Cooking with Julia
Julia Child and I live in neighboring towns, so once or twice a year we get together and cook. Some might find such an invitation daunting-- after all, Julia is a formidable icon, the person one would least like to have stoveside after botching a soufflé-- but my guess is that her expectations of my cooking skills are probably pretty low, so I never give it much thought. On one such occasion, she invited me over for an impromptu supper. I was to bring the makings of soup and dessert, and she would make the rest. The soup was a well-tested showstopper, a chowder that has never failed to please. The dessert would be a casual, last-minute peach tart.
In an age of $100,000 kitchens, Julia's is hardly worth a mention. It is small and packed with papers, pans, books, and tools. The center of the space is filled with a simple plastic-covered kitchen table. This is the spot where one dines with Julia unless the crowd is greater than six, at which point the dinner is moved to the more formal dining room. My introduction to Julia was in the early 1980s, when I interviewed her at this modest table, and she served me the world's best oyster stew. On this evening, however, I was there to cook.
I have learned over the years that if one needs to prepare food at Julia's, one is expected to fend for oneself. The kitchen is at your disposal, but Julia assumes that you have a sufficient degree of proficiency in culinary matters to choose your own saucepan or pick the right knife. She is also kind enough to present a casual indifference to your difficulties, as once happened while I was trying to shuck a dozen oysters. Used to chefs who manage this feat in seconds, Julia paid my belabored progress little attention until I began to endanger the progress of the meal, at which point she asked in her trademark high-pitched voice, "Have you ever tried using a can opener?" The implication was, of course, that only an incompetent cook would have to trade an oyster knife for a church key. I ignored the question and grimly made it through the full dozen, late but stalwart.
On the evening in question, two of Julia's old friends served a first course of freshly dug new potatoes from Maine, boiled and accompanied by caviar. Next up was my well-tested chowder. Julia approached it with curiosity before giving it a rather cursory rejection. For whatever reason, this dish did not meet with her approval, perhaps being a bit too rustic or lacking in some aspect of execution. I served a New Zealand Riesling with the briny chowder, which piqued her interest a bit, but only for a moment. She then turned her attention to politics and the main course.
Sitting on a stool at the old Garland stove, Julia ministered to duck parts in a large sauté pan. To my surprise, this was not a dish from Mastering the Art of French Cooking or some other, more recent work. She was experimenting with a new recipe and was eager to discover how it would turn out. Although a staunch liberal when it comes to politics, Julia is eminently flexible about the culinary arts (unless one is preparing some vulgar American road food such as canned cherry pie or sticky barbecue). Julia was curious, hopeful that she might learn something new about cooking duck, a dish she must have made a thousand times in her career. On this evening, the duck recipe was a triumph, the thin, crispy skin covering rich, tender meat.
Dinner was over, the dishes had been cleared, and it was now time to serve my thrown-together tart. Julia took one bite, and, as I held my breath and watched her closely for signs of approval, a smile gradually made its way onto her face, perhaps a memory of a long-ago lunch in Provence causing a happy association. Every bite was savored, every morsel of the crust consumed with relish.
Since that time, I have had my ups and downs when cooking with Julia. I have thrown caution to the wind and, on occasion, met with abject failure, but I have also had moments when a first bite leads to an unsolicited compliment. Cooking with Julia should be, if nothing else, an adventure, moments of uncertainty and improvisation that result in unpredictable outcomes. If Julia, at fourscore and more years, is still eager to grab hold of the train we are all riding, lean into the wind, and look into the distance searching for signs of the unfamiliar, we had best tag along. For we know that she will lead us to that undiscovered country where the sky is painted with dreams and smiles appear on the faces of angels.