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Friday, August 17, 2012

Me, Julia Child and Cooking

julia child and me
Julia Child at her home in Santa Barbara. After ten minutes of ringing the front doorbell, I timidly ventured round to the backyard to find her seated on a patio vibrant with plantings and comfy outdoor furniture. She greeted me with a hand wave and smile, gesturing that I should join her.

I came bearing gifts: an apron I'd sewn especially for Ms. Child and a bottle of champagne. Ms. Child unwrapped the apron -- all ruffles and at least 10 sizes too small -- held it up and in her distinctive voice said, "Oh, dearie, dainty doesn't do in the kitchen." Then she sweetly handed it back to me. I quickly produced hostess gift #2. Sliding the bottle from its bag, she rewarded this present with a nod and murmured notation that this gift she would not be returning.

Seated across from one another at a small, cloth-covered table, we talked while she ate a simple lunch of an unadorned hamburger patty and sipped a pint carton of milk through a little straw. We conversed about my apron journey, the storytellers whose apron memories I'd collected and her personal apron story. In case my tape recorder failed to capture every syllable of her priceless recollection, I took down her words on a little notepad, utilizing a sort of frantic shorthand I hoped to God would later be decipherable.

Ms. Child told me that she hadn't had much experience in the kitchen and hadn't even worn an apron until she met her husband. Newly married in 1949, they moved to France, where she tasted French food and knew right then she wanted to learn about French cooking. Following the tradition of the Cordon Bleu cooking school, she began wearing the chef-type blue denim apron with a towel draped over the waist ties. "When Paul and I cooked together, he wore the same type apron, only folding the bib at the waist and hanging a towel from the apron pocket," she told me.

As soon as she began talking about her husband, sadness misted her face, and I was no longer sitting across from an icon. I was in the presence of a woman who'd lost the love of her life. "Paul and I always had breakfast and most of our meals with one another. After his retirement, we often ate at home in our kitchen. Upon his death in 1994, Paul and I had eaten together for almost fifty years." Fifty years.

Perhaps it was her sigh, or the controlled tidying of her cutlery, but in that instant she was my mother, also widowed and emotionally adrift without her prince charming. And just as quickly, my nervousness left me and for the next hour, we conversed easily, like old friends.

With Ms. Child in the lead on a shiny blue walker with handle bars, hand brakes and a basket, we walked single file from the back patio through the house. Graciousness personified, she acquiesced to my request for a photo of her in the doorway of the kitchen -- a miniature replica of the kitchen in the home she and her husband had lived in that is now housed in the Smithsonian. Tying on her apron, she perched on a stool and noted the wall-mounted microwave as more an annoyance than convenience. Kitchen chitchat with Julia Child. I was in heaven.

The digital recording of that interview has been in a fireproof box for a decade, so fearful am I of erasing it. I was elbow deep in poultry, sweating, anxious, peering at the dense page of instructions in the book laid out before me. It was the first duck I'd ever tried to bone, and I was stuck. I might have remained there indefinitely, fingers frozen and numb deep in the carcass, were it not for reading what came next. "By the time you have completed half of this, the carcass frame, dangling legs, wings, and skin will appear to be an unrecognizable mass of confusion and you will wonder how in the world any sense can be made of it all. But just continue cutting against the bone, and not slitting any skin, and all will come out as it should."

Those were, of course, the reassuring words of the master, Julia Child, contained in "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" — for my money the greatest self-help book ever written, and not just for its approach to preparing food.

Julia, who would have turned 100 on Wednesday, was one of a handful of people who, starting in the early 1960s, radically changed the way America eats and cooks. We have her to thank (or to blame) for the Food Network and "Top Chef," as well as for the fact that every person who graduates from culinary school now harbors the secret conviction that she will wind up a celebrity chef.

And she also helped create a culture that takes eating seriously, that sees food as not just fuel but as craft and, sometimes, art. The fact that neither "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" nor"The French Chef"have shown up on "Mad Men" suggests that Matthew Weiner might not be the infallible master of period detail we all think he is.

Julia was her own brand of feminist, one who saw the kitchen not as a symbol of drudgery and female oppression but as a place of opportunity, no less potent than a boardroom, a place where women — and men — can exhibit rigor and individual power.

She achieved all this not with manifestoes or activism but simply by dint of the way she lived. When she found something of life-changing importance to her, she devoted the rest of her life introducing others to her passion.

Along with recipes and detailed instructions for preparing the foods she loved, Julia passed along her approach to eating. She couldn't stand "health food" and thought dieting was absurd. When asked about her "guilty pleasures," her response was swift: "I have no guilt."

Most of her advice was of the practical variety and had to do with focus and self-control: "Train yourself to use your hands and fingers; they are wonderful instruments. Train yourself also to handle hot foods; this will save time. Keep your knives sharp." But, always, centrally, "Above all, have fun." Every once in a great while she dispensed a bit of wisdom about how to live life beyond the kitchen: "Find something you're passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it."

It's the "keep" that makes that advice so great. This is not just the same old "follow your bliss" pablum; it is a recognition that interest, enthusiasm and joy are hard things to maintain. They require determination, pluck — courage, even. Julia knew that it's the work it takes that makes joy such a galvanizing force.
By the time Julia died, just short of her 92nd birthday, in 2004, I was trying to embrace her approach both to food and to life. The discipline, hard work and fascination she emphasized had led me, unexpectedly, to the beginnings of a career and, less unexpectedly but perhaps more essentially, to a truly beautiful boeuf bourguignonne.

Now I try to continue to be guided by her example. Not simply to follow my bliss but to hunt it down, nose to the ground, unrelentingly.

Though I never met Julia, she changed me, as she did so many of her other acolytes. And she did it not by writing a traditional self-help manual or a motivational seminar but with a cookbook: an exhaustive, meticulously researched, accidentally profound cookbook.

She taught me how to bone a duck, taking me step by step through an exotic new skill. And thanks to her detailed instructions, I have learned, along with an awful lot of other Americans who never would have attempted such a feat without her guidance, how to take all the meat of a bird carcass in one neat piece. And in the course of acquiring that knowledge, we've learned something else as well.

Sure, Julia was writing about the "unrecognizable mass of confusion" that invariably comes in the middle stage of boning a duck. But her advice can be applied to a lot more than butchery. In dark moments, in times of stress, in times of confusion, it's worth pausing to imagine Julia's distinct voice assuring you that, if you just pay attention and keep going, "all will turn out as it should," including the pate de canard en croute.


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