When I was about eleven, I started home ec classes at school. My classmates and I then spent the next two years fighting over ingredients in these core classes as we perfected the mangling of simple dishes such as scrambled eggs and kedgeree. The worst part of these classes, however, was post-cooking when we had to sit and EAT what we’d just burned, undercooked or over-salted. At this key time in my culinary development I learned precisely how not to cook in class; conversely I learned how better to cook at home, where I’d help in the kitchen and sit with my mother in front of afternoon TV shows of Julia Child slamming food around her studio kitchen amidst what could only be described as a slightly awkward, inelegant presentation. Part of me loved watching her infectious passion for food and admired the results, wishing she could visit our dated home ec kitchen to inspire our prematurely-jaded attempts at food preparation; another part of me sat glued to the set in awe of the hulking woman who obviously knew her onions when it came to food, but whose booming voice and giant stature were more than a little intimidating. In case you need reminding, here’s a clip of La Child in action:
Cue a bout of Julia Child amnesia, until last year, when I bought Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, written in conjunction with her great nephew, Alex Prud’homme. I’m embarrassed to say that it sat in my ‘to read’ pile for some time until recently, when I quite literally devoured it. Once more, I was mesmerised by this towering doyenne of cuisine as I learned that there was so much more to her own personal history than is first apparent when you think of an acclaimed author of cookbooks. For a start, she wasn’t born with a wooden spoon in her hand, nor could she bake soufflés before she could walk. Au contraire; Julia Child didn’t start cooking until she was 37 years old, when she moved to post-war France with her adored husband Paul. Once there, her love of eating and a fascination with French food led her to the Cordon Bleu school, where she studied food and its preparation. Julia also spent time getting to know the local market vendors, finding the best produce, learning French and experimenting in her own kitchen in an odd apartment on the ‘rue de Loo’, as she called the rue de l’Université. On top of all of the above, the tireless Julia somehow found the time to socialise with Paris-based foodies. She taught, gave dinner parties, helped a couple of new friends with their attempt at ‘cookbookery’, and it is this latter activity that eventually developed into Child’s weighty mega-oeuvre, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961), which brought truly French methods and cuisine into the American kitchen and subsequently revolutionised many kitchens all around the world.
This new-found passion for French cuisine changed Julia’s life, but not without hard graft did she become a published household name with her own TV show. I dare not give too much away, as this book is filled with such characters and surprises and inside knowledge of famous restaurants, critics and foods (I yelped with delight at the part where she visits the original Poilâne bakery in the name of breadmaking research) that it demands a reader’s first-hand attention, rather than a second-hand account. However, to whet your appetite, I will say that the complex politics of the time does not escape mention and honest accounts of strain on a workaholic’s interpersonal relationships, a quite unexpected picture of Julia in the bath with her husband and the down-to-earth description of universal frustrations and disappointments can only add to the admiration which Julia fans will feel on reading what she referred to as ‘The French Book’.
My Life in France was the sort of book that pained me to finish. There was only one thing to be done: I’d been bitten by the bug and now simply had to read more Julia. So, as you do, I popped onto Amazon, where Julie and Julia – My Year of Cooking Dangerously by Julie Powell came to my attention. I’d heard of it; in fact, one of my grub-loving friends had recommended it to me; I just hadn’t bought it yet. One click later and the book was delivered to me at the end of last week, just in time for the May Bank Holiday weekend – a blissful three days of Nothing Planned. Julie and Julia arrived with impeccable timing because on commencing to read this book I experienced the startling result of waking up well before I would normally have roused myself on a long weekend. Why? To read The Book, of course, and for once I’m not complaining about waking early. Not at all.
So, every morning for the past three days, as Monsieur slumbered on next to me, my first waking thought was “I wonder what Julie does next?” as I grabbed the book and read as quietly as possible so that Monsieur wouldn’t wake up and disturb this precious reading time. You see, this Julie Powell person had decided on a whim to cook every single one of the 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a mere 365 days. AND she had a full-time job, AND a tiny kitchen AND lived in Long Island City, which isn’t the best place to find some of the more unusual ingredients commanded by such recipes. To call this book entertaining is quite the culinary understatement. Refreshingly, there’s zero pretension. If the aspic doesn’t set or if murdering lobsters keeps Powell awake at night, we hear about it. Some recipes work, others don’t, and at times Powell enlists a search party to track down some strange foodstuff or other. Oh my Heavens, how I am loving this book, right down to the plumbing issues and day job and the strain that an obsession with cooking can place on a relationship.
As veteran Googlers tend to do, I’ve also spent some time reading the Julie and Julia Project blog, which is the unwitting inspiration for the book. There’s also the current Julie Powell blog to salivate over and on You Tube, there’s a trailer for THE FILM (see end of post), starring none other than Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as frustrated cooking-by-night-to-save-own-sanity government agency temp, Julie Powell. Now we just have to wait until it’s released on 7 August (I’m counting the days and if you know someone who can donate preview tickets to this particularly enthusiastic fan, then please please pretty please would you let me know?).
Believe it or not, you can also follow @Julia_Child on Twitter, only it’s not REALLY Julia (unless there’s a new app allowing us to tweet from beyond the grave), because she passed away in 2004, aged an astonishing 91. Following this sad date on the Child fan’s calenday, The Smithsonian was lucky enough to be given her kitchen, copper pans, units, books ‘n’ all and it’s now a crowd-drawing exhibit. (The Smithsonian has been added to my Bucket List. )
So, to sum up, unless I’m mistaken, it would seem that we’re in a mid-Julia Child revival and we just might have former government drone, Julie Powell to thank for that. Personally, I love the fact that courtesy of Powell I’ve now learned what a gimlet is and have added kattywhompus to my vocabulary.
In the meantime, here’s the trailer for the film of Julie and Julia: