Inspired by watching the Julia & Julia, I not only cooked dinner from recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but I am now blogging about it.
I watched the movie at Japantown’s Kabuki Sundance Theater. The Kabuki has many positive virtues, such as the ability to pre-select your seat, drink alcohol in the theatre, and no commercials before the show. (They also have the highest ticket prices in town.) However, I chose it for two other reasons.
One: In 1974, Julia performed eight cooking demonstrations at the Kabuki Theater itself, an event covered by Calvin Thompkins in his fantastic 11,005 word profile published in The New Yorker. (Did you know that Julia wrote that she “would be perfectly happy w. only Chinese food…. Either French or Chinese. Could live w. only Chinese.”)
Two: The Kabuki uses real butter on their popcorn. Knowing Julia’s fondness for butter, it seemed disrespectful, and downright untasty, to eat artificially flavored popcorn during the show.
Meryl Streep is fantastic. As is Stanley Tucci. Meryl’s Julia is so funny. It’s not only how she says what she says, but also her facial expressions and body movement. I spent the rest of the evening warbling “enchantée” in a high pitched voice while driving home, prepping dinner, watching tv, and pretty much everyplace else, including typing on my laptop writing this post.
I read Alex Prud’homme’s co-written memoir last year. The movie did a fine job capturing the essence of the work: her love of Paul and Paul’s love of her; her transformation from Pasadena to Paris thanks to Paul and cooking; the years and years and years and years of her life she put into the book.
As the co-author of a cookbook, albeit a technical one, I understand how difficult this format is to write. Each recipe much work on multiple levels. It must demonstrate how to complete a task, and do so in a fool-proof fashion. You must anticipate every potential detour the reader may accidently take and keep them on the path. This is particularly hard because accomplished chefs and programmers automatically route around danger without even thinking about it. You must approach the task with a clean mind to visualize the pitfalls.
Good recipes also build upon themselves, growing from simple to increasingly complex. You want to show variations, not only because they are useful, but also to inspire the reader to innovate on his own. Actually, the recipes in aggregate are a series of lessons in the underlying patterns of the art. Such abstract forms are slippery to grasp, so they’re packaged inside highly concrete tasks. If you write the book properly, the astute reader can look beyond the what of the words and see the why.
My editor said: “We do the hard work, so the reader doesn’t have to.” When I began to get lazy, and not want to try out every potential variation to discover potential issues, I thought about how the extra half hour I spend tonight will translate into thousands of hours of savings down the road for others. Seeing the number of hours Julia spent on her cookbook, I can only believe she is the one who set this standard of excellence for all writers of recipes, and is the one we must judge ourselves against.
My mother is the person most responsible for my love of food and cooking. She, in turn, credits Julia Child as her major influence. (Although, her grandmother, also played an early role.) Therefore, I cannot understate Julia’s direct and indirect affect upon my life.
Oddly, while I do own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Thirteenth printing, December 1966), I very rarely use it. Living in San Francisco has placed me in the Alice Waters school of food. It’s not that these two worlds do not intersect, but I rarely have the time to do a traditional French preparation. Instead, I buy the best organic local food I can find; season it with salt and pepper, maybe herbs; throw it in the pan with olive oil; and serve.
I lack the patience to do Julie’s final dish from the book: Pâté de Canard en Croûte. Debone a duck, add in stuffing (and make stuffing), sow the duck closed, and then wrap the whole thing in pastry (and make the pastry dough)? No way. I’m not intimidated. I’m lazy. I’m don’t truss my chickens. I won’t make whole chickens anymore. I’ll buy a whole bird, but then pre-cut it into pieces before roasting it in the oven — it both cooks faster and is easier to carve when cold instead of hot.
I did enjoy the lobster scene from Julie and Julia; although, it’s still a far second behind Annie Hall. Yet, I fail to see how someone can engage in a project such as cooking your way through the entire Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and not understand that confronting that our food comes from living animals is an integral part of the dining experience. I’ve never killed a mammal or bird, but I always remember that someone killed it for me.
Tonight’s meal is true to both Julia and Alice. I made Poulet Sauté and Tomates à la Provençale. Two classic works (one with tons of butter), but I picked up all my ingredients at the Noe Valley Farmers Market. I bought them Saturday morning, before I decided to make a meal from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so is was a true local and in season experience.
For the Poulet Sauté, I took a three-pound bird from Prather Ranch’s Soul Food Farm, and cut it into six pieces. I find Mark Bittman’s diagram and instructions in How to Cook Everything to be the most clear explanation of how to disassemble a chicken. He breaks it down into eight pieces, but I kept the leg and thighs together. I always enjoy the satisfaction of a successfully chopped up chicken. I’ve done it many times, but I still find it a miracle that I turn it into recognizable parts. And it’s fun to take a big knife and cut through something other than vegetables.
I browned the pieces over medium high in French butter (my one non-local ingredient, but, again, it seemed fitting). I never use butter in my cooking. Not because I don’t like it, of course. I then put the dark meat back into the pan over medium heat along with chopped fresh basil; after eight minutes, I added the rest and basted for another sixteen.
For my sauce, I sweated farmer’s market scallions for a minute, and then I had to make a substitution. I didn’t have any chicken stock, nor an open bottle of white white. So, I used a Bear Republic Pete’s Brown Beer for flavor. It goes well with chicken, is from Healdsburg, and has been sitting in my fridge door for too long. After it reduced, I added in more butter and basil. (And then I drank the rest of the beer during dinner.)
Before I started the chicken, I did all the prep work for the tomatoes. I cut two tomatoes in half and removed the seeds and juice. Then I combined scallions, garlic, olive oil, and fresh made bread crumbs from last week’s Pugliese loaf. Spooned those on top on the tomatoes and roasted them whole thing at 400 for 12 minutes after I added the white meat back into the pan, then killed the heat and let them sit while I finished off the sauce.
I wasn’t finished cooking until 9 pm, but the meal was worth the wait. It was simple, yet delicious. Really good. Ten times better than the soy sauce and lime juice marinated boneless, skinless, chicken breasts I made earlier in the week.
I finally got the nice crispy skin that never occurs when I roast the chicken with olive oil. As Julia said: “I always give my bird a generous butter massage before I put it in the oven. Why? Because I think the chicken likes it, and, more important, I like to give it.”
And the tomatoes were soft, but not mushy. I broke them apart with my fork. And they had real tomato flavor that only comes from August farmstand tomatoes.
Everything mixed together in my plate: the juice from the chicken as I cut it open, the toasted bread crumbs and garlic, the reduced beer and butter sauce, the flesh of the tomato, and all tied together with basil.
My only disappointment is that Beth is in on vacation in Iowa. I rarely cook anything interesting when I’m home alone. It’s maybe a tenth as fun to cook for yourself than someone you love. You spend hours making a meal that’s finished in minutes. You want someone to share in the experience because it validates the time you spend over the stove. And it’s also fun to glance at them eating the food and smiling as it goes down.
Watching Julie and Julia, you could tell that while Julia’s cooking experience was necessary for herself, the activity was heightened by her and Paul’s shared love of food and dining, and Paul’s pleasure in her success (in multiple ways). I never quite got that same joyous feeling from the Julie theme. She liked making the food, and her husband enjoyed eating it. But it seemed a disjoint experience. He would all too often sit down and start eating without any words or emotions to Julie. And they never went out together in search of that fantastic New York meal. It didn’t have to be Jean-George or Daniel in Manhattan, it could have been the best of Queens: Greek in Astoria, or Thai in Woodside, or Dim Sum in Flushing.
Hard to tell if I’m seeing something real, or if I’m bringing knowledge from the Julia book to the movie, and I can’t apply the same experience to the Julie side. It’s such a key part of my motivation for cooking that I am particularly sensitive to it.
PS: In my Silicon Valley celebrity sighting of the weekend, as I stepped into the Cheese Store after the Farmer’s Market, I saw Ev “Blogger and Twitter” Williams on 24th Street wearing a green Google shirt standing next to a very pregnant woman. Thanks to twitter.com/ev, I know that he’s just moved into the neighborhood on Friday and the baby is any day now. Looks like they made it to Noe just in time. And, having spent hours writing this blog post, I now better understand the attraction of a 15-second status update on twitter instead of 1100 words of prose.