Posted by: njbrown | August 10, 2009

Julia’s food revolution

August 10, 2009

I don’t think young people today have any idea how revolutionary Julia’s work was.  Jackie Kennedy had brought French elegance into the White House in 1960.  Most people were agog with her, and her cultural influence.  Julia’s timing was impeccable.  Women who wanted to emulate Jackie’s clothes I think wanted to be able to cook elegant French food.

My first exposure to French cuisine took place in December 1965.  My best friend from Mt. Holyoke, Leine, had gone to do graduate work at the Science Politique of the Sorbonne, and her mother wanted to travel to Paris to be with her for Christmas.  Leine’s mother was afraid to fly alone, so invited me to accompany her all expenses paid.  I was in social work school at Smith, but the administration thought the offer was too good for me to pass up, and allowed me to take the time off.

In Paris the food that stands out in my memory is toast aux champignons.  I don’t think I had ever eaten a mushroom before, and it was gorgeous.  It was my first exposure to béarnaise sauce (with steak), and I thought it was glorious.  I saw my first Bûche de Noël that Christmas in Paris, and was quite intrigued.  From Paris we traveled to Brussels where I had the thinnest of pommes frites in a restaurant in the Grand Place.  Another memorable meal in Belgium was mussels – again something totally new for me.  After Belgium we spent a few days in Spain.  I remember the waiter in the hotel cutting the peel from an orange he held on the tines of his fork.  After twirling the fork and removing it deftly in one piece, he quickly segmented the orange.  I was hugely impressed.  Portugal was the last stop on our trip, and the low point of the trip was being served a half guinea hen (I think) complete with head on New Year’s Eve.  People in the restaurant couldn’t understand why I paled and Leine’s mother frantically asked the waiter to take it away.  (Apparently getting the head on the bird was good luck.)  My bird phobia was more than I could deal with.  I returned having gained an appetite for sophisticated food – just not with the head on.

It’s hard to believe now that in the mid-60s there were very few fast food restaurants.  Most meals were still eaten at home.  Families often had breakfast together, and usually dinner as a family.  Meals were truly meat and potatoes with at least one vegetable, and probably some kind of dessert.  Desserts were basic – ice cream or cake or pie for special occasions.  Children were urged not to eat between meals because it would spoil their appetites.  After school a snack of a piece of fruit and possibly a cookie were allowed, and a glass of milk was encouraged.  Julia changed all that for millions of us.

Today George and I went to buy some of the utensils I had given away thinking I’d never do serious cooking again.  The bookstore was out of Mastering the Art... so I bought The Way to Cook, and Mastering has been ordered.  I found my volume of Julia Child and More Company.  Since today is my day off, I made Julia’s New England Clam Chowder for lunch.  For dinner with our left-over boeuf bourguignon I plan to make her recipe for corn sticks using buttermilk.  I don’t think the French eat corn sticks, but neither do they make New England Clam Chowder.  Over the years, it was fun to see Julia write recipes for a variety of foods.  Clearly, Julia’s affection for food knew no geographical boundaries.  While she loved fine food, she wasn’t a snob.  I recall reading that she absolutely loved McDonald’s French fries.  A woman after my own heart!



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