Thursday, August 16, 2012

Happy (Belated) Birthday, Julia Child

Several years ago, when I was still a student at Fordham University, I purchased Julia Child's classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Several weeks after its arrival, I invited a small group of intrepid diners over for dinner. I can't remember the exact menu from that night, but I do recall finishing with Mousseline Au Chocolat. In the years that have elapsed, I've experienced few feelings as exhilarating as watching that meal take shape - guided by Child's clear prose - and the look of delight on my guests' faces as they were served.

Commemorated in numerous ways, including a fine tribute from Chef Jacques P├ępin in yesterday's New York Times, Julia Child would have celebrated her 100th birthday yesterday. Long before I knew how to truss a chicken and years before I could muster the courage to adopt her rallying cry, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream!" I simply enjoyed watching her cook. I appreciated those lazy afternoons when I'd flip on PBS and watch an amazing dish take shape at the master's hands. 

On Tuesday, the digital wizards at PBS produced Julia Child Remixed: Keep on Cooking. Using footage from her eponymous cooking show, the producers cobbled together various lines from Julia Child and set them to music. The result, I think, is a catchy tune:

I love the beginning of the video: "What makes a great chef? Training and technique of course, a love of food, a generous personality, and the ability to invent hot chocolate truffles." 

Yet the wisdom of Julia Child is captured at 1:20 - "You can't define these in a recipe. You can only know them by knowing how the food should taste." Cooking - like so much else in our lives - is not necessarily an exact science. Surely, one needs to follow the general directions and use the structure of a recipe to point you in the right direction. For a good cook, however, there comes a moment of innovation and departure from the recipe, the moment of intuition and innovation that makes a dish come to life. Cooking is not so much about getting the recipe right right as it is about bringing the food to life for others. 

"Cooking, Cooking, Keep on Cooking. This is the way to live." The video intersperses frequent images of Julia cooking with others and then, once the meal is prepared, dining with friends. Cooking in the service of fellowship, of communion with one another, creating an atmosphere of hospitality and conviviality where friends can raise a glass and enjoy one another's company. This, surely, is the way to live.  

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