Evan Sung for The New York Times Tomato sauce with Mediterranean flavors.
WHEN aspiring young food writers ask how I learned the trade — Was culinary school the first step? A journalism degree? Apprenticeship in a three-star kitchen in France? — I brace myself to disappoint them. I didn’t do any of those (extremely practical and admirable) things.
“The thing is,” I begin, “I was named after.”
Child was born 100 years ago Wednesday, and without her, the phrase “aspiring food writer” would probably have never been uttered in the United States. Being named for her was certainly a nudge in the direction of food, but I didn’t grow up with a silver spoonful of chocolate mousse in my mouth. I simply watched my parents make dinner (sometimes beef bourguignon, more often burgers) and absorbed their notion that food was interesting and entertaining, not just fuel.
This didn’t happen in many New York families in the 1970s. Parents who did cook served meals of “wheatloaf” and carob cake; those who didn’t were busy raising their consciousnesses while the children ordered in Chinese food.
Today, the “family dinner” (preferably home cooked, from responsibly sourced ingredients) is widely considered a necessity, and even toddlers have favorite chefs.
It was Child — not single-handedly, but close — who started the public conversation about cooking in America that has shaped our cuisine and culture ever since. Her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was published in 1961, just as trends including feminism, food technology and fast food seemed ready to wipe out home cooking. But with her energy, intelligence and nearly deranged enthusiasm, Child turned that tide.
Today, in an age of round-the-clock food television and three-ingredient recipes, her book strikes many cooks the way it does the writer Lisa Birnbach, who told me: “Here’s the thing about Julia Child and me. While she has been a figure in my life for a long time, I have never actually used her cookbook.”
Indeed, it can be daunting. Not only are many recipes long and detailed, but they often call for ingredients that are no longer easy to find, like ground thyme and frying chickens, and equipment like ramekins and asbestos mats. Her insistence that tomatoes be peeled, chickens trussed and eggs beaten with a fork, not a whisk (all elements of the professional training she imbibed) now seems needlessly persnickety.
But in its fundamental qualities, the book and its many successors in the Child canon aren’t dated at all. Their recipes remain perfectly written and rock-solid reliable. And many home cooks, including me, have a Julia Child recipe or two that will always be a part of their repertory. They are recipes that, unlike her cassoulet, come together in minutes, not days.
These are not the showpieces you make once in a lifetime (and talk about forever) like her coq au vin or pâté en croute. They are under-the-radar basics, like the tomato sauce with Provençal notes of orange peel and coriander seeds that my family makes every September, when bushels of overripe plum tomatoes arrive at local farm stands. Do we peel and seed the tomatoes? No. Do we have cheesecloth on hand for wrapping the herb bouquet? Sometimes. But is it always Julia Child’s recipe, and a great one? Absolutely.
Alpana Singh, a sommelier in Chicago, often makes clafoutis from the master recipe on Page 655.
“You’re just making a batter and pouring it over some gorgeous seasonal fruit,” she said. “I love it because it’s like a Dutch baby pancake, but it’s somehow an elegant dessert, and it’s not too sweet.”
The notion that Child’s fundamental recipes have lost their relevance makes some cooks downright indignant.
“I don’t see how there could be an easier recipe,” said Reges Linders, a home cook in Arlington, Mass., referring to the book’s classic gratin dauphinois. And indeed, after rubbing the baking dish with garlic and slicing the potatoes 1/8-inch thick, there isn’t much more to be done except pour in milk, cheese and a half-stick of butter.
What of the many modern cooks who recoil from recipes with carbohydrates and butterfat? Well, Ms. Linders countered, she still uses Child’s marinade seche for grilled pork tenderloin: “really just a dry rub, but so good; it’s the allspice that really makes it” and “her braised leeks make a great side dish for almost anything.”
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was an odd beast from the beginning, an attempt to forge a mind-meld between professional French chefs and untrained American housewives, many of them content with the era’s convenience foods like frank-and-bean casseroles and Tang.
During the nearly 10 years she worked on it, Child had an absolute conviction — shared by almost no one — that her book would be useful to American cooks. The manuscript was rejected by the original publisher; another house cautiously agreed to take it on, offering a $1,500 advance to be shared with the book’s French co-authors, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
“They expected it to sell a few thousand copies,” said Bob Spitz, the author of “Dearie,” a new biography of Child.
But the review in this newspaper by Craig Claiborne (in the section then known as “Food Family Fashions Furnishings”) was glowing, calling the book “comprehensive, laudable and monumental.” (An accompanying headline raved “Text is Simply Written for Persons Who Enjoy Cuisine.”) And more significantly, Child began her popular programs on public television.
“It was going on television in 1963, the same year as the Beatles, that made it possible for her to become a popular icon,” Mr. Spitz said.
Her books have now sold more than six million copies and inspired cults around certain recipes, made up of cooks who may have nothing else in common. Virginia Willis, a cook and writer in Atlanta, and Scott Anderson, a yoga teacher in the Bay Area, are both devoted to the book’s Reine de Saba, or Queen of Sheba, a dense and nearly flourless chocolate cake that is virtually foolproof and very beautiful, ringed with toasted sliced almonds.
And her French potato salad, made without mayonnaise but with warm potatoes, shallots, herbs and glugs of olive oil, is equally loved by Mary Hubbard, a retired teacher in Texas who said it reminded her of her German grandmother’s recipe, and by Alex Young, the chef at Zingerman’s Roadhouse in Ann Arbor, Mich.
Many cooks fall back on her pillowy gougères, super-impressive but fast cheese puffs. One is Ken Oringer, the chef at Clio and other restaurants in Boston, who has pushed for, and just received, permission to erect a bronze statue of Child in the city. She lived in nearby Cambridge from 1963 to 2001, and died in California in 2004.
“She loved bone marrow and truffles and pigs’ trotters, but the gougères are the pure essence of Julia as a chef,” Mr. Oringer said. In other words, the recipe is precise, encouraging and functional.
The same goes for Child’s no-boil method for hard-cooked eggs.
“One of her favorite things to make for lunch when we were working was SA-LADE NI-ÇOISE!” said Sara Moulton, the chef, breaking into the fluty warble that spawned a thousand parodies. She was Child’s assistant on television and book projects, and said that because of her, she is incapable of taking certain shortcuts in the kitchen.
“I can’t not peel asparagus and broccoli because of her,” Ms. Moulton said. “I feel her looking over my shoulder.”
Many cooks feel the same. For Judith Norell, a vegetarian and owner of the Silver Moon bakery in Manhattan; for the writer Julie Powell, who spent a year cooking every recipe in the book for the blog that became “Julie & Julia,” the movie; and for the chef Laurent Géroli at the Brown Hotel in Louisville, Ky., Child’s famously fussy method for ratatouille — in which the eggplant, zucchini and tomatoes are all diced small, cooked separately — is still the only way.
“By going the longer road, she keeps the flavor and texture of all those vegetables robust and intense,” Ms. Powell said.
Naomi Duguid is a cook, writer and photographer who worked with Child on the cookbook “Baking With Julia” and other projects. She herself never cooks from recipes, she said (and as she spends much of the year in Southeast Asia, cooking from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” would hardly be practical). But she thinks of Julia Child often: when she makes an omelet, when she needs to improvise and when things go terribly wrong.
And they do, in all kitchens: cakes get stuck, mayonnaises break, chickens catch fire. But Child was unflappable in the face of culinary disaster.
“It was Julia’s basic course in good conduct: she stayed calm and learned to laugh about mistakes rather than getting angry or frustrated,” Ms. Duguid said. “She was the marvelous opposite of a control freak, and that translates for me every day in the kitchen.”
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