Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Julia Child Saves America's Cuisine

When I learned we’d be taking a trip to Washington, D.C. last May, the first thing I said to Robin was, “Oh, I have to visit Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian!” So visit we did.

me, gawking at Julia’s gorgeous copper pots
(photo: Robin McDuff)

This exhibit features Julia’s kitchen from her Massachusetts home, exactly as it appeared in 2001, when she donated it to the National Museum of American History. Although you can’t actually go inside the kitchen, you can look through plexiglass windows at Julia’s beautiful stove, and all the knives, crockery, cast iron skillets, and other culinary doodads she collected over the years, and imagine yourself whipping up a soufflé or pot of boeuf bourguignon along side the towering woman from Pasadena, who first brought French cooking to our cuisine-starved shores.

My introduction to Julia Child occurred when I was about 13 years old. My mom would watch her show, The French Chef (which premiered in 1963 and ran for ten years on the Boston public television station, WGBH) up in my parents’ bedroom, and I would occasionally join her on the queen-size bed.

There was one episode in particular I remember my mother being quite taken with—the one in which Julia showed how similar a coq au vin and chicken friccassé were, the first being made with red wine; the second with white. And as Julia demonstrated how to prepare coq au vin or salade niçoise or quiche lorraine, Mom would take careful notes on one of my dad’s legal pads. Then, a few weeks later, she’d try out the recipes on our lucky family.

Inspired by the visit to Julia’s kitchen, as soon as I returned home from our trip back East I ordered all the French Chef DVDs I could find online:

I’ve now been re-watching the shows, and can see why Julia Child became such a television sensation back in the 1960s. Here was this gawky, lumbering gal (standing 6’ 2” tall) who, as she breathily enthused about the wonders of butter and lard, would pop up and down on her toes and flail her arms about madly. The American public had never before seen a woman like this on TV. (Click here to see her very first broadcast, boeuf bourguignon.)

cardboard cutout at the Smithsonian

But more important, Julia taught us not to worry in the kitchen. We’ve all heard stories about her dropping that chicken on the floor and then brushing it off with the words, “remember, you are alone in the kitchen.” And although this story is not in fact true, it is evocative of the light-heartedness and fun that she brought to cooking. Suddenly it was okay if your cake fell on one side; simply put more frosting on that bit. Or if your potato pancake came apart when you flipped it, not to worry; just mush it all back together and hide that part with a dollop of sour cream.

home made cooking school badge, at the Smithsonian

(click here for explanation)

And let us not forget that these shows were taped live, with no commercial breaks—i.e., in one take. So if something went wrong, Julia had to ad-lib. Or if she finished cooking before the program was over, she’d have to vamp and recount some story to kill time for the last three minutes. I have to admit that as I watch the shows, I sometimes worry for her, when it’s obvious she’s trying to remember what’s the next step in the recipe, or where the heck did I leave that spatula? But this is also an enormous part of the charm, because we realize as we watch her, hey, she’s not much different from me. I could do this, too!

Julia’s mission was to bring real cooking back to a country that, since the end of World War Two, had become increasingly enamored of frozen dinners and packaged cake mixes. As a result, her audience was not at all food savvy. So she had to teach us how to use a garlic press, and the correct way to slice an onion. And because Americans didn’t have the same access in the 1960s to many of the ingredients the French took for granted, such as fresh herbs and good, regional wines, she’d use dried herbs and “Hearty Mountain Wine” in her recipes. All without sounding the least bit condescending.

Julia’s Cordon Bleu diploma, on display at the Smithsonian

Speaking of wine, I feel sure that Julia Child was responsible, at least in part, for the Renaissance of the American wine industry that occurred in the 1970s. While living in Europe in the 1940s and ’50s, she developed a love of wine—a love that she made no attempt to hide in her show. Every broadcast ended with Julia sitting down to eat whatever she’d cooked that day, along with a bottle of wine which she’d chosen to pair with the meal.

As she said about the vinaigrette she was whisking up for a salad niçoise: “If you put in too much vinegar you spoil the wine, and you don’t want that to happen!”

Bon appétit!

Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Don’t Be Chicken About Duck Confit!

A while back I mentioned a couple of dishes I’d been leery of trying out at home: pasta (which that post was about), pizza, and duck confit. Well, I still haven’t done that pizza yet, but I did finally try my hand at duck confit, and guess what? Although it does take some advance notice (because the duck needs to cure for 24 hours), the method I used was no more arduous than many meat dishes I make on a regular basis:

Duck Two-Ways, with Duck Fat-Fried Taters
Seriously good stuff.

The word “confit” means “preserved” in French, and the term is used not just for meat, but also for vegetables and fruits. In essence, it refers to anything that’s cooked slowly in a liquid inhospitable to bacterial growth (e.g., sugar syrup or, in the case of duck confit, melted fat), and then preserved submerged in that liquid until consumption. (For a good explanation of the confit process, see here.)