My Life In France- Julia Child
I needed to read this after having an anxious week (read my thoughts on Kitchen Confidential) of questioning my craft of cooking. Questions of whether I really want to work in the kitchen fall short when it comes to reading this book. Books by Anthony Bourdain and Bill Buford give me a reality check on what it is really like to cook in this day and age, but Julia takes me back to when it was subtle, about the heart and just pure joy.
I tend to romanticised everything in my head, I’m not sure if I tend to act out on those emotions but it’s lovely to feel that way. One of my favourite movies and the best introduction of any movie in my head is bound to be from Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris. I have watched it at least five times again while just writing this- it makes me fall in love with city over and over again. Like Julia and her husband, my parens were posted to France in the early 2000s. I spent my formative years in this city with toddler legs, a toy baby pram with my favourite stuff toy ninnu baby. I would stumble along side with my pram in the crowded metro, take rounds of the merry-go-round below the Tour Eiffel, and feed ducks in the Jardin de Luxembourg. I went back to revisit my childhood two years ago, it was different this time, everything was the same except for me. Instead of gawking how beautifully nostalgic everything was- the first thing I noticed when I reached Charles De Gaulle was the smell of freshly baked orange madeleines. It smelt of my childhood. In the cold November French weather, I wanted nothing but to become one with this divine smell. I stepped out of the airport and for the first time, it was about the food and wine. The crepes with Beurre Salle, Kouign Amman, Galettes, Gland, Paris Brest, Fois Gras, fresh Pates, Moules et Drites, fresh baguette and local cheese, Snails and Raclettes. Oh god, there is nothing more right now but to go back and stuff my face in all that butter.
Talking of butter, the heart of this book is based on just butter that will make your arteries clog and also maybe a story on how a women who found her true calling and passion late in life and she just went for it because she had fun doing it. How marvellous is that? Not everyone has such opportunities yet she makes the best of what she has. And so this book begins with her narrative of how she began her life in France in 1948 landing at Le Have with her French fluent husband Paul and her eating at her first restaurant beginning her life-long love affair with France et la cuisine francaise.
After learning to cook at home, she decided to go to culinary school and studied in Cordon Bleu Paris. There was so much more to cooking than just the act of cooking. She says there was so much to learn in terms of shopping and eating new foods. I remember when I started cooking out. I realised I could cook but my choice in picking ingredients and understanding what was good was incredibly flawed. Looking back- I’ve learnt so much from vegetable vendors by asking them questions and even friends who accompanied me shopping after college ended. I remembered one year after cooking when one of my friends told me that the way you know if bhindi (okra) is fresh if one can use their thumb to snap off the end. Good ingredients can really change the way you cook.
“I suddenly discovered that cooking was a rich and layered and endlessly fascinating 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.”
I began only researching and watching food videos much after my friend told me the secret of good bhindi. I was so focused on just making food three times a day that I barely had time to research about food or study its history and the science behind. It was just relentless practice. Getting food on the table was my main goal and I was happy that I was getting through with it. I guess, if I hadn’t had the friends around me who showed me to the world of youtube and other cooks I would have perhaps not grown to appreciate food as much. Travelling also changed that. When I came back from France I fell in love with the French Patisserie, I recreated all forms of French desserts I had had there (and possibly had filled my suitcase with at least 15kgs worth of ingredients.) What joy is there to travel if you are not eating and bringing it back to your table.
“Upon reflection, I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which caused me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful, “scientific” thought. I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.”
I feel like reading this book, is a must for a person who is starting out in their cooking journey. I have these three main weaknesses too- and I feel all cooks go through this too. When I used to cook for a certain amount of friends I remember just being so unhappy. I used to say things like, I’m not sure how this might taste it’s probably really bad. I feel a part of me doesn’t still like feeding people because I’m just afraid they wont like it. Which is a little shameful because it undermines the amount of practice, time, money and my own journey of cooking. I know I have grown a lot, perhaps just even in a couple of months, by constantly cooking (and now reading too).
“I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as “Oh, I don’t know how to cook . . . ,” or “Poor little me . . . ,” or “This may taste awful . . . ,” it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, “Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal!” Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed—eh bien, tant pis!”
There is so much to learn from Julia Child, the parts where she talks about writing her book, I honestly felt so exhausted because it was taken incredibly seriously- more seriously than I think cookbook authors do these days. No wonder her co-author had such issues with her and it took her nine years. She never tried to be someone who she wasn’t. Which is a little hard to do when you’re living in another country- when you are trying to adjust to someone else’s culture. She kept her American roots in mind and her French influences and did what she loved. She changed American cooking without wanting or even trying to. She just liked French food and wanted to share it with her countrymen who were into frozen dinners and fast food. Her obsession with practice practice practice is something I aspire to have. I can practice all the food I want to cook- but can I ever reach this stage (without the internet?)?
“When I wasn’t at school, I was experimenting at home, and became a bit of a Mad Scientist. I did hours of research on mayonnaise, for instance, and although no one else seemed to care about it, I thought it was utterly fascinating. When the weather turned cold, the mayo suddenly became a terrible struggle, because the emulsion kept separating, and it wouldn’t behave when there was a change in the olive oil or the room temperature. I finally got the upper hand by going back to the beginning of the process, studying each step scientifically, and writing it all down. By the end of my research, I believe, I had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history. I made so much mayonnaise that Paul and I could hardly bear to eat it anymore, and I took to dumping my test batches down the toilet. What a shame. But in this way I had finally discovered a foolproof recipe, which was a glory!”
She was the kind of person who wanted to know everything about a dish. What worked, why it didn’t, why and how to make it better, she wanted to know ever single bit about it till she had made a million times and perfected it and yet she knew wasn’t the best or even trying to be. She loved it so she did it humbly.
“I had long ago decided not to go into the restaurant trade myself, because it required total commitment; furthermore, in a restaurant one is restricted to cooking what’s on the menu, and I preferred to experiment with many different dishes. Still, I always wondered, “What if I had . . . ?” I was curious to know how others had done it.”
And this quote brings us back to me. (Again. A little self-obsessed cook that I am.) I’m sorry to my dear readers (probably just one) who have been seeing me go through this on and off battle of whether I want to work in a restaurant, do I really want to culinary school, what else can I do about something that I love and want to spend the rest of my life with.
Julia would probably say, “Practice, practice, practice.”