I’ve been listening to Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child as my audio car reading. In my Audible search Dearie came in a tasty 25 hours and 29 minutes, long enough to dig in for the trips to Bar Harbor and Bangor, too long for the drive-by reading I can manage before falling asleep. I learned things about Julia, and found connections, I had never imagined.
I had known Julia spent summers at Laupus Point, where I took my kids swimming, with her husband and his family. Thinking about her walking the beach, considering seafood options, looking across the harbor at the sardine canning plants, I tried to see through her eyes. Much had changed since Julia arrived in the fifties. Bass Harbor grew and then shrank back in on itself, and Julia, a terrible cook at the outset, morphed into a beacon of culinary technique.
Listening to Dearie, however, got me thinking about my own experiences growing up with food, things my family did in terms of eating. There was, I suspect, quite a bit of Julia’s influence. She burst onto the scene from WGBH out of Boston. That would have been the channel my family watched in the early sixties. I remember my mother bringing home egg plant and zucchini. Well, not so much her bringing it home, but the reaction when she served it up for supper. None of us, herself included, had ever eaten such a thing. It did not go over terribly well. My father at that time was still a meat and potatoes kind of guy. Fish could be broiled or fried, clams fried or steamed, eel well corn-mealed and fried. Beef was roasted or grilled and chicken like-wise. We ate hash on Wednesday made of the Sunday roast, boiled-dinner was not just for St. Patrick’s Day. We ate carrots, green and waxed beans, and peas. Canned spinach and beets were cause for rebellion. My mother must have been sorely frustrated. I remember my sister gloating, once when I got home from first grade, that she and Mom had eaten asparagus on toast and it was delicious. Since I never even tasted asparagus until I was well into my twenties, I can only imagine that the reaction to the egg plant kept most of the food experiments between the two of them.
By the time we returned to the States in 1966 our palates had broadened and we had all grown beyond rebelling outright at new food. We knew that egg plant could be cooked without being bitter. Lamb could be brochetted and not just served as an Easter roast, or in shepherd’s pie, but still I cannot remember anyone cooking with wine. Once, when being left to cook a roast beef on my own, I dredged it in flour and “seared it on all sides.” I still remember the mocking for having done it using a non-family-approved technique. My dad, at this time, was starting to work on a PhD. This meant he was home during the day, sometimes. He could watch daytime TV, and he was brushing up against folks at Cornell who experienced fine dining and cooked as a recreation.
Dad came home, one day, with an omelet pan. He lectured us on the importance of using real butter (we were a margarine family) and plenty of it. He diced enough onions and tomatoes to make four omelets, and grated cheese on the finest side of our grating tower. He talked about being able to slide the eggy pad around in the bottom of the pan, and how the sides were specifically sloped to help this and the subsequent flipping process. He extolled the virtues of keeping the eggs moist, when to sprinkle on the other ingredients, and how to fold and flip the omelet to seal everything in place. Cutting into the perfect omelet would reveal a nearly liquid creamy filling, enhanced by cheese and vegetables. We weren’t, he assured us, limited to onions, tomatoes, and cheddar. Bacon, mushrooms, parmesan, or simply plain were excellent options.
Listening to Dearie I knew the source of Dad’s enthusiasm. What he ignored in his conversion attempts was that we were not, by and large, an egg eating family. We used them in cooking, and ate them scrambled or boiled or in an eggnog . Mom only ever ate eggs in a dry oven-baked omelet made by folding whipped whites into yolks; we joined her under duress. At that point in our family life, no one except Dad ever willingly chose to eat eggs if something else was available. Mom would scramble them for us all if she was cooking breakfast, or fry them for Dad. He begged us to try them, and we did. Our uneducated palates were no more welcoming of the exquisite omelet that they had been of egg plant.
Mom’s oven omelets morphed into frothy cheesy soufflés which, like Dad’s omelets, were accompanied by a patter I now recognize as coming straight from Julia. They were a somewhat easier sell. We were older, and, by then sharing the cooking responsibilities. We understood the tit-for-tat by which our own attempts would be given a fair shot, and so less likely to argue when new food was dished up.
Mom was all about the end product, real food, and whether it could be accomplished economically; Dad’s passion was technique and tools. Julia addressed both their needs. I never caught them watching any of her shows, but they must have. Dad would recount Julia’s devil-may-care attitude in the kitchen. Mom produced meals that could only have come from one of Julia’s shows or cookbooks. I counted myself lucky when I scored a hard bound, coffee-table sized copy of The Way To Cook in a used book store for $5.
Julia was more of a technical than intuitive cook; she was an enthusiastic teacher who wanted to bring others on board. What she had was a sense of humor, especially when it came to herself, and an ability to turn a phrase in such a way that the uninitiated could follow instructions and learn technique. From Dearie I learned that what seemed spontaneous was the result of hours of refinement and pounds of food, of learning how to recover from mistakes. My first, and perhaps greatest, lesson from her was on how to make biscuits. If you did not eat them directly out of the oven, if you let them cool down at all, my biscuits could be used as weapons to knock tourists off bicycles. They would not crumble, even in soup. “For a hockey puck,” one friend said, “these are great biscuits.” Julia’s advice to stop cutting in the shortening when you get to the point where you think “just three more cuts will make it perfect,” was what I needed. I understood it in a way that “don’t over-mix” had never helped. I am the sort of cook who needs to understand why something works, before I can freely apply the lesson to other, perhaps new, situations. From Julia I have learned to cook with wine, the value of mirepoix, and mixing restraint. I am not sure I agree with her tenet to “Never apologize!” but in matters of technique I will follow her anywhere.