Stirring up memories
August 25, 2004
I marched out of our suburban Houston house, started up
the beige Falcon station wagon, backed out of the driveway and headed across
town for Westbury Square
and the ritzy kitchen store.
It was one of those defining
moments. I knew that finally I was a
grownup. It was about time—I was in my
middle twenties and I was going to buy myself a crepe pan. I was going to learn to cook and cook right.
Probably you’ve guessed it. I’d been reading Julia Child. I couldn’t afford her weighty volume, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, but
I’d checked it out from our branch library so many times that my card was in
jeopardy. My eyes were glazed from
watching The French Chef.
We had invited guests for Saturday
evening. I was determined to break out
of the 1960s beef stroganoff mold. And
certainly I wasn’t going to offer up a cake mix dessert. No sir.
It would be fresh crepes rolled in
real butter and powered sugar and topped with a fresh orange sauce. And those crepes would be sizzled and served
in a real honest-to-God crepe pan.
That’s why I was braving Houston
traffic on my Mother’s Day Out.
And I wasn’t alone. Throughout the 60s and 70s home kitchens
changed, and one person, one astounding woman stood tall behind the
movement—Julia Child, who died earlier in this month just two days shy of her
ninety-second birthday. The obituary in The New York Times claimed that she
from casserole to cassoulet.
As a young wife when Mrs. Child hit
the cooking scene, I read the women’s magazines and flipped through the pages
of my wedding present cookbooks, but I still cooked like my mother—lots of that
ubiquitous tuna casserole—only Mother didn’t trust Campbell’s to use safe
mushrooms so we used cream of celery soup. Salad was always a chunk of iceberg
lettuce dripping with brilliant orange dressing.
None of this was foreign to Mrs.
Child. The then Julia McWilliams grew
up in such a household herself. Often,
she’d recount the routine nature of her childhood food and tell tales of her
mother’s lack of kitchen creativity.
Born in 1912, she
graduated from college and held a series of simple and unnoteworthy jobs, until
World War II darkened the scene. She
joined the Office of Strategic Services (now the CIA) and found herself in Ceylon, and, at
war’s end, in love with Paul Child. They
And she cooked. To her dismay as well as Paul’s, not very
well. When Paul’s employer, The United
States Information Agency, posted him to Paris,
it was salvation for the two of them and the rest of us.
Julia studied at the famed Cordon
Bleu school, but that was starters. She
continued her studies, then opened a school herself, wrote the famous book with
a couple of her colleagues, started her television show and changed the lives
of lots of families.
By 1990, our family was enjoying
better times, and Julia had reduced the size of her new book, so I hotfooted
out in the car again, but this time it was to pick up my very own copy of From Julia Child’s Kitchen. Since then, it’s enjoyed a prime place on my
bookshelf when it hasn’t been spread open on the counter leading me through
another cooking adventure. I’ve even
read it in bed on a couple of sleepless nights.
When I heard the news of Mrs.
Child’s death, I reached for my book before I read about the obituary. What better way to remember?
She was a common-sense cook and a
common-sense writer. There are some
recipes I’ll never try, even after all my years of cooking. “Gâteau in a cage,” a yellow cake covered but
not touched by a lacework of caramel threads, is great sport to read
about. Even Mrs. Childs warns, “This may
not work for you the first time, or even the second,” as she describes swirling
the steaming threads of melted sugar over a well-buttered stainless steel
bowl. She also suggests the chef don a
But in the same book, she takes pity
on the beginning or unsophisticated cook.
In the introduction she declares that she intends the book with its
highly detailed recipes to be a private cooking school. “Anyone who already knows cooking needs no
recipes at all, only a description of process…”
And I love the technical glossary that includes such culinary terms as
“sudden company” (whip up a cheese soufflé), “brunch for a bunch,” “pizza
variations,” and “”for working guys and gals” (the answer is chicken breasts).
I needed (and often still do) all
the help I could get, and I appreciated (and still do) her efforts to cover the
“hows, whys, whats, and wheres I believe we should all know about.” Who else in a 687 page cookbook would devote
thirteen pages to boiling eggs?
Hard boiled eggs
(very loosely adapted from From Julia Child’s Kitchen)
a large pot filled with water to a full boil; there should be enough to cover
the eggs by at least one inch.
Lower the eggs gently (use a salad basket or slotted spoon)
into the water. Then add 1 1/2 teaspoon salt for
each quart of water.
As soon as the water returns to a
boil, begin timing. The eggs should cook
at a barely bubbling boil for 11 (for small to medium eggs) to 14 (for jumbos)
When the time is up, immediately
drain the eggs and crack by tapping each with a spoon two or three times. Then submerge in cold water until the eggs are
Tap each egg gently all over its
surface or you can roll it gently on the counter. Then, holding the egg under a stream of cool
water, peel it, beginning at the large end.
That’s it. But wait.
Even the intrepid Julia admitted to problems. Sometimes, she says, eggs are simply
“non-peelers,” and she tells us, “There is not much you can do.” She suggests shifting gears and opting for
egg salad, or if you must use the egg-halves, frosting them with mayonnaise to
disguise the ragged casing.
And what to do
with the yellow and white delicacies now that we’ve boiled and peeled them? Why slice them, devil them, stuff them with
asparagus or tapenade; maybe slice them, cover them with an onion or cheese
sauce and serve them hot.
But Julia suggests perhaps the best
way is the simplest. It’s good to begin a meal or as a light lunch. And Julia adds, “You don’t really need a
recipe.” But like she does, I offer one
Eggs with mayonnaise
one or more per serving
fresh mixed salad
greens or shredded lettuce
would make hers, I buy mine, but don’t use the no-fat ones)
Halve the eggs lengthwise and place
yolk-side down on a bed of greens.
Frost the egg lightly with
mayonnaise then decorate with a sprinkling of herbs, crossed anchovy filets, or
strips of red pepper—be creative.
That’s it. Like Julia, simply elegant.
You can e-mail me.
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Trilla Pando is a member of the Southern Foodways Alliance & the Story Circle Network