Piddling Around with The Art of French Cooking

April 6, 2009

About a year ago, for a birthday gift, Tim bought me a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I had come to think of it as a classic tome of cookery, one that no serious kitchen should be without. When I got the book, I flipped through it for the very first time. I read the Introduction to the 40th Anniversary Edition, which gave a nice synopsis of the book and authors’ histories. But then it went on the shelf. Not that I intended for it to be mere decoration in my “serious” kitchen, but the past year hasn’t felt like the time in my life when I should whole-heartedly pursue French cooking. I’ve used the book for a few preparations, including a nice way to boil asparagus, and some vinaigrettes. But that’s been about the extent of my relationship with the volume.

This month, my book club has made a successful leap from March’s Russian philosophical to April’s witty foodie: Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. I had never heard of this book, much less the blog that started the whole thing back in 2002. The short of it is: a 29-year old woman attacks an early midlife crisis by deciding to cook every one of the 524 recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking in one year. At first, giving oneself a year to get through a cookbook sounds easy. But then, you figure the math: that’s just shy of one and a half recipes a day. No days off, no weekends, no holidays. And not only that — but this is what I didn’t know about this cookbook, because I hadn’t yet taken the time to actually read it — French cooking is a b*tch.

Really, it just goes to show how little I know about food. But — to help me sleep at night — I remind myself that I’ve not known anyone, outside of Julie Powell in above-said book, who has cooked from Julia’s masterpiece. Well, I haven’t known anyone who’s told me about it. Maybe throngs of my friends are secretly slaving away at aspics for dinner each night, and just not inviting me over for a taste. After reading Powell’s account of her year, I now know that there are things in MtAoFC (as the author likes to acronym) that I will never attempt: meat-eater though I am, and even one willing to brashly display a cowhide rug from a Swedish Megastore in her living room, I will never cook brains (I know: never say never — but I really don’t think I will do it). And the whole aspic thing freaks me out a little, too, though I could see myself attempting one someday.

But Powell’s harrowing (at times) account is inspiring, and while her cooking usually seems a bit frantic and naive (welcome to the club), she exhibits an innate understanding of the wonders of Julia Child. When you cook from that book, you can’t help but learn something — many things, even — about food (French or not). It’s true that the cookbook dates itself simply by the list of ingredients required: I have no idea where I’d go in this town to procure beef kidneys or marrow bones; and even though butter is making a comeback in our culinary age, most people aren’t used to cooking with the relatively vast quantities Julia shamelessly utilizes. Not to mention the homemade mayonnaise — it’s used in so many of these dishes, but who makes their own mayonnaise with a whisk? (I’m biting the bullet and trying it myself tomorrow.)

The day after I flipped the last page of Julie & Julia, still thinking about and wondering over her year, I re-opened a book I bought a while back but never really started: In Defense of Food, by Michael Pollan. You’ve heard me drone on and on (either here or awkwardly at a social gathering) about his earlier book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma. The book I’m reading now is described as an “eater’s manifesto,” and he will attempt to strip away the past 50 years of what “nutritionism” and industrial food have done to our fat, unhealthy American selves (who are, ironically, obsessed with eating healthy). Eat food sounds like an easy command — but we no longer understand it. We don’t even know what food is anymore.

When I read Pollan, after reading about Julia Child, and then flip through the pages of a 40-plus-year old cookbook from a nation of people with whom we are fascinated because they can eat like that and look so good, it seems quite clear that, like Julie Powell picks up on in her novel, eating should be simplicity itself. That doesn’t mean that cooking is always easy — but if we break down the desired end result (i.e., a wonderful meal) into the simplest parts (i.e., what we have been given on this earth, as it is), it really is all that. And understanding our meal could very well inform our freedom to enjoy it as much as the flavors our senses mysteriously receive. It really is such a privilege, to be able to choose our food. Why do we ruin it?

Who knows — maybe, once I get into it, French cooking won’t be so bad after all. Maybe it’ll be like learning a dialect, where words will have new meaning, and I will learn to further question the reasons I do what I habitually do in my kitchen. Maybe it’ll get me one step closer to “nose-to-tail” cooking. I don’t really have a goal in mind, taking this cookbook of the shelf. Except further enjoyment of food and all that eating entails.

So with this in mind I’m going to periodically attack a recipe from MtAoFC. Starting last night: I boiled beets and potatoes, diced them, and tossed them with some shallots and a homemade vinaigrette. They will marinate until tomorrow morning, when I will attempt for the first time to make mayonnaise with a whisk, and stir that in along with some other fresh vegetables I have on hand. I plan to serve my salade a la d’argenson for supper alongside some sliced roasted chicken, and will watch to see if this is finally the meal that will win my husband over to the pleasure of beets (I am a realist, and don’t hold out much hope on this one — but it’s a pretty nice thing to at least be confident that he will always try).

Come to think of it: if Julia Child can make my husband like beets, maybe I will cook all 524 recipes.

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