julia child

the one and only Julia Child!

the one and only Julia Child!

We visited Julia Child’s famous “T.V. kitchen” on display at the Smithsonian Institution National Museum of American History last week. We’ve been talking about going to see it for ages, since we read Julie and Julia. Our fascination grew with our recent Julia Child cooking marathon party at John’s place with the release of the “Julie and Julia” movie last summer. Our friend KevStar was also pretty worked up about JC then, too. Last week, we were visiting family and friends in Virginia. So finally we had the opportunity to go.

On the ride from my folk’s place in NoVA along Interstate 66 to the Vienna Metro station, I couldn’t help but think of that somewhat non-PC joke that my friend, Cesar, taught me in New York about ten years ago. It goes something like this:

What’s the Western European idea of heaven?

It’s a place that you go to when you die where you have a French chef, an Italian lover, a British policeman, all organized by the Germans.

What’s the Western European idea of Hell?

It’s a place that you go to when you die where you have a British chef, a German lover, a French policeman, all organized by the Italians. Har, har!

Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian Institution

Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian Institution

Julia Child’s life was simply amazing! And whatever you may think of this mildly tasteless joke (everyone always complains that Germans are excellent lovers; and stereotyping is bad) her legacy was to educate and wean American cooks from our boring British past thereby making us into “French chefs.” And she did the whole thing with such style!

Julia Child's pans with famous peg board

Julia Child's pans with famous peg board

The exhibit was crowded by tourists. On display was her kitchen from her former home in Cambridge, MA as well as a lot of memorabilia, including continually running clips of her various T.V. shows. It really was cool! I was struck by how ordinary the kitchen looked. I actually identified several kitchen implements, like a Japanese mandolin, a metal steamer basket and some other things that we have in our kitchen right now. That’s probably not an accident, and it’s probably all do to Julia Child.

The things are interesting but don’t really capture the magic that was Julia. I think watching her truss a chicken, lather it with massive amounts of butter then wrap it with blanched bacon for a slow roast on metal spits all the while chatting away in her distinctive and quite peculiar accent on one of the re-runs on display was the most poignant thing for me. It was the woman herself that made everything work. I’m glad that I went but the kitchen is just so much curious old stuff. We miss you Julia Child!

wild French dishes

wild French dishes

Poliana at Julia Child's kitchen

Poliana getting com fome at Julia Child's kitchen

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a Child’s life

by Stevie on September 1, 2009

I think that Julia Child would have been down with this bottle of Dom Perignon for a party

I think that Julia Child would have been down with this bottle of Dom Perignon for a party

I’ve been inspired by recent Julia Child celebrations, the anniversaries of her birth and death and the release of the Julie & Julia movie to learn more about the life of “The French Chef.” I ordered a copy of Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One (1) (Vol 1) (for some reason, all of the volume 2’s, which we cooked from for our Julia Child party at John’s place, were on back order on Barnes and Noble’s website) and I just finished the delightful My Life in France, co-written by Julia Child and her great nephew (?) Alex Prud’homme. Actually I rather believe that he was the lead author on the book, particularly since the publication date is the same month as Ms. Child’s death and she’d been in a nursing home for some time before that. But whatever, my point is that the book rocks!

I knew that Julia Child had lived in France and attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris but reading all of the details of her life with Paul in post-World War 2 Europe during the McCarthy era, or perhaps “error” would be the better term, dazzled me!

In some ways, Paul and Julia seem like the epitome of the typical 1950’s American couple: she stopped working after they got married; they brought a gigantic American car across the Atlantic with them to France; he worked for the US government in a diplomatic area yet the book never really explores the implications of this work beyond simple statements that they were democrats and that they didn’t like McCarthy. I get the sense that they had more very strong opinions; these just never get put into print. I guess it’s safer to hide. Other than that, comparisons to the ‘typical’ go out the window.

The couple never had children, which I think is a little unusual for that time. I had the sense when Julia is reflecting on her sister’s pregnancy early in the text, that this is something that troubled her. She is delighted for her sister, who she finds now suddenly is a “full-fledged woman.” Paul was a struggling artist and photographer, it seems. I wonder if there was tension between them towards the later parts of their lives over Julia’s tremendous commercial success and his more modest achievements in the creative arts? Julia spends a lot of time writing about how wonderful Paul was as an assistant. I don’t have the impression that the supporting role was really Paul’s vision for himself and his work.

“My Life in France” takes you through her time in Paris; struggling to learn the French language until finally mastering it; attending culinary school; meeting Simone Beck, aka Simca, and Louisette Bertholle, the two who ultimately collaborated with her for the first volume of her most famous of cookbooks; the joys and agonies of teaching, cooking and writing about food; her frequent moves with Paul’s work, first to Provence, then Germany and finally Norway before he retires and they move back to the US; then on to her commercial and television successes. I couldn’t help but feel joy living vicariously through her many adventures.

would Julia Child have enjoyed visiting this bit of Paris in America?

would Julia Child have enjoyed visiting this bit of Paris in America?

Another Julia Child trait that seems atypical from the stereotype was that she doesn’t seem that uptight. Everyone knows that she loved food, but it’s also very clear that she loved wine, too, and wasn’t afraid to drink. In Marseille she writes “I had stumbled into an exciting street devoted entirely to brothels.” A prude would not have found that very ‘exciting.’ I was a bit disappointed that she failed to comment more on Paul’s interrogation in Washington where among other things, he’s accused of being a “homosexual.” I don’t think that Julia was a homophobe at all, and though it’s never said, she had gay friends, for example, the famous James Beard. It’s an issue dear to my heart that she side-steps in this volume. I wonder why?

Of course, the most unusual thing about Julia Child is that which everyone already knows about her: she became a famous chef, TV personality and she’s credited with revitalizing American cookery up to the present day. Charmingly, at first, if this book can believed, she only wanted something to do while Paul was at work. After trying a few other hobbies, she finally decided to learn to cook. Simple. Yet once the ball started rolling, well then, just look out! Underneath that tall exterior was lurking a very ambitious woman who succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.

I was fascinated by her ideas about American life and food. To me, she sounded a little bit like a snob in the ways she sneered at the sprawling growth of southern France: “It had rarely been my displeasure to see such a spate of plaster-splashed neo-Med box houses and pleasure domes crowded next to an unending row of tourist traps, cheap knickknackeries, Coca-Cola signs, and sleazy bouillabaisse parlors. Phooey! I don’t think I’d have liked la belle France at all if this were all I knew of it.” Maybe it needs a bit of editing but the sense is pretty clear. This same kind of suburban sprawl was happening everywhere in the United States at this time so one can only conclude that she wasn’t a fan. As to the food, once we’ve left behind the question of what a ‘sleazy bouillabaisse parlor’ might be, it’s obvious that she has some definite, negative ideas about the ways that the American food establishment was set up.

This doesn’t seem to be just a personal bias, either. One publisher at Houghton Mifflin, a house that ultimately rejects the manuscript which eventually becomes Mastering the Art, supposedly said “’Americans don’t want an encyclopedia, they want to cook something quick, with a mix.’” That’s a sad commentary about how we ate then. Julia was discouraged but she also seemed to get it. She spends hours trying out her French recipes with ingredients that would be available in everyday American supermarkets, for example. In the section of Mastering the Art volume 1 about cooking with wine and liquors, she strongly advises skipping the wine if it’s too poor quality, sour or bad. Apparently good wines simply were not that widely available then. Fresh herbs were also difficult to find at the time. It’s hard for me to even grasp that idea.

She was very concerned with the rise of the supermarket in France and with it the inevitable closure of small specialty food shops like butchers, bakeries, wine shops and cheese shops. That’s something that I’m concerned about now-a-days. I like to hope that we’re swinging in the other direction in terms of specialty stores. They’re all over the place in San Francisco and New York. In the more suburban areas, I’m not as sure, but my folks seem convinced that more is available now than in the past where they live in Northern Virginia.

If there is any real shortcoming to this book, it’s Child’s blind admiration for all things French. I’d love to have heard her ideas about regional Chinese cooking as she lived and worked in China for some time before moving to Europe. And, like I’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a lot of exciting food culture in this country too. Did she have to reject everything?

Julia Child had a charmed life. I hope that all of us can be so lucky!

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long live Julia Child!

by Stevie on August 11, 2009

This month would have been Julia Child’s 97th birthday (on August 15th!) Unfortunately she died in 2004 but her legacy continues. Best known as the lead author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and the star of The French Chef TV series, she has had tremendous influence on the revitalization of American eating, cooking and dining habits. So it seems only fitting that with the birthday of this great woman and this weekend’s release of the new movie, Julie & Julia, that John would throw a fantastic Julia Child-inspired party.

The theme was French, French, and French! We were asked to make dishes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. After a lot of trouble and two showers to get the butter smell out of my skin, I produced a fair version of pommes Anna. Hegui made a wonderful Julia classic, Aubergines en Pistouille, Froides, or Cold Eggplant a la Grecque with tomatoes and basil. John himself made two amazing Provençal style fish dishes: one with swordfish and the other with halibut. These had tomatoes, many herbs, anchovies and were just spectacular. I just had some leftovers earlier today and it’s even better! For dessert, he made Julia’s Gateau aux Noix—Le Saint-Andre, a kind of walnut cake that he served with freshly whipped cream with Gran Marnier. I had two slices at the party and more this morning!

pommes Anna and fish provençal

pommes Anna and fish provençal

Jasmine came by with her delightful friend, Marlena. Professor T’s still away on business in Japan so missed out. John’s friend, Chi Chi, came with her husband and some other family. Carey popped by and made it to the movie too. She’s looking more svelt than ever! Clarence had fun running around the apartment and basically showing off his bulldog stuff.

There were several kinds of French cheese and wines. I saw red Bordeaux happily standing side by side red Burgundy. Maybe the rivalry was suspended in honor of our muse, Julia Child? John also served an unusual cocktail with Chartreuse, vodka, tonic water and lime.

We heard only the finest French popular music from the Twentieth Century and in the background were playing episodes of The French Chef. Though I overindulged and I’m paying for it with a slight hangover today, it was a marvelous time!

do you like the color chartreuse?

do you like the color chartreuse?

At the end, we all trooped over to the Century Theatres in the new downtown shopping center to see the 10PM showing of “Julie & Julia.” This stars Meryl Streep as Julia Child; Stanley Tucci as Paul Child, Julia’s husband; Amy Adams plays the irrepressible Julie Powell and Chris Messina is Julie’s husband, Eric. I adore Meryl Streep! She’s so funny and such a versatile actress. And Stanley Tucci is a dream. I’ll never forget him starring alongside Edie Falco, both of them mostly naked, live on Broadway, in “Frankie and Johnny at the Claire de Lune.” He is so smoking hot! Streep and Tucci played alongside one another a few years back in the delightful and very successful “The Devil Wears Prada.” In “Julie & Julia,” they’re quite different but completely believable as a loving and happily married couple, who are both obsessed with food. I laughed out loud, possibly disturbing other theater-goers, when the Tucci character is being aggressively interviewed by the government during the McCarthy era in Washington DC and he replies, I thought humorously, “No, I am not a homosexual.” That has to be a classic Tucci line!

Julie, Julia and John

Julie, Julia and John

The story-line in Queens is really fun too, though I can see how the critics might complain. Somehow, Julie Powell’s dramatic hysterics don’t play as well on screen as they do in the book. Did you happen to notice that the Powells in the movie drank a lot of martinis and mostly red wine, while the Childs appeared to drink mainly white Burgundies? I wonder if that means something?

We all thought too late that it would have been great to have had a Julia Child dress-up contest with all of the guests arriving dressed like Julia. Good idea for next year!

artistically posed French wine

artistically posed French wine

Chi Chi and more

Chi Chi and more

Jasmine and Marlena

Jasmine and Marlena

cooking swordfish steaks

cooking swordfish steaks

reading from the bible

reading from the bible

Clarence on alert

Clarence on alert

butter with walnut cake

butter with walnut cake

fish provençal

fish provençal

Jasmine and Stevie

Jasmine and Stevie

pommes Anna and fish provençal

pommes Anna and fish provençal

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