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Stirring up memories


Simply elegant
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 moved America 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 married. 

            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 leather glove.

            I’ll pass.

            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)

            Bring 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) minutes.

            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 cool. 

            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 anyway.

Eggs with mayonnaise

hard-boiled eggs, one or more per serving

fresh mixed salad greens or shredded lettuce

mayonnaise (Julia 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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