It would’ve been Julia Child’s 100th birthday recently, and coincidentally, I just finished reading her autobiography, “My Life in France”. I thoroughly enjoyed the book, especially since French cooking is probably my favourite cuisine. It was neat to read how Julia’s love for cooking unfolded, starting after her move to Paris in her thirties (shortly after which she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu). It’s clear that it was living in France that inspired her to cook:
“… at the Cordon Bleu, and in the markets and restaurants of Paris, I suddenly discovered that cooking was a rich and layered and endlessly fascination subject. The best way to describe it is to say that I fell in love with French food – the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals.”
But what was perhaps even more interesting was reading about food and restaurants in France. Different culture, different time – so I don’t know how much of it would hold true today, but interesting nonetheless…
Julia described in detail many memorable dishes that she had in France, starting with her very first lunch there, which she exclaimed was absolute perfection and the most exciting meal of her life (sole meuniere: “a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top”).
She noted that the businessmen at the next table were asking some questions, and the waiter was talking to them at length about the chicken they ordered – how it was raised, how it will be cooked, what side dishes they can have with it, etc. The how it was raised part especially stood out. Way too often, finding out more about the dish I’m about to eat at a restaurant is painfully difficult, and the information is almost never volunteered (or if it is, it’s rather vague). She also described the service, saying “the staff seemed happy to see us”:
“I couldn’t help but notice that the waiters carried themselves with a quiet joy, as if their entire mission in life was to make their customers feel comfortable and well tended”.
There may have only been one or two times where I’ve ever experienced comparable service at a restaurant, and still it would’ve come short of Julia’s description.
After another exquisite meal, she describes her and her husband’s satisfaction:
“What remained most vividly with me as we strolled away was the graciousness of our reception and the deep pleasure I’d experience from sitting in those beautiful surroundings. Here were were, two young people obviously of rather modest circumstances, and we had been treated with the utmost cordiality, as if we were honored guests. The service was deft and understated, and the food was spectacular. It was expensive, but, as Paul said, “you are so hypnotized by everything there that you feel grateful as you pay the bill.”
How’s that for a glowing restaurant review?
The food Julia described was of the highest quality, from grapes:
“And the grapes! In America, grapes bored me, but the Parisian grapes were exquisite, with a delicate, fugitive, sweet, ambrosial, and irresistible flavor.”
“Oh, those were such fine, fat, full-flavored birds from Bresse – one taste, and I realized that I had long ago forgotten what real chicken tasted like!”
“The American poultry industry had made it possible to grow a fine-looking fryer in record time and sell it at a reasonable price, but no one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside of a teddy bear.”
I’ve read this in a few different books now – when you go to a French shop, you’re not supposed to pick the food out yourself. The merchant is the expert, and based on what you tell him about what you’re looking for and when you will be eating it, it is his/her job to present to you the perfect product:
“The drill was to wait patiently in line until it was your turn, and then give your order clearly and succinctly. Madame was a whiz at judging the ripeness of cheese. If you asked for a Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or would you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she’d open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and – voila! – she’d hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese’s readiness down to the hours, and would even order cheese when I didn’t need it just to watch her in action. I never knew her to be wrong.”
I loved Julia’s descriptions of the simplicity of French cooking, which focuses on the ingredients:
“I was in pure, flavorful heaven at the Cordon Bleu… Before I’d started there, I would often put too many herbs and spices in my dishes. But now I was learning the French tradition of extracting the full, essential flavors from food – to make, say, a roasted chicken taste really chickeny.”
“This is the kind of food I had fallen in love with: not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat. It was classic French cooking, where the ingredients have been carefully selected and beautifully and knowingly prepared. Or, in the words of the famous gastronome Curnosky, “Food that tastes of what it is.”
One of the hottest trends in cooking right now, and luckily one that aligns beautifully with the paleo diet, is nose-to-tail eating. But can you imagine it to this extent?:
During hunting season,
“…wild game of every pelt and feather appeared in the marketplaces. Wild hares and rabbits hung whole; haunches of elk, wild boar, and venison were presented with hoof and fur intact. The shoppers insisted on this… for how would you know what you were buying if the game was all skinned and wrapped up?”
On presentation of a bird dish:
“Its nicely browned head, shorn of feathers but not of neck or beak, would be curled around its shoulder, and its feet, minus claws, folded up at either side of its breast. It’s hardly an American presentation, but a game-lover wants to see all those tell-tale appendages, just to be sure it’s really a perdreau on the platter.”
And here is a comment that made me smile, by one of her favourite chefs, when relating his journey of becoming a restaurateur:
“My uncle, he was a very robust man who lived to be eighty-four, you know. Everybody in town was big – red faces, strong people, hard workers. No one in my family ever heard of dieting. When I see some of the skinny little people in my restaurant pecking at their food like sparrows, I remember our village, where everyone ate heaps of sausages and pates and beef, and fish, and pheasants, and geese, and venison, and chicken. Not too many vegetables, of course. Mostly meat.”
It’s interesting that Julia was quite aware of the direction that food was heading in, especially when she compared the US to France. When she speaks of her French Chef TV series, and how it’d be fun to record how French food is actually made and sold in France, she commented:
“Although I never mentioned this blatantly, I was convinced that our footage could prove to be an important historical document. Mechanization was taking over the food business, even in France, and it seemed clear to me that many of the artisanal skills we were going to record… would disappear within a generation of two.”
Although I’m sure things aren’t as great as they once were, when watching episodes of No Reservations (Provence, Brittany, Paris), I couldn’t help but marvel at the quality of the food there. “Artisanal” isn’t a gimmicky catchphrase, it’s just the way things are done. So it was a treat to get more exposure to French cuisine, especially from an American viewpoint. And of course, Julia was quite a character, which makes for some amusing reading.
Julia’s “My Life in France” is a great read, whether you’re into cooking, food, travel, or like me – all three. If you’ve read it, what did you think? Or have you travelled to France recently and explored the food scene? Do share.