given herself permission to be informal in a serious book on food and cooking rather than continue as the impersonal voice of both of the “Mastering” volumes. In “From Julia’s Kitchen,” she chats with us about engaging food memories, relating stories that capture her youth in Southern California or early years in France with Paul Child just after the war. And there are anecdotes recalling funny moments behind the scenes of her early cooking shows.

A revelatory salad

In a chapter she calls “Musings upon Caesar and His Salad,” she summons one of her earliest remembrances of restaurant meals when she went down to Tijuana in the mid-1920s with her parents. In this era of Prohibition, droves of Americans would travel south from Los Angeles to drink alcohol, gamble in casinos and eat in the restaurants that at the time were flourishing. Julia and her family headed for Caesar Cardini’s restaurant where they ordered his famous salad. She tells us that Caesar himself rolled his big cart to their table, and she watched with fascination as he broke two coddled eggs over romaine, with “the greens going all creamy as the eggs flowed over them.”

She marveled over the inclusion of garlic-flavored croutons and grated Parmesan cheese, all resulting in a sensation of a salad which, to this day, is on most restaurant menus. Julia wonders, “How could a mere salad cause such emotion?” and speculates that at the time salads were not a standard part of the American diet, that they “were considered rather exotic, definitely foreign, probably Bolshevist, and, anyway, food only for sissies.” All this by way of introducing her splendid recipe for this classic salad.

A wordly taste

So taken are we with Julia’s verve, that we can be slow to recognize her intelligence and gifts as a writer. In her chapter on soups, she recalls an evening in Monte Carlo in the early 1950s when she and Paul dined in the now-defunct downstairs dining room of the Hotel de Paris. She describes having “a gustatory bash … almost weeping over the end-of-an-era elegance of the room,” which had a string orchestra, frock-coated waiters and diners attired in formal evening dress. Julia had been working on consommés at the time and was delighted to find on the menu half a dozen different kinds and settled on one named for the writer, George Sand. It was a dish she describes as a fish consommé garnished with crayfish quenelles and morel mushrooms, accompanied by croutes spread with the white roe of carp. She tells us that “It had a wonderfully worldly taste … and I knew as I savored it slowly that I’d probably never see the like again.” This was true, for when she returned some years later with James Beard, the formal restaurant had been replaced by a modern rooftop room with no trace of the atmosphere or the dishes she had so loved. “A pity,” she says, “but it is useless to cry over lost loves and lacunae in modern restaurant menus,” then briskly goes on to offer her own consommé recipes.

The wrong fruit

Although she could be nostalgic, Julia never exhibited sentimentality or self-pity in her writing, preferring instead to give way to her famous humor, often directed at herself. In a chapter on desserts, she provides a wonderful lesson in cooking with apples by making clear that she had spoiled many apple desserts, mostly on camera, because she had chosen the wrong fruit.

She ruined an apple Charlotte by using Gravensteins and McIntoshes, which were mushy choices that never produced the necessary thick sauce for the dish. As she put it, “the whole dessert deflated like an old barn in a windstorm.”

Another time, in demonstrating tarte tatin, she chose at her peril to ignore her producer’s advice by stubbornly refusing to loosen the dish before the camera rolled. “‘No, no, no, no!’ said I, imperiously. Everything must be exactly as it is, no tricks. I want people to see the whole tart just as it would be at home. But there won’t be any problems.” What ensued, of course, was a disaster. The unmolded tart collapsed messily onto a serving dish, its apples being more like sauce than neat slices, and the more Julia fussed over it, the worse it looked. She uses this example first to poke fun at her hubris over not heeding good advice, and then as an object lesson at what can go wrong in cooking with apples. With the tarte tatin, she figures, she may have chosen McIntoshes by mistake or perhaps Cortlands past their prime. What follows is her disquisition on how to avoid the wrong apples, ending with the tip to use golden delicious if in doubt.

What comes clear in this informal book, and what links it to all of her other work in her writing and on her television shows, is that Julia Child was first and foremost a teacher. Whether she was on television where she was a natural, presenting her good-natured and humorous cooking lessons, or writing recipes that were always exacting and precise, she was all about communicating to her audience how to put together a dish accurately, so that they would get the same kind of memorable pleasure she herself had enjoyed throughout her life.

Top photo: “From Julia Child’s Kitchen.” Credit: Andrea Rosenthal

Zester Daily contributor Barbara Haber is an author, food historian and the former curator of books at Radcliffe's Schlesinger Library at Harvard University. She is a former director of the International Association of Culinary Professionals, was elected to the James Beard Foundation's "Who's Who of Food and Beverage" and received the M.F.K. Fisher Award from Les Dames d'Escoffier.

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