Our own ‘Julie and Julia’
It was an ambitious undertaking, so we split it up. Three Waynesboro women made five dishes from Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking;” and we served them on Aug. 15, which would have been her 97th birthday. Sylvia Woodworth, a retired educator, realtor Dixie McClenahan and I prepared a four-course meal chosen by Bon Appétit magazine as a meal from “Mastering” that would come together well.
We weren’t the only ones interested in Julia Child this summer – she’s achieved posthumous popularity even greater than the loyal following she had when she was alive, thanks to the success of Nora Ephron’s “Julie and Julia,” a movie based on Julia Child’s “My Life in France,” and Julie Powell’s blog about cooking all 524 of the recipes in Child’s cookbook. Powell, a Manhattan clerical worker, took on the project in her tiny Queens kitchen to distract herself from the boredom of her job, and released online each day a story of her night’s adventures. Her goal was to go through “Mastering” in one year. Her blog, “Julie and Julia,” became a surprise hit and was released as a book. Julia’s part of the story was her almost instant fascination with classic French cuisine, and her ability to make its time-honored processes available to Americans.
An even bigger surprise is the reappearance of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” as a born-again hit. The cookbook written by Child, Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle is a best seller now, 48 years after it was first published. It wasn’t hard to see why, once I began on the reine de saba (a chocolate-almond cake) from the book. Why, Julia had thought of everything – how to melt the chocolate, how to sift the flour, how to prepare the pan, how to cool the frosting, and how to spread it. Even though I usually use the microwave to melt chocolate now, I melted it over hot water, just as Julia asked, in honor of her birthday.
In the movie, Julie Powell has plenty of disasters as she works her way through the year. A chicken stuffed with cream cheese goes splat on the floor. The lobster crawls out of the pot, the bouef bourguignon dries out, ingredients are sometimes elusive even in America’s most cosmopolitan city.
We had a few challenges, too, as we worked our way through the birthday dinner. Despite Julia’s detailed instructions, I put the cake in the oven before I discovered the last quarter of the flour (it was divided in quarters to add alternately with wetter ingredients) was still on the counter. Feeling like Julie Powell at her most bumbling, I stirred the flour into already warm batter and hoped for the best.
Dixie and Sylvia had some challenges, too. Dixie staffed an open house the day of her party, so made her pissaladiere Nicoise in stages: the onions (cooked slowly, stirring constantly for an hour!); the pastry; then the final last-minute assembly. Sylvia, who lived in France for years and has an easy familiarity with vinaigrette, found herself suddenly unable to get the oil and acid to emulsify. Somehow, though, the meal came together and was wonderful, washed down by a mix of French and Virginia rose. (needs accent on end)
As with everything in this age of opinions, the whole Julia Child revival has sparked a backlash: a chef, writing in Slate, warned people not to buy “Mastering” since it is too difficult for today’s cooks who’ve grown up with Rachel Ray. Others find fault with so much time spent in an occupation resulting in nothing more than a pleasing meal.
I was driving along pondering this hostility when I heard Julia’s famous quote repeated in an old interview with Terry Gross on public radio. Terry asked the then 80-year-old Julia how she managed to keep up with her grueling schedule. It was so great to hear that chirpy, loopy voice one more time: “Well, Terry, I take care of myself,” Julia said: “Red meat and gin, you know.” If you don’t get Julia, you don’t get her. And if creating a wonderful meal seems like a waste of time, you’re certainly never going to master the art of French cooking or any other art.