Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Julia and Me

After I heard Meryl Streep on Conan O'Brian's first week, I knew I would go see the new movie, Julie and Julia. Suffice it to say that Streep is magnificent in totally capturing Julia Child. Stanley Tucci vaguely also gives a nice performance as Paul Child--the picture only intimates at the reality of his retiring from the Foreign Service and then switching places so he could support his wife in her new endeavors.

I cherish my old paperback editon of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I never really watched her show all that often but I began using the book in the late '70s. We were in England and although I enjoyed reading Elizabeth David's works--she was the doyenne of English cookery writers, which may not be saying much--they were more fun to read than useful in cooking. Julia Child's book also was available in paperback in Britain far earlier than in the States, where Knopf was making too much money on the hardcover to put it out right away in paper (see--you've already picked up a factoid that the movie overlooked in its worship of Knopf for publishing Child's masterwork when Houghton Mifflin punked out).

It was a terrific book because it taught you how to do things the right way. And once you managed to learn the skills, they were useful in all kinds of other cooking you might try. I still use the English edition even if I have to translate the metric measures and other English eccentricities such as setting your gas oven at Mark 3. Julia Child warns you that American butchers don't cut meat the same way French ones do. I have a feeling she would have thrown up her hands at British butchers' practices.

She also taught you not to fret about making things that sound difficult. Example: she has a great recipe for a veal roast. Right now, by the way, the hardest part about making a veal roast in D.C. is finding the roast. Last time I tried eight stores and the one that had a fancy butcher counter and filled my need (for a price, Ugarte, for a price) just closed down. This recipe is absolutely perfect and always works. Once I went farther and made the fancier spinoff recipe--Veal Sylvie, which involves inserting slices of ham and cheese into the veal roast. That worked too but it's one of the many fancier variations she gives you that are excessively ungepatch, which means excessive, I think. If you like roasted veal, forget about the ham and cheese, even if they are prosciutto and cheddar.

You learn from the movie what an amazing person Julia Child was. She didn't let the total chauvinism (against both women and Americans) of the Cordon Bleu faze her and she also recognized what a wonderland France still is for anyone who loves to cook, or eat, for that matter. Yes, they insist that you do it their way. Absolutely, because that is the right way. Similarly, everything to do with cooking and eating in Italy is about on the same level as it is in France, and everyone is just as impossible in insisting that you do it their way. Look, can you find those fantastic little purplish artichokes anywhere in this country to cook up quickly in the few weeks they are in season?

Britain is now far different from what it was like thirty years ago when I lived there. Lots of restaurants are excellent. But you don't have the same depth in terms of the culture. Press down a level or two and you may find those treacle tarts and sultana rolls and stale pastries that ordinary folks have cherished in Britannia for ever. They even have fancy fast food joints in the London rail stations that specialize in Cornish pasties--surely putting a pig in a silk dress. People just don't believe that British food culture has changed that much and they might be right. The worst change is trying to find a decent fish'n'chips shop--or any fish'n'chip shop.

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