I learned to cook the way most people do–by helping my mother in the kitchen and then by doing myself in the kitchen of my first apartment. My mother taught me to bake Grandmother Bread and biscuits. She enjoyed baking most of all, and passed a love of baking on to me. Most of what else she taught me in the kitchen involved a can opener or a box. She enjoyed grocery store convenience products. When I got married, I received several cookbooks as wedding gifts. I pored over them and tried out recipes, wanting to learn to make more things homemade. At times over the years, I’ve had urges to take cooking classes, sensing certain gaps in my cooking knowledge. It always sounds fun to take a cooking class, doesn’t it? I’ve never taken a cooking class, though I teach cooking classes. (Hmmm.)
A while back, Morgan, who says she’s not interested in cooking at all (more hmmm), turned me on to the movie Julie and Julia. I became enamored with Julia Child–and promptly went off on one of my classic tangents where I get hooked on a topic and have to read everything I can get my hands on about it. The movie, by the way, is about a writer who wrote a blog about her year of trying to make every recipe in Child’s first cookbook. So luckily, that’s already been done, relieving me of including such madness in my own temporary obsession.
I did, however, track down a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume One. This was Julia Child’s first cookbook, and widely recognized as a masterpiece. She wrote it with two friends, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, with whom she started a cooking school in her Paris kitchen after graduating from the Cordon Bleu. Alongside her cookbook, of course I had to also read her memoir, My Life in France, which is surprisingly fascinating.
I don’t believe my mother had a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking–at least I never saw it if she did. But she watched Child’s PBS show, The French Chef, because I do remember it being on the television when I was a kid. I remember thinking she was a very strange woman–so tall! And that rich, warbly voice! She exuded a passion for cooking that defied you not to look when she was on the screen. Even as a child, she caught my attention. But the “French” part can be a little off-putting, and since I had no further exposure to Julia Child, I assumed her cooking was all high falutin’, which I’ve never been too interested in. I associated Julia Child with boeuf bourguignon and cog au vin–and I didn’t even know what those were, but they sounded too fancy and too difficult. The movie made me interested in her as a person, which then led me around to her memoir and first cookbook–and a surprise.
Julia Child’s cooking isn’t all that high falutin’. Yes, she has recipes for things like pain de veau (veal loaf) and champignons sautes, sauce madere (sauteed mushrooms in brown Madeira sauce), but that’s not what Mastering the Art of French Cooking is about. It’s about basic cooking techniques, with painstakingly detailed instructions not only telling you how but also why, from how to dice an onion to how to truss a chicken, or how to choose the right pots and pans to how use knives and utensils–and everything in between. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is, in effect, a cooking school, and the techniques apply not just to fancy dishes, but to the “non-fancy” as well. It’s written in an accessible style so that I think it would be useful to someone who hasn’t cooked before, but in such gradations of detail and technique, it’s also eye-opening for someone who has cooked for years. No tiny nuance of a step in a recipe goes by without intense attention to its mastery. Take a basic white sauce, with which most of us who have cooked for many years are familiar. For someone who has never cooked before, the book describes step by step how to make a white sauce in its simplest form, then the book goes on to explain why and how it works, how to solve problems, and how to create variations–and what meats or vegetables they will complement well. All helpful for the advanced home cook creating her own recipes, while not neglecting the novice.
There are fancy-sounding recipes in the book, and I haven’t made any of them (so far), but the techniques, descriptions, and explanations are the true value of the book. And perhaps why it comes across so well in this book is because it’s written by Julia Child, with her voice and humor. She believed, “We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.” Her attitude is contagious, and makes you want to run into the kitchen and make a petit pot de creme just because she says you can. I’m off to get hold of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume Two next. I’m hooked, and the second volume is the one that delves more fully into breads, pastries, and desserts. For me, my “discovery” of Julia Child fills in those gaps in my lack of formal cooking training–and satisfies my own passion for food and cooking and my desire to learn more.
You can find lots of video clips from her old PBS shows on YouTube, by the way. They’re fun to watch, and make me feel like I’m five years old, back in my mother’s living room with the TV on. (The dearth of polish in these old shows is so endearing. One old Julia Child episode is more entertaining than all the spiffy shows on Food Network combined.)
“How about dinner in half a minute? How about a last-minute dinner party for 300 people? What about an omelette?”
I love how she throws down that other omelette pan!
Could anyone ever be as enthusiastically earnest about the perfection of an omelette as Julia Child? And that right there is what made her so awesome.
P.P.S. Speaking of cooking (and other) classes, we are down to only 10 spots left at CITR Retreat 2012. Is one of those spots yours? You better hurry to claim it!