Thursday, August 27, 2009

On Julia Child

While due attention is being paid to Ted Kennedy this week, a fair amount of discussion of the movie Julie and Julia is also taking place, primarily centered around the profound impact that Julia Child has had on many people. While it is great to see Julia getting her fair share of praise, I do disagree with many commentators about Julia’s significance. In particular, I think that she was part of a broader happy trend toward higher-quality cooking in the US, and that her superb recipes or TV shows are less important to that trend than the fact that, at long last, chefs seem to have come on their own to the conclusion that the French philosophy of cooking really does work.

Here’s my story: in 1966, when I was 16, I spent a summer in France – in Paris, in Brittany, on the Loire , and in Normandy. On a previous trip, when I was 9, my main object was to get a hamburger (steak tartare, anyone?). On this trip, my parents let me go out to restaurants frequently, and typically one-, two-, and three-star ones (the Michelin Guide’s ratings of quality, for those who don’t know).

The trip was an eye-opener. The food was always clearly different, and consistently to be savored. I learned that mushrooms were not a gritty, flavorless component of Campbell’s mushroom soup; that sauces were not a variant of ketchup to drench poor-tasting food in; that, when prepared well, fish tasted better than steak; that bread was not the most important part of the meal; and that less liquid rather than more (wine instead of Coke) enhanced taste.

Above all, I learned that during a really good meal, unconsciously, instead of eating fast to satisfy hunger, I ate slowly to enjoy food’s taste. I should note that when we took my son to a three-star French restaurant at the same age, much the same thing happened, and he stopped saying “who cares about food” and started saying “I like this place, I don’t like this one.”

The reasons why French cooking was so far superior to American, in those days, I believe were these:

1. The French insisted the raw materials for food had to be absolutely fresh. Seafood in Paris was typically a half-day from the sea or less.

2. There were specific standards for ingredients. There was a certain kind of starter for French bread, certain types required for vegetables, and, say, margarine was not substituted for butter because it was cheaper.

3. The emphasis was on just enough cooking, rather than overcooking. This was especially true for fish.

4. Meals were planned so that each piece tasted good on its own and also in concert with something else. This made for a certain simplicity: instead of stews and sandwiches, you had delicately flavored fish paired with excellent sauces, plus “al dente” vegetables and sugary but light desserts.

Now, remember, I had been to what were supposed to be excellent French (and other) restaurants in New York City. These French restaurants, even out in the boonies, were in every case far better.

Over the next few years, as my mother watched Julia on TV and tried some of her recipes, and I used her book to cook for special occasions, I consistently found that neither home cooking nor French (or other) restaurants in the US measured up to the French ones. There were a few dishes that were exceptions: I remember a green-bean-with-garlic dish in NYC in 1980 that was worthy of a one-star restaurant in Paris. But until about the last 10 years, despite the enormous shift in American taste 1960-1990 from “HoJo American” to “foreign experimental”, American restaurants of all stripes simply never gave me that feeling of wanting to eat slowly.

I may be reading too much into the situation, but I think the turning point came when chefs finally began to adopt the French philosophies cited above. In other words, they started trying to standardize and improve the quality of ingredients; they gave due attention to making each piece of the meal flavorful, and to sauces; and they started emphasizing freshness.

Why couldn’t our attempts to do Julia match the French? I believe, because the ingredients simply weren’t good enough. Comparable cuts of beef weren’t available at stores; vegetables such as tomatoes were processed and imported from abroad, with emphasis on cheapness; it was hard to time the food to achieve “just enough” cooking; butter was salted.

So, on the one hand, I am very grateful to Julia Child for providing recipes and meal plans that were far, far better than what came before (with the possible exception of butterscotch pudding). But the sad fact is that people in the US still didn’t understand that food could be much better than that. That is, they valued foreign, but they didn’t value good foreign (and not necessarily French; I have tasted the same philosophy applied to Caribbean and Chinese, with the same superb results). Only in the last 10-15 years, as I say, have I seen a significant number of restaurants that consistently make me want to slow down and savor the taste. Only in that period have Americans been able to appreciate how nice life is when you can occasionally have an experience like that.

And there’s so much we still don’t know about. A really good gateau Bretonne. Mayonnaise sauce that tastes like hollandaise sauce, and hollandaise sauce with artichokes. Evian fruite, a far different kind of soft drink. Real French bread. Mushroom or artichoke puree. Sole meuniere as it should be. Kir that tastes as good as the finest wine. A superb brioche with French butter and jam. Julia covers mostly Paris. The regions add much more.

So I remember Julia Child with great fondness, and salute her integrity that insisted on fidelity to French quality rather than American short-cuts. But I think that the primary credit for improving our quality of food and life belongs to later chefs, who finally brought the French philosophy to the restaurant as well as the home.

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