on julia child at 100

Since my trip to Boston this spring, I’ve been reading and thinking quite a bit about Julia Child, who would have been 100 years old on August 15.  The Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, which holds her papers with veneration, is hosting a conference in September in her honor.

There are so many ways to cook, and cookbooks navigate routes through culture in ways we’re only starting to understand.  They’re the great overlooked genre in literature, with so much to teach us, and I am grateful I got the chance to read and learn from some of the oldest ones in existence at the Schlesinger workshop on historic cookbooks in June.  Among these, Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is without question a masterpiece.

But we love Julia not mainly, I’d argue, for her cookbooks but because of her personality: her rough edges, her adventurous spirit, and her late start in life.  She was 37 when she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school, and hadn’t had much direction in life prior to that, even with cooking.  Unlike the legions of chefs and artisans who were born into the biz and learned to whip cream with maman and shuck oysters at their grandfather’s knee, she gives us hope that those of us who spooned Cool Whip out of a plastic tub and dipped fish sticks in ketchup in our formative years might just find ourselves nel mezzo del cammin di nostra vita, in the middle of the journey of our life, on the right path.

Julia changed everything, the critics assert.  And yet, for those of us who grew up in stubbornly resistant anti-food suburban America, unfazed by her cooking shows and fancy French food, she didn’t.  But I watch her shows and read her writing now and see what a powerful message she had, had we been watching:

PBS’s Mashup of Julia Child

“What makes a great chef?” she asks in the first scene of the clever PBS mashup. “Well, training and technique, of course, plus a great love of food, a generous personality, and the ability to invent hot chocolate truffles.”

The hot chocolate truffles, of course, are the delight of the formula, and she delivers the punchline with a little smile.  But we shouldn’t overlook the qualities she slips in before the truffles, the ones that make us able to share that smile, and ones in short supply — now and then — in America.

A great love of food and a generous personality.

These two characteristics need to go hand in hand.  If you just love food, you’re a glutton. If you just have a generous personality, you are one of those people bringing salt-free, leaden pasta salad studded with a few chunks of green pepper to our endless Eugene potlucks. (But it’s vegan!) It’s difficult to love food and not hoard it from the heathen masses, the ones who don’t appreciate a perfectly ripe fig or burrata that slips out of its covering and quivers on the plate. (Don’t pretend you don’t know what I mean, food lovers.) And it’s difficult, if you’re kind and loving, not to feed others whatever you have in your cupboard, even if you’re admittedly not that interested in cooking.

So I’d urge you, in the spirit of Julia Child, to work on the side that challenges you. (And if you have neither a great love of food nor a generous personality, then heaven help you.  You poison the world, and if there’s any justice, someone is soaking up your misery to feed it back to you.)  Most of us err on one side or the other.  Yes, work on technique and innovation, but don’t forget the other good stuff that made Julia great and can make us better.

happy as a clam

The intense, intensive week of reading historic cookbooks is over, and I’m tired but elated I had the opportunity to work with so many wonderful scholars in Cambridge.  A longer post is in the works, I promise, but for now, let’s just say I am as happy…

…as these guys.  Raw, steamed, fried, or whichever way you like us.

culinaria eugenius in cambridge: fruits of our labor

Yesterday, I learned how to be a Virginia house-wife.  Luckily, my guide book from 1824 focused more on preservation techniques and less on, well, everything else.  So I should be just fine.  I’m also now in possession of knowing what, exactly, an American suffragette cooked.  In two states, West Coast and East.

Yes, I’ve started the workshop on reading historic cookbooks at the wonderful Schlesinger Library in Cambridge. It’s a fascinating group of people — we’re representing places from Mumbai to San Diego, and there’s a healthy mix of academic types, professional and amateur chefs, and librarians.  I mentioned that I was working on an article on Modernist Cuisine in my introduction to the group, and someone on the other side of the table responded that she had recently sat on a panel with Nathan Myrhvold, and he had mentioned this-and-such about my topic.  Cool, huh?

We’re each responsible for five books, and each day we examine a new one in depth, focusing on a particular angle.  The first day was ingredients, and I think today is cooking techniques.  As you might imagine, it’s heaven for me.

(Forget Christ, there’s a miraculous pickle hanging from that fruit vine, yo!)

I had the extremely good fortune to visit two of the world’s best art museums this weekend, the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner museums. At the former, I was particularly thrilled to see a large collection of food-related still lives.  They were all fantastic, each in their own way, but I loved the detail of these 18th-century overripe Spanish pears, just on the verge of browning from those little damaged pits the painter faithfully reproduced.  Or these 17th-century Dutch strawberries, which — forget the symbolism or technique! — make me miss home terribly:

The food here is excellent.  I’m staying in Central Square, which was faintly disparaged the other day by a local who didn’t know what she was missing.  Every restaurant has been a delight.  I had big, beautiful dosas at an Indian fast food joint, a pickled long bean and minced pork dish at a Thai restaurant that specializes in Sichuan food (!), a legume couscous, burnt caramel ice cream, grilled sardines and plump skate wing in brown butter.  I ate some of the juiciest soup dumplings ever in Chinatown, and nibbled on extremely high end sushi nearby that deserves its own post.

But now, I’m off to learn more about how to cook in 18th-century England!  Sometimes it’s the journeys of the mind that take one the farthest…