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Monday, February 22, 2010

Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Part One



Simca and Louisette asked Julia for help with their cookbook in late August, 1952. They'd just heard that the editor their publisher had hired, Helmut Riperger, had quit in the middle of the project. Now the two friends were on their own, with no idea of their audience and nowhere to start. So, they turned to Julia.


The first thing Julia did was to read what they had so far. At over 500 pages, it was huge, and full of problems. Were the recipes exact enough, she asked herself? Were they too complicated? Were the instructions clear and comprehensible? The answer was no. The level of detail was inconsistent, often way too complex, and the book "was not well suited for the American home kitchen." In other words, the best thing about the massive amount of work Simone and Louisette had done so far was the idea. Julia decided, with her friends' approval, to "strip everything down to the bones". She'd start over from the beginning. And so, Julia Child plunged headfirst into the gigantic project of writing a French cookbook for Americans. 


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Julia's system was to test each and every recipe in the manuscript, using around four sources, including Louisette and Simca's method. She'd read through all of the ways, then made the recipe a few different ways. "...should the cabbage be blanched? Should I use a different variety of cabbage? Would the pressure-cooked soup taste better if I used the infernal machine a shorter time?" Julia was methodical and relentlessly precise. 





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This period of working on the cookbook was full of little setbacks and victories. For example, after a few weeks of thinking about sauces with butter, Julia and Paul ate dinner at a restaurant famous for it's beurre blanc, a wonderful sauce for which no recipe could be found. The Childs hung around after their meal, and were rewarded when the chef made buerre blanc. Julia watched intently, and took mental notes for when she made the sauce back in her kitchen. At home, she wrote what she thought "to be the first clear and comprehensive recipe for the sauce." She tested it on some friends a while later, and proclaimed it perfect.

Simca was proving to be a very good, productive worker. She tested recipes and took notes at a furious pace, sometimes for nine to ten hours, according to My Life in France. Louisette wasn't around much for this stage of the work, though. She'd lost a lot a lot of interest when she saw how meticulous the work was going to be, as well as the fact that she was going through a divorce. Julia and Simca intended to finish their cookbook the way they were working on it, however-- they wanted the it to be well-written and complete.

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The Book, as it was called at Roo de Loo, was having problems with its publisher, Ives Washburn. Julia got a letter from the head of the publishing house saying that "After a year of frustration, we are still a long way from a completed book... The American woman who buys French Home Cooking will probably resent advice on how to arrange her kitchen, set her table, handle a skillet or boil an egg: she learned those things from her mother or Fannie Farmer, don't you think? She expects a book that will show her how she can give her cooking the French touch.... If the recipe... can't be easily used by the stupidest pupil in your school, then it is too complicated." The date was November 1952, and Washburn was expecting a mostly complete book by March 1st, 1952. Simca and Louisette opted for staying with the current publisher. They didn't believe they had much chance of finding another publisher-- they were completely unknown, and "Mr. Putnam was a nice man who like our book." Julia, however, believed that the book was going to be a masterpiece. She didn't see any reason to be pushed around by the publisher. The three Gourmandes decided to stay with Washburn for the time being. 

As for the part about "the American woman" who would "resent advice" and just wanted to "give her cooking the French touch", Julia replied to Mr. Putnam a while later. She explained to him that they weren't just writing a collection of recipes, they were writing a cooking manual. "It is not enough the 'how' [of making hollandaise or mayonaise] be explained." The three friends were writing a book that would enable you the full experience of French cooking--table setting and egg-boiling included. They were going to write a book that showed you how to cook the French way.

Julia Child's birthday

Julia Child's birthday and astrological chart
An interesting link about Julia Child's birth.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Ode to Julia

you left your life
so soft and warm
plunging
diving headlong into the unknown
like you do


you journeyed to a country far away
met a man
you opened up your mind
grabbed love by her handle
like you do
my julia


you tried all sorts of things
lived all over
you didn't sit around
waiting for your knight
in shining armor
you found him
and you learned to love each other
like you do


then
once again
you left everything
made your home again
there you found your missing piece
your people
you fell in love again
made up your mind
to be one of them
like you do
my julia


you tried
unfazed by burned crust
eggs on the floor
"never apologize"
you said
you never did
marching on
like you do


people made fun of
your passion
you ignored them
your mind was made up and you
were going to follow your path
like you do
my julia


peculiar describes you perfectly
saying exactly what you thought
in your warbling voice
with your sun-baked personality 
feet never fitting in your bed
you could never fit in
never tried to
you stood tall
threw back your head
laughed at those
who said you couldn't do it
like you do
like you do
my julia

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Between the Lines: Les Trois Gourmettes





In November 1951, a woman named Simone Beck came to dinner at Julia Child's house. The two women had met through a women's eating club, and would become fast friends. They would spend years working on perhaps the most famous cookbook after "The Joy of Cooking". Although their personalities were almost opposite, they shared a love and appreciation that would keep them together through all their arguments. They both loved French cooking.
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Simone Beck Fischbacher, or Simca, grew up in a rich family in France. Although the household kept servants, she could frequently be found experimenting in the kitchen. She soon proved to be a natural cook, and was self-taught except for a few classes at the Cordon Bleu. Julia and Simca were instantly fast friends, united by their love of France and food. 

Simca was a member of one of the only female gastronomical clubs in France at the time. Called Le Cercle des Gourmettes, the group had begun in 1927 to protest the traditionally male world of food clubs. Simca introduced Julia to one of her friends, who was also a Gourmette- Louisette Bertholle. Louisette, who was, according to Paul Child, "a charming little nincompoop", wasn't as enthralled with cooking as Julia and Simca, but still "bright and chic and full of enthusiasm". The three had a vague idea of starting a cooking school together, but before they had had time to do anything but talk, their first student-to-be presented herself. A friend of Julia's from Pasadena, named Martha Gibson, was coming to visit, and could they please give her cooking lessons? 

L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (roughly "The School of the Three Food Lovers)") opened its doors January 1952. The three new friends placed a notice in the American Embassy's newsletter, telling of "[a] small informal cooking class, with emphasis on the 'cook hostess' angle... is open for five pupils... The meetings are Tuesdays and Wednesdays from 10:00 a.m. through lunch, in the home of Mrs. Paul Child. The fee is 2,000 francs including lunch, which is prepared and served by the group. There are three experienced instructors, who teach basic recipes, bourgeoise or haute cuisine." The ad was not quite accurate-- the "instructors" were indeed experienced, but in cooking, not teaching.

Although the new school was not perfect, it was pretty good. For each lesson Julia typed a script for each of the teachers; "Prof. Julia, Prof. Simca, and Prof. Louisette". One would be chopping onions and carrots while the other was explaining the proper method for basting chicken legs, and a third was heating up stock. Prof. Louisette was often absent, as she was going through a divorce. However, the school's aim, to teach French cooking without the frills, was accomplished.


While Julia provided the lesson plan for des Trois Gourmandes, Simca and Louisette supplied the recipes. They drew from a cookbook they’d been writing for years; the finished cookbook-they hoped- would provide an “authentically French” cookbook for Americans. They’d gotten a publisher, Ives Washburn, but he didn’t know about the market for the type of product Louisette and Simca were working on. Ives did hire someone to translate the skinny manuscript into English and make a “teaser” for the book. Called “What’s Cooking in Frances”, it hadn’t been shown to Simca and Louisette before distribution and was published full of errors. The whole project was turning into a disaster. So, in 1952, the two friends asked Julia for help. Although she probably didn't realize it, this would prove to be an enormous event in her life.
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