Sunday, January 24, 2010

Julia Child, and Beef, in Real Life

Skip straight to the photos if you hate essays.

I was at the airport, in desperate need of something to read on the flight home, when I spotted Julia Child’s My Life in France. Now, I get that Julie & Julia has renewed people’s interest in the book, but still. The cover is plastered with images from a movie made from a book about Julie Powell’s one-sided relationship with her concept of a mentor that she knew only from books and television. By my count, that’s at least five layers of embroidery between the reader and Julia Child, and all of them are about some other book. Is anyone else bugged by this?

While reading, I recognized sections of the book that had been source material for the Meryl Streep scenes of the movie. It was tempting to visualize Streep’s Julia Child romping through antebellum Paris, good-naturedly exclaiming over everything, winning the hearts of everyone, and marching clear-eyed toward her preordained success as an author and television personality. But I put this temptation aside. I didn’t want Meryl Streep’s Julia Child, or Nora Ephron’s, or Julie Powell’s. I wanted Julia Child’s Julia Child. And even though it is filtered through the lens of her great-nephew and coauthor, Paul Prud’homme, My Life in France is the closest thing the world will ever get to Child’s authentic self-account of her life.

The film did show some things that jive with My Life in France. Julia Child was a scientist in that all outcomes were equally valuable sources of knowledge. She was an engineer who relentlessly applied knowledge and technique to a problem until she achieved her desired result. There’s no question that she was an artist. She understood the world and herself through experiences with food: cooking it, eating it, talking about it. Child connected to other people through shared culinary truths.

Anyone who has seen a scrap of The French Chef found Meryl Streep’s physical portrayal spot-on. But in the film, Streep/Child is unfailingly forward-thinking, gregarious, attractive, and lovable. Her perfect life is a product of Julie Powell’s (as rendered by Amy Adams and Nora Ephron) imagination: an ideal to strive for and a foil highlighting Powell’s self-perceived shortcomings as a cook and a human being. Child’s own recollections reveal a much different person.

Child was, by her own account, stubborn. She sometimes missed opportunities by failing to heed the nuances of personal politics. She was not a graceful handler of conflict, especially in intimate relationships. On occasion, she did the easy thing and kept silent when she should have spoken up. She sometimes made up her mind without consulting, or notifying, the affected parties. Quite often, she let the perfect be the enemy of the good. In short, despite doing her best, she sometimes screwed up. Like every other human being on our planet, she was flawed… and still lovable, and much beloved.

I am one of the other human beings on our planet, and so is my much beloved Beth, who is having a flawed winter semester. A thousand little things have turned out wrong, and they are all stressing her out. So I asked her to let me cook for her in the coming weeks. When she said yes, I turned to Mastering the Art of French Cooking and Julia Child’s boeuf bourguignon.

Child’s stated goal for her recipes was that they be foolproof: a typical American cook, using American equipment and ingredients, should produce accurate and consistent results by following her clear, well-tested instructions.

Thank you, Mrs. Child. You made all the big mistakes for me so that in recipes, if not in life, we can do everything perfectly.

Bouef Bourguignon
Knopf Doubleday has posted the recipe here.

This is my mother’s old copy of Mastering. It is some goofy pirated version from Taiwan. It looks to me as though someone shot very poor stats of the pages, then reassembled them in a smaller format on fewer pages. The colophon is in Chinese, though. What a lot of nerve!

The pages are onionskin-thin, there is broken type everywhere, and the index was not adjusted for the new pagination. But the recipes, advice, and opinions of the Trois Gourmandes are all here.

My ingredients: onions and carrots, blanched Tollefson’s bacon, and beef chuck. I didn’t even have to dry off the beef chunks. The meat from The Wedge is that good.

You are supposed to have a casserole, e.g. Le Creuset, that can go from the stovetop to the oven. I make do with a cast-iron skillet and my big Emeril covered casserole. Emeril and Mrs. Child cooked together when she was alive, so I figured nobody would mind.

First you brown the bacon...

Then the beef...

Then the vegetables.

Into the charméd pot they go. They get tossed with flour and then toasted for a bit in the oven.

In real life, next you would pour wine into your casserole and start things simmering on the stovetop. Instead I put wine and stock in the skillet. This gets all the browned deliciousness out of the pan so it can go in my stew.

The pot full of meat, vegetables, and sauce gets to hang out in the oven for four hours. Meanwhile, it's time to sauté mushrooms in butter. When you do this, you can expect three stages. First, the mushrooms will soak up all your butter and you will think you didn't use enough. Don't be tricked. Keep stirring, even though the pan looks dry. Second, the mushrooms will lay down the treasures of their bodies, and the pan will fill with mushroom juice. Third, the juices will cook off, leaving tender and flavorful mushrooms.

By this point the kitchen smells like heaven and neighborhood dogs have lined up on my front sidewalk to beg. Now I get to make braised onions. Peel them, brown them, and braise them in stock. All this only takes another hour and a half.

It's possibly time to take that bourguignon out of the oven. I must pour off the sauce, reduce it, put the onions and mushrooms in the pot, and pour the sauce back on. I don't know about you, but I am starting to have some predatory feelings toward this dish. I am starting to leer at it and sing to it. Hey, pretty, don't you wanna take a ride with me?

The dish is getting uncomfortable with my attention.

I served it with wide noodles. Mrs. Child would have said, "Bon appétit!"