Friday, September 4, 2009

Julie & Julia & Me

Family farewell to Tess.

My daughter Tess and I saw the film Julie & Julia last week, and this week she leaves for France for a semester abroad. I’ve been spoiled because for the past two years she has attended college right in our own hometown of Williamstown, Massachusetts. Thus I haven’t experienced the bereavement my friends have felt as their youngest child sailed off into the uncharted territory of his or her life. But I’m facing it now.

In the film Julie (Amy Adams) moves with her man to Queens fairly soon after 9/11 and craves a passionate core to her life. She decides to spend a year cooking a recipe a day from Julia Child’s
Mastering the Art of French Cooking and then blogging about it. Interspersed with her story are flashbacks to postwar Paris, where Julia Child (Meryl Streep), married to a diplomat and childless, is also seeking an outlet for her creativity and joie de vivre and finds it in making wonderful, sensual food.

Because Tess and I saw this film together, and because she will be in France, and because she loves good food, the farewell dinner menu was obvious:
Boeuf Bourguignon, from Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This particular dish becomes a quirky diabolical character in the film, even responsible for a certain plot twist. I won’t give that away, but I will say that the rhapsodic expression on the face of everyone in the film who sampled the boeuf made a major impression on both Tess and me.

Looking online, I discovered that so many people felt the same way — and simply had to make that recipe — that Knopf (now part of Random House) made it available as a PDF on its Web site: All across the country, we are following the example of Julie, who was following the example of Julia — and now, like Julie, I’m even blogging about it.

Anyway! I personally am not a passionate cook, but if time allows I generally love complicated recipes with lots of steps. Julia’s recipe, however, has 45 steps, and it doesn't take long to realize that this is far from the 20-minute freezer-to-microwave dinner prep typical of our modern American kitchen.

Before you begin, you are admonished to buy the best beef possible, even though the recipe evolved during a time of meager postwar meat rations. You don’t use cooking wine; you buy a good bottle of Burgundy and pour in just about the entire thing. To add more flavor, you buy a piece of salt pork, hack it into tiny ¼” cubes, and saw off the rind — if your carving knife is sharp enough, which mine clearly was not.

You cut up carrots and onions and sauté them with the beef and pork — and then you strain everything through a sieve (I used a colander) and actually remove and dispose of those carrots and onions. I drew the line at this and retained them, despite the awful discovery that they were just there to add flavor to the sauce but not to be actually eaten. Instead, special pearl onions were to be carefully prepared and added much later, along with separately prepared mushrooms, after the main event had simmered in the oven for four hours! The required sprig of thyme I picked from my garden, but I don't know where I would have plucked a fresh bay leaf here in New England if I didn’t have a little jar full of them on the shelf.

The dinner was planned for Monday, but all this cooking took place on a Sunday, because that’s the only day of the week that one could possibly undertake such a task. After approximately six hours, the dish was finally assembled, tasted, fine-tuned, tossed in its own rich gravy, tasted again, cooled, and stored in the fridge.

And what was the verdict? People (including Tess) praised the results, although my son and his girlfriend are vegetarians and all the labor was entirely lost on them. Frankly, I didn’t find the dish as rhapsodically sublime as I had hoped. I regretted adding the teaspoon of salt the recipe called for. The meat wasn’t as melt-in-the-mouth tender as I’d expected. The flavors could have merged a bit more.

There’s an art to French cooking, but it’s not about following a recipe to the letter. It’s about tasting, pondering, adapting, adjusting. That’s where Julia Child excelled. But I doubt I’ll ever ponder and adjust this particular recipe — life is too full, and there are too many other things to do of a summer Sunday.

So in my case the departure of my daughter will not result in my spending long hours perfecting French recipes. On the other hand, I might like to work my way through The Silver Palate Cookbook, which could be seen as a reaction to the Julia Child school of cooking. Author Sheila Lukins — who died last week at the age of 66 — countered Julia's approach with an emphasis on international flavors, superb American ingredients, and efficiency for the busy cook.

Onward, to Sheila's Chocolate Decadence Cake — perfect for Tess's welcome-home party in December!

— Deb Burns, Acquiring Editor

1 comment:

Amy Greeman said...

Another beautiful and iconic post, Deb! I've always wanted to make the Boeuf but have a very short attention span for cooking, as you'll see in my post next week. Loved yours.