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From Julia Child’s Kitchen
Traditionally, there have been in America two commonly held stereotypes of the cook, both of them highly negative. The first is that of the snob-gourmet. The snob-gourmet prefers anything foreign to anything American, has utter contempt for the common man, and publishes rapturous accounts of his eating experiences in Eastern Establishment-type magazines. The second stereotype is the one which produces the typical cook character of old movies and television serials. Cook ( or “Cookie” as he is often diminutively dubbed) is fat, fiery with his sous-chefs, ludicrously finicky, childish, and embarrassingly self-important. He never goes anywhere without his veritable mushroom cloud of a chefs hat and is habitually either tweaking his moustache or else kissing the five fingers of his hand Continental-style: Magnifique!
Julia Child, of course, bears no resemblance to these sorry creatures, and in fact, her personal charm has been such that she has not only overridden the images to selfrenown, but has also forever altered them. (Though not necessarily for the better. Witness, for example, the new TV variety show skits which spoof cooks as quite overly enthusiastic oenophiles.) Her greatest talent as a television personality was her ability to make her viewers feel at ease with her suspiciously exotic art. Though obviously an urbane and intelligent woman, Child also interjected both hominess and humor. When she said the French names of her dishes, a wry smirk and a certain exaggerated drone in her tone of voice had the effect of undercutting any possible suggestion of haute cuisine hauteur. And Child was as genuine and earthly as the plains of Nebraska, never displaying the gimmickry and commercialism common to many of her fellow media chefs. Unflappably gasping her way through collapsed desserts and omelettes that landed on the stovetop instead of in the pan, she became the darling of anxious neophyte housewife-cooks, the Unsinkable Molly Brown of gastronomy.
Child’s new book, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, is to my mind the most pleasurable of the four books the French chef has authored and coauthored to date. This is not to denigrate her previous works. The two famous volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, both written in collaboration, were, as she explains, “intended to be textbooks of classical French cuisine,” and are consequently formal in style. By contrast, From Julia Child’s Kitchen contains, in addition to recipes, a good deal of Child’s warmth and wisdom. One is immediately aware of the author’s deep love affair with food: she speaks of it as though it were alive. Roasts become better after “sitting and communing with their own inner juices,” but broiled tomatoes, she warns, “cannot sit around and wait for you.” Yeast organisms are to Child endearing little munchkins that “gobble,” “multiply,” and “belch” when fed, then “settle down quietly, waiting for the next offering.” Frozen fish, she cautions, is subject to "trauma from which it will never recover” if it reaches a temperature of over twenty degrees. We also see Child as an energetic consumer advocate and crusader against dishonest and/ or careless marketing practices. Finding upon investigation that a package of frozen spinach often contains a single uncut branch with a few leaves attached plus a lot of useless green ice, she declares that “if truth in packaging were truly enforced, frozen spinach would be labeled “Branch Water & Leaves.” Over and over again, Child exhorts her readers to express their complaints to their grocer about such matters as stale fish, limited varieties of apples, and false or misleading labels on cuts of meat.
Many people are scared off by the seeming complexity of French cooking and never attempt anything loftier than the ubiquitous Quiche au Fromage. Though in her previous work Child has tried to streamline recipes and eliminate unnecessary hocuspocus, she has continued to adhere to traditional and often laborious and time consuming techniques. One can, however, trace an interesting development in her thinking. In the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking Child admits that some of her teachings in the first, such as her injunction against electric mixers in favor of hand beating, betrayed a “holier-than-thou” attitude. In this book Child has become even more liberal. For example, she has now gone so far as to okay the electric beating of egg whites, saying that manual beating puts “egg whites into that all too familiar Cloud Coo-Coo Land inhabited by We Happy Few, and we want to deemphasize that around here.” But for those who do not mind living in Cloud Coo-Coo Land (or at least from time to time vacationing there), and who are in fact delighted by culinary intricacies, there is much to be savored in this new book. Would you believe that Child devotes six full pages to the hardboiling of eggs, including discussions as to why a dark line sometimes appears between the yolk and the white, and directions on how to “carve” an egg with an off-center yolk. There are also a number of recipes that feature as their main ingredient that difficult matter called puff pastry, as well as instructions for such esoteric items as chocolate cigarettes and caramel cages for cakes. Child’s famous simulated French baker’s oven is also explicated here.
Some of the recipes appearing in this new book have appeared elsewhere in the Child canon, but most are new. A large appetizer section leads off the book, most of the dishes utilizing puff pastry; and the dessert chapters (there are two) are very inclusive. (Paradoxically, almost never in the suggested menus she sketches in the introductions to various main-course recipes does she recommend anything more substantial for dessert than fruit and cheese.) There are recipes for more kinds of fish in this book, including trout and oysters, than there were in either of the volumes of Mastering, and lobster lovers will be interested to know that Child, apparently after much research, has altered her earlier suggestions as to how to kill a lobster humanely and efficiently.
In establishing and making safe in America the art of French cooking, Child has had to meet many stiff cultural challenges. Take, for example, the current craze for so-called “natural foods.” Though originally Zennish and limited to a small coterie, the health foods movement has now taken root in mainstream America. There should be little surprise in this; the longing for purity, simplicity, and what is called “wholesomeness” is as American as apple pie and Chevrolets. And it is of course these very virtues that French food is popularly imputed to lack. Child relates how she was accosted in the supermarket by a woman who faulted the French method of cooking green beans, which, the woman claimed, leached out the essential vitamins. Except on weekends—when she splurged and did her beans a la francais—she adhered to the allegedly more healthful process of (name deleted). A French-born cook might have laughed the woman off as a gastronomic Philistine, but Julia Child, a Yankee empiricist at heart, whent home and painstakingly experimented in her kitchen laboratory with the vitamin-preserving process. The resulting green beans were, in Child’s estimation, “gray, color-bleached, tasteleached and miserable,” and she concluded that “anyone, name deleted or not, who cons the public into acceptance of such culinary balderdash deserves to be disposed of, bit by bit, in an electric superblender-food-processor.”
You’ll find much of this sort of feisty prose throughout this new book. Julia Child does not just sit back and cook. She fights for what she believes in; she is a proselytiser, a woman with a cause. And it took, I think, just such a woman to sell us Americans on the difficult, alien art of French cooking.
Stephen Schmidt appeared in our Winter 1975 issue. The issue stated: Stephen Schmidt is a free-lance writer and editor. He operated a French catering service in Cambridge before his recent move to New York.
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