Chef Hats off to Julie and Julia!

If you haven’t seen the film Julie and Julia yet you must.By now you probably know that it is based on two books, My Life in France (which I have read) by Julia Child and her nephew, and Julie/Julia (which I have not), by Julie Powell that grew out of a blog by Powell in 2002, in which she attempted to cook every recipe in Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a year.Both books are getting a bump from the movie and are on the NYTimes best seller list.

The film interweaves the two stories, and although some critics have a point that the Childs’ sections overshadow the Powell sections, the result is engaging and lots of fun.The incomparable Meryll Streep once again demonstrates her powers as a conjurer by becoming Julia Child, the lilting voice, the stoop ofa too-tall woman, the goofy charm, it’s all there and it is something to behold.Stanley Tucci is wonderful as her husband Paul, and the chemistry between these two is terrific to watch.Would that any of us could have that much fun together

Of course, the real star of this movie is the food, as you see Julia and Paul eat their way through France, and Julie (played capably by charming Amy Adams), cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her upstairs apartment over a pizza parlor. The movie gets a little overly mystical for my tastes about Julie’s imagined bond with Julia, but after a year of cooking her recipes Julie is entitled to be a little off balanced.

So this one goes on my list of other favorite foodie movies with Eat, Drink, Man, Woman; Like Water for Chocolate; Babette’s Feast; and Tampopo. Foodie friends tell me I must see Big Night and it’s on my list.

Yesterday I pulled my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking off the cookbook bookcase and noticed it is a first edition. It was given to me by my late Aunt Tia (Grace Louise Forster, aka Brownie Boghosian). It is a Book Club edition, so I am pretty sure she got it from The Book of the Month Club.I have both volumes with their dust jackets and they are in pretty good shape, since Tia didn’t cook very much and was pretty neat when she did (like my mom she was a librarian.) I, on the other hand, who also take good care of my books but give cookbooks a big exemption, have left pinot noir stains on both the Boeuf Bourguignon and the Coq au Vin (photo below) pages.

In addition to these two provincial classics, I have made Julia’s Cassoulet, and all three of these dishes are delicious, labor intensive, time consuming, and laden with butter. The Cassoulet takes several days to digest,

Julia’s later book, The Way to Cook, has simplified recipes, but loses some of the joi de vivre (along with the butter) of the original.I have made her “Zinfandel of Beef,” an updated and simplified Boeuf Bourguignon, and it is delicious, but not nearly as sumptious as the original, in which you braise onions and mushrooms separately and add them to the final dish at the end.

In today’s NYTimes Book Review Mastering the Art of French Cooking is now number one on the Hardcover Advice and How-To List, which means it will be taking up space on many a kitchen bookshelf for years to come.For those who actually open it and try to cook from it be warned. It is a great cookbook and deserves its reputation, but Julia was not fooling around.

The movie makes Julie’s attempt to cook all the recipes seem pretty grueling, but I suspect the reality was even more daunting.These recipes take time, thought, care, attention, good ingredients and love.There are no shortcuts.They yield wonderful results.

And in many ways Mastering is an artifact from another age.It is not only French cooking made accessible for Americans, it is French cooking from 1960. A lot has changed since then, and even the French don’t cook this way much anymore.

But it is still wonderful, so hats off to Julia for being Julia, and also to Julie for sparking a new interest for another generation in this great cuisine and the oversized personality that brought it to America.

(all photos: R.L. Floyd)

Where I Ruminate on My Long Love Affair with Food

I love food. I love to cook it, and I love to eat it, especially my own.

Mom and Dad both cooked. It wasn’t haut cuisine, but it was pretty healthy and had variety. I was born in 1949 so my earliest days in memory are in the fifties, not a heyday for American cookery. We had our share of frozen potpies and TV dinners and Mrs. Paul’s fish-sticks, but more often it was a home-cooked meal. My mother was a Midwesterner, so it was pretty simple with not a lot of seasoning. But she did have a well-worn copy of M.F.K. Fisher’s “How to Cook a Wolf” on her shelf, which was pretty avant-garde in those days. Fisher, Elizabeth David, and, of course, the incomparable Julia Child, were bringing back dispatches from the front about such exotica as olive oil and fresh garlic.

My favorite food was my mother’s friend chicken, which was a company dish. I remember fat pork roasts you couldn’t buy today for love nor money, with an inch of fat on the outside, and cooked ‘til it was gray for fear of trichinosis. The Sunday roast appeared mysteriously throughout the week in various guises and disguises. My Mom’s pork roast would supply the main ingredient for my Dad’s Pork Chop Suey or Chow Mein. That was exotica in the days before Szechuan and Hunan restaurants, when all American Chinese food was faux Cantonese. We had mac and cheese and ham steaks and haddock (frozen) that Mom would roll in corn meal and fry.

We seldom went out because it was expensive. When we did it was for pizza at an Italian bar called the Antlers (this was North Jersey) or to Westwood to the Cantonese place, where my Dad would always silently issue a “winner take all” challenge to the poor waiter with the water pitcher. Or for a real treat we might get the clam strip roll at Howard Johnson.In those days, at least in my house, there was no extra virgin (or any) olive oil, no kosher salt, no pepper mill (that came ground from Durkees), no fresh garlic, no cilantro, no jalapeno peppers, no garam masala, or Hungarian paprika. Cheese was typically Longhorn cheddar. Steak was chuck and cooked gray. Pasta was spaghetti with red sauce from a jar, with some browned ground beef in it.

My parents didn’t drink when we were growing up, so the first wine I recall having was the sweet Portugese rose, Mateus, that was the rage when I was in college.I started cooking when I was a young adult in the years before I married. It started with a simple spaghetti sauce or chili con carne. I added a spinach loaf that was mainly frozen spinach and crumbled Saltines.

When Martha and I were married our friends the Handspicker’s gave us a copy of Fannie Farmer’s Cook Book as a wedding present. That was my first cookbook, and I made my way through it and added more dishes to my repertoire: sauerbraten, shish kabob, and variety of soups, chowders, and stews. Martha gave me Joy of Cooking in our early days and I added still more. We moved to Bangor in 1979 and they didn’t have a decent Chinese rerstaurant, so I went to the Bangor Public Library and found Joyce Chen’s Cookbook and taught myself rudimentary Chinese cooking. There was a little Vietnamese place with a small market, and I found tree ears and tiger lily blossoms to make hot and sour soup.

I discovered other cookbook authors: Julia Child, James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Madhar Jaffrey, and Marion Cunningham. I made tandoori chicken and turkey enchiladas, paella and ratatouille. I discovered wine can be tasty. I still remember Arthur and Anne Perkins coming to dinner and bringing a bottle of Cabernet from Rutherford, and it was a revelation. In 1980 Martha and I went to Sonoma County to visit my college friend John Kwitkor, who worked for winemaker David Stare at Dry Creek Vineyards. John took us up and down the county, tasting and eating and having a ball.When our children arrived on the scene a few years later they landed in a culinary household far different from the one I grew up in. They ate tofu with scallions in oyster sauce regularly, and curries with raita, which Rebecca called “cucumber white.” When they were four and six we dragged them off to Oxford, England, for a term, and they ate pakoras and samosas, Scotch eggs and Cornish pasties, scones with jam and cucumber sandwiches with no crusts.

On a plane ride back in the days of airline food the flight attendant asked the woman next to my son Andrew, then about age five, which entrée she would like, one of the choices being coq au vin. “What is that?” she asked. “It’s chicken, Mam,” my little guy answered. When my daughter returned from Oxford she started in kindergarten again here in the states, and early in the year the children were all asked to name their favorite food. There was lots of pizza, pasta, and hamburgers represented, but the teacher got a big charge out of Rebecca’s choice: tandoori chicken.

This little culinary autobiography was prompted by Michael Pollan’s piece in the New York Times Magazine last week about food, where he writes about how we are becoming spectators of food rather than makers of it.

I still make food. Every day. I don’t do it to be virtuous, but because I enjoy it. I enjoy making it for others and sharing it with them. As a pastor for thirty years I know the joy of celebrating the sacraments with a community. There is a near-sacramental quality about a meal well-prepared and presented and enjoyed with family and friends. I often take pictures of the foods I make for a “cookbook” that maybe someday will be Christmas presents for my family (the pictures in this blog are all of things I have made).

My parents didn’t make fancy food, but they made good food, and from them I learned the joy of the table, about taking your time, and enjoying your food and the company and the conversation. We all know we need food to live, but I believe we also have a deep hunger for this larger communal experience of which food is just one part, albeit an important one. To me food takes time, thought, and creativity so it becomes something to celebrate and not just to eat.
(Photos from top: Grilled shrimp with uncooked basil tomato sauced pasta; Littleneck clams with black bean sauce; Portuguese Cataplana; Korean BBQ’d Flanken Beef Short Ribs. Photos by R.L. Floyd)