2/18/09

"San Francisco was brilliantly sunny, diamond-clear, cool, and green."

Said Julia Child, about the California leg of her 1961 book tour for that opus magnum, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I finished reading her autobiography My Life in France last night this morning at 1 a.m.. I am slowly coming back down to earth.

Do you ever hear a suggestion for something that you immediately recognize as missing from your life? So it was for me when I read Elizabeth's recent GR post about MLiF. I heard a little bell ring.

Child's saucy, buttery French food went out of fashion a long time ago among my foodier friends, and yours too, I imagine. But even if the food is not your style--trout stuffed with minnows? pressed duck? well, more on that later--there is still much to admire about the woman's life and work. And in the end, it's not really about the food--it's about the cooking.

I saw something of my own life in the quick, consuming passion for French cooking that overtook Julia Child. She went to France with her husband for the first time in her late 30s, not knowing the language, not knowing the food, not knowing how to cook. In short order, she was a changed woman. Well, believe it or not, I didn't know a thing about gardening as recently as 2005 when I hit my mid-thirties. (Yeah, some of us have more to show for our consuming passions than others...so what!)

I could on and tell you how this book is very well written, includes vital, vivid details of a life writ large that gives color to a lost world, an era gone by... but what makes this biography really memorable and fun is the food and the cooking. I found the food and the cooking astonishing.

Here is Julia cooking for a farewell party:
"The pièce de résistance for the evening was a mammoth galantine de volaille, which took me three days to create and had been adopted from a recipe in Larousse Gastronomique. First you make a superb bouillon--from veal leg, feet, and bones--for poaching. Then you debone a nice plump four-pound chicken, and marinate the meat with finely ground pork and veal strips in Cognac and truffles. Then you re-form the chicken, stuffing it with a nice row of truffles wrapped in farce and a fresh strip of pork fat, which you hope ends up in the center. You tie up this bundle and poach it in the delicious bouillon. Once it is cooked, you let it cool and then decorate it--I used green swirls of blanched leeks, red dots of pimiento, brown-black accents of sliced truffle and yellow splashes of butter. The whole was then covered with beautiful clarified-bouillon jelly."
It's intriguing to note that eating this food daily made Julia herself feel ill on numerous occasions. The word she used is bilious. It was all about portion control.

I also have to quote the part about pressed duck. I found this fascinating.
The duck itself is a special strain bred from a domestic female "covered" by a wild male, which produces handsome dark-feathered birds that are full-breasted and toothsome. They are killed by being smothered, so as to keep the blood inside the body (an example of the lengths the French will go to for a special meal). [The chef] roasted two of these ducks on a spit for us, all the while basting them with a wonderful duck-blood sauce he'd prepared at a side table. The birds became mouth-wateringly brown on the outside and roasted very rare on the inside. When they are done, he deftly carved off the ducks' legs and wings, rolled them in mustard and crumbs, and sent them back to the kitchen to be grilled.

He very carefully peeled the skin away from the breast, and carved the meat into thin slices, which he sprinkled with finely minced shallots. These would be poached in their juices, a little wine, and delicate seasoning, in order to point up the natural flavor. Next the chef wheeled a great silver duck press up to our table. It looked a bit like a silver fire extinguisher with a round crank-handle on top. He cut up the carcass, put it into the canister of the press and turned the big handle on top. As the pressing plate descended slowly inside the canister, we could hear the cracking of bones, and a stream of red juices dribbled out of the spout into a saucepan. Adding a dollop of red Burgundy wine to the press, the chef turned the crank again, to squeeze some more. He continued like this until the carcass had finally rendered its all. It was a fabulous ritual to watch...Finally, it was time to eat..."
Whoa!

Let's end with Julia doing something less...fabulously gruesome. Here she is making an omelette.

Watch and learn, people.

8 comments:

Thystle said...

Lovely post! Thank you!

Yolanda Elizabet said...

Ugh and ewwwwww, that whole duck thingy is positively Neanderthal. Far too bloody for me but then I'm not French. The French eat everything that moves and most of what doesn't. ;-)

Les said...

I loved Julia. She was the first figure I can remember seeing on PBS, and even as a kid I found her show entertaining. As for the duck, I sometimes think it is best just enjoy what is on your plate and try to stay ignorant of what goes on in the kitchen.

Michelle said...

Great post Chuck. I loved that book too! It amazed me the lengths that she could go to produce some fabulous dish. I was also impressed with the fact that she was willing to work with American products to make French recipes work. Cookbook authors that insist that only the REAL (i.e. French, Italian, etc) ingredients are acceptable drive me nuts.

chuck b. said...

For some reason (probably something I did), Cindee's comment got gobbled up (no pun intended). Here it is:

Well the pressed duck did it for me. Yikes! Poor thing. If you go to my blog and see my little hen you will feel like I did. She wouldn't like being pressed...(-: She does however like being hugged and a kiss or two is fine with her too. Eww and trout with minnows does not sound to good either. I am going to make enchiladas tonight instead.(-:

***

For me, it would be the smothering part I couldn't handle. I would prefer a very, very quick and hopefully painless kill.

I always liked Julia on TV too, and I adored her muppet on the Muppets, but I couldn't find a clip of that.

And Michelle, that's a really good point about cookbooks and their unobtainable ingredients! How irritating!

Lori said...

Whoa, nelly. You never expect the Spanish Inquisition, and I sure as hell didn't expect the pressed duck.

Frances said...

Geez Louise! Fabulously gruesome, I love it! I kind of like the bloodless killing, well just the bloodless not the killing. Hearing bones crunching would not whet my appetite. HA
Frances

lisa said...

"Fabulously gruesome"...I LOVE that! Reminds me of the Marilyn Manson concert I went to. :) I always enjoyed Julia on PBS, her enthusiasm for cooking made it seem fun to me, even as a kid.