A RETURN TO HOME COOKING

In early October I was on a panel with a number of writers discussing the future of food writing—from books, magazines, and newspapers to blogs and twitters. It took place at the Mount, Edith Wharton’s home in Lenox, Mass., and I couldn’t help thinking that just in my lifetime food had come a long way; it was being honored here as a serious topic, launching a series of programs on the written word.

After much talk about current trends in restaurants and how the electronic media is changing the way we get our information, I suggested that what I really felt people were yearning for was a return to good home cooking. And a cheer went up from the audience. The same happened a few weeks later in a church in Norwich, Vermont (we had had to move from the bookstore to the church because so many food-loving people wanted to attend).

So there seems to be a movement afoot to get back into the kitchen and enjoy cooking. Maybe the downturn in the economy is having an effect. I think often of the artist Ed Giobbi, who wrote so affectionately about how, when he was growing up before World War II in a dreary New England industrial town, his family and neighbors would make frequent excursions to the coast to gather mussels (then considered trash fish by the rest of America). He wrote: “I suppose I remember these occasions because they were joyous and I tend to think of the Depression with some nostalgia. The gathering and preparing of food was a group effort and everyone was loving and open. Perhaps that’s why I have a special reverence for food.”

I have been particularly impressed recently by the number of young people—especially those faced with their first kitchen, usually tiny—who really want to cook for themselves. One of the things that inspires them, I believe, is a nostalgia for some of the good ethnic tastes they may have grown up on or were exposed to through travel. And because there is a growing awareness of how food is a means of telling about a culture, there is a new respect for learning about this endlessly fascinating subject. They not only save money but they eat better and enjoy the satisfaction of doing something creative.

Last week I was in New England promoting my new book The Pleasures of Cooking for One and I was asked by Nancy Supporta Sternbach, a professor of Spanish and Portuguese studies at Smith College, if I would meet with some of her students, who wanted to prepare some dishes for me before my talk at the Odyssey bookstore in South Hadley, Mass. It developed that she was teaching a course called What’s in a Recipeand it attracted students of different nationalities. I met with about ten of them—some with origins in Asia, India, the Middle East, France, and Italy. They delighted in getting together and making some of the dishes that had an interesting past. So they presented me with a sampling to fortify me for my talk. One student had made a tapenade and a spinach-yogurt dip; then there was a delectable rich winter squash soup; and the young lady from France had baked an interesting bergamot-seasoned cake, which was delicious dipped in tea. The elusive flavor of the bergamot led naturally to a discussion of what bergamot was and which countries used it and how.

Then an idea surfaced. Considering the success of reading groups all over the country, why not launch a series of food-and-book clubs? The focus would be on ways in which different authors treated food in their writing and members of the group could make dishes based on these descriptions. For instance, they might try to reproduce the dinner that Anne Tyler describes in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, in which the son in a dysfunctional family, now a chef, makes an eggplant soup with bananas—which, alas, doesn’t exactly succeed in pulling the family together.

Or the reading group might sample different cookbooks and find out which worked for them—which were genuine teaching books and which, through the sensuous description of a creation, inspired the novice cook to try what might have seemed a daunting recipe.

The handicap our young people face today as they start to cook is that most of them haven’t had the privilege of learning by osmosis, watching their mother (or father, or grandparent) cook, and absorbing all the subtle techniques. They are alone in the kitchen and there’s no one to turn to when the sauce curdles. But don’t despair. Help is now at hand. Once again Julia comes to the rescue.

About twenty-five years ago when Julia Child was at the height of her fame, we decided it would be a huge help to the home cook to create a series of tapes devoted to teaching all the basic techniques, from how to make a cream sauce and a hollandaise to cutting up a chicken and forming a tart shell. So I went out to Santa Barbara, where Julia was wintering, and worked with her long-time producer and director Russ Morash to produce a series of six teaching tapes called The Way to Cook. They were, and are, remarkable—the best 6-session cooking class you could ever attend. The only trouble was that the technology then was not up to the task. On those old tapes there was no instant access so you might have to go patiently through hamburgers, Sautéed Veal Scallops, Calf’s Liver, and Pot Roast before you got to the all-important technique of degreasing a sauce. Furthermore, you could only play these tapes on your TV screen, and most of us didn’t have televisions taking up space in the kitchen.

But now with DVDs we can, with our remote at the kitchen counter or stove, order up instantly that degreasing segment. We can take Julia into the kitchen on our desktop computer so it is just like having her standing there beside us when that sauce curdles (and she’ll tell us how to rescue it).

Watching The Way to Cook is mesmerizing and addictive. But you’ll come away a fine and fearless cook, I promise you.

53 Responses to “A RETURN TO HOME COOKING”

  1. Thank you for a wonderful post on home cooking. I found it wonderfully restorative. As a mother of three children, I cook for my family daily. Indeed home cooking sits on the front burner at my house. However, it isn’t always easy.

    I’m trying to teach my children that “real food” takes a certain degree of time, commitment and love. I suppose they are listening but on some days it seems that they guzzle better than they listen!

    I purchased The Pleasure of Cooking for One just the other day. I am also very happy to have found your wonderful blog. The Diary of Anne Frank was one of the most memorable books that I read as a child. I find it amazing that you saved that book so many years ago and are now posting your culinary thoughts on the web. Please keep sharing.
    Sincerely, Melissa A. Trainer, Seattle

  2. EdibleMarie says:

    Hello Judith,

    My life has done a 180 in many ways lately. I was a bachelorette in Buffalo, eating OUT 90% of the time, while eating in meant tuna on crackers. I hate cooking for myself, though your recent book makes a tempting case for it. Now I live with my boyfriend and have a drastically-reduced financial situation, which means eating IN 90% of the time and cooking. Cooking for two has been a pleasure. It is a gesture of love and care. And my guy picked up an entire encyclopedia set of ethnic cooking for me from the 70’s. Society changes, life changes, and unexpected treasure is unearthed. Thank you for your thoughts.

  3. Nan says:

    I was so hoping that Santa would bring me Julia’s DVD’s, The Way to Cook, but he was a bit unorganized this year so I ordered them for myself after Christmas and am waiting patiently for them to arrive! I’m so looking forward to seeing them – and having Julia “in” my home with be such fun!
    Happy New Year to you!

  4. Anushka de Letón says:

    Ah! Edith Wharton…her writings provide some of my best memories as a young girl holed up in my room for days on end…

    My dear Mrs Jones, you are so right about home-cooked food. We need it. We crave it! I have just returned from a Christmas holiday in the United States, and I really don’t know how “home-cooked” food is possible anymore when the fruit and vegies look and taste like plastic, the meat has no flavor, fresh fish is impossible to find outside of the coastal areas, and where processed foods take up more than 2/3 of the supermarket. Granted, I was in Phoenix, but Chicago is no better. My son was so happy to get back to Madrid and have me begin cooking. “Mama, you are the best cook in the world”, is the only review I am really interested in these days. At the tender of age of 6, he knows and appreciates his food. His American cousins have never tasted lentils, dogfish, octupus, garlic soup, shrimp croquettes, chick pea casserole and sautéd spinach with prunes. Friday is “fresh-baked Friday” – a treat is waiting when he gets home from school, perhaps an apple tart or some blueberry muffins; and Tuesday is soup and bread and butter night. He looks forward to this! Saturday nights we eat in the dining room with china and crystal. Mind you, he is still not ready for the Ritz, but we are working on it! We change clothes and he helps to serve the aperitif! Believe me, this is more exciting to him than a video game! Children need and crave this kind of attention and training. Home-cooking provides children with memories that last a lifetime.

    Over the past 18 years, Spain has taught me “how to eat” – the dishes may not be as elaborate and elegant as the cuisine francaise – but the simplicty, freshness and variety are unparalled. I believe Spanish food is distorted in the world view. It is not just paella, those dreaded and impossible-to-recreate gambas al ajillo and V8 version of gazpacho. (I judge a Spanish cookbook by its gazpacho recipe. The supposed premiere recipe does not even include olive oil!) But alas, Spain is also losing her traditions, and even Spaniards are now also craving the home-cooked food of yesteryear. It is me, an American, who has learned and perfected all the traditional recipes from my husband’s grandmother as his two sisters have NO INTEREST in carrying on tradition.

    On another note, as you love France and its cooking, have you seen or heard of “Trish’s Paris Kitchen”? It is wonderful. She is Irish and a big hit in France. The series ran in Ireland and in the UK. She is really special and someone that I look to emulate as she gets her facts right and takes such care with her food. It is amazing how even on the Food Network I recently heard one of the “big stars” proclaim that Madeira is from Spain and on another show, set the table whilst handling a fork by the prongs!

    Happy New Year and thank you for your wonderful career and most especially for the “Diary of Anne Frank”. That discovery even tops our beloved Julia in my view. Bravo!

    A.de L.
    Madrid, Spain

  5. Emily says:

    I remember fondly watching Julia…I really learned to cook great food than as a young woman. She made it all seem so do-able! I’m now recently widowed and I have to say, your new book is such an inspiration and solace to me now! I made the Cheese Souffle for my New Year’s dinner and it was great to cook something so nice for myself! I even took a picture of it and would love to share it!

  6. Ms. Glaze says:

    I agree young people do want to learn how to cook! When I taught high school cooking my classes were packed – and not just because it was an easy ‘A’. They loved learning about international cultures & people through the food.

    Looking forward to The Way To Cook. And, I’m really looking forward to reading The Pleasure of Cooking For One. I think we forget when we are cooking for ourselves, that it can be a celebration all on its own. Worthy of much more than a TV dinner….

    What I would do to meet you in person! If you are ever in NYC I’d be happy to cook dinner for two!!!

  7. Judith Jones says:

    Emily—Thanks for writing. I’d love to see your souffle photo. Please send it to knopfpublicity@randomhouse.com and ask them to forward it to me.

    –Judith

  8. cindy says:

    I have been trying to teach myself how to cook this past fall, but it wasnt until I saw the Julie/julia movie that I picked up Julia Child’s books, and DVDs (the way to cook and The french chef series). Its unbelievable how my cooking life has changed. I have been dieting for 5 months and continue to lose weight cooking from her cookbooks. It is a matter of enjoying the quality of the ingredients in controlled portions.
    I tell anyone that will listen how incredible her books and dvds are and how great your new book is. Its such a great compliment to JC’s style.

  9. Sue Geisler says:

    The Tenth Muse is a treasure – this new book is a Masteropiece with a capital M. I just got it today and am so pleased with it. I already have a list for shopping and three things to make during this week. I was married for 45 years and cooked what the family liked and asked for, Now, I cook for me and it’s a great experience. So many possibilities and you’ve created a book for me to use as an inspiraion. Thank you! I rearranged the “pantry” after work tonight and have plans for a trip with a friend to the Farmer’s Market and a cheese shop next Saturday. My super has a nice selection, but maybe we’ll find something we haven’t tried before. Again – Merci!

    PS – he ordered your book tonight when I said he couldn’t borrow mine for a while,

  10. Martin says:

    Ah! Edith Wharton…her writings provide some of my best memories as a young girl holed up in my room for days on end…

    My dear Mrs Jones, you are so right about home-cooked food. We need it. We crave it! I have just returned from a Christmas holiday in the United States, and I really don’t know how “home-cooked” food is possible anymore when the fruit and vegies look and taste like plastic, the meat has no flavor, fresh fish is impossible to find outside of the coastal areas, and where processed foods take up more than 2/3 of the supermarket. Granted, I was in Phoenix, but Chicago is no better. My son was so happy to get back to Madrid and have me begin cooking. “Mama, you are the best cook in the world”, is the only review I am really interested in these days. At the tender of age of 6, he knows and appreciates his food. His American cousins have never tasted lentils, dogfish, octupus, garlic soup, shrimp croquettes, chick pea casserole and sautéd spinach with prunes. Friday is “fresh-baked Friday” – a treat is waiting when he gets home from school, perhaps an apple tart or some blueberry muffins; and Tuesday is soup and bread and butter night. He looks forward to this! Saturday nights we eat in the dining room with china and crystal. Mind you, he is still not ready for the Ritz, but we are working on it! We change clothes and he helps to serve the aperitif! Believe me, this is more exciting to him than a video game! Children need and crave this kind of attention and training. Home-cooking provides children with memories that last a lifetime.

    Over the past 18 years, Spain has taught me “how to eat” – the dishes may not be as elaborate and elegant as the cuisine francaise – but the simplicty, freshness and variety are unparalled. I believe Spanish food is distorted in the world view. It is not just paella, those dreaded and impossible-to-recreate gambas al ajillo and V8 version of gazpacho. (I judge a Spanish cookbook by its gazpacho recipe. The supposed premiere recipe does not even include olive oil!) But alas, Spain is also losing her traditions, and even Spaniards are now also craving the home-cooked food of yesteryear. It is me, an American, who has learned and perfected all the traditional recipes from my husband’s grandmother as his two sisters have NO INTEREST in carrying on tradition.

    On another note, as you love France and its cooking, have you seen or heard of “Trish’s Paris Kitchen”? It is wonderful. She is Irish and a big hit in France. The series ran in Ireland and in the UK. She is really special and someone that I look to emulate as she gets her facts right and takes such care with her food. It is amazing how even on the Food Network I recently heard one of the “big stars” proclaim that Madeira is from Spain and on another show, set the table whilst handling a fork by the prongs!

    Happy New Year and thank you for your wonderful career and most especially for the “Diary of Anne Frank”. That discovery even tops our beloved Julia in my view. Bravo!

    A.de L.
    Madrid, Spain

  11. David says:

    Ah! Edith Wharton…her writings provide some of my best memories as a young girl holed up in my room for days on end…

    My dear Mrs Jones, you are so right about home-cooked food. We need it. We crave it! I have just returned from a Christmas holiday in the United States, and I really don’t know how “home-cooked” food is possible anymore when the fruit and vegies look and taste like plastic, the meat has no flavor, fresh fish is impossible to find outside of the coastal areas, and where processed foods take up more than 2/3 of the supermarket. Granted, I was in Phoenix, but Chicago is no better. My son was so happy to get back to Madrid and have me begin cooking. “Mama, you are the best cook in the world”, is the only review I am really interested in these days. At the tender of age of 6, he knows and appreciates his food. His American cousins have never tasted lentils, dogfish, octupus, garlic soup, shrimp croquettes, chick pea casserole and sautéd spinach with prunes. Friday is “fresh-baked Friday” – a treat is waiting when he gets home from school, perhaps an apple tart or some blueberry muffins; and Tuesday is soup and bread and butter night. He looks forward to this! Saturday nights we eat in the dining room with china and crystal. Mind you, he is still not ready for the Ritz, but we are working on it! We change clothes and he helps to serve the aperitif! Believe me, this is more exciting to him than a video game! Children need and crave this kind of attention and training. Home-cooking provides children with memories that last a lifetime.

    Over the past 18 years, Spain has taught me “how to eat” – the dishes may not be as elaborate and elegant as the cuisine francaise – but the simplicty, freshness and variety are unparalled. I believe Spanish food is distorted in the world view. It is not just paella, those dreaded and impossible-to-recreate gambas al ajillo and V8 version of gazpacho. (I judge a Spanish cookbook by its gazpacho recipe. The supposed premiere recipe does not even include olive oil!) But alas, Spain is also losing her traditions, and even Spaniards are now also craving the home-cooked food of yesteryear. It is me, an American, who has learned and perfected all the traditional recipes from my husband’s grandmother as his two sisters have NO INTEREST in carrying on tradition.

    On another note, as you love France and its cooking, have you seen or heard of “Trish’s Paris Kitchen”? It is wonderful. She is Irish and a big hit in France. The series ran in Ireland and in the UK. She is really special and someone that I look to emulate as she gets her facts right and takes such care with her food. It is amazing how even on the Food Network I recently heard one of the “big stars” proclaim that Madeira is from Spain and on another show, set the table whilst handling a fork by the prongs!

    Happy New Year and thank you for your wonderful career and most especially for the “Diary of Anne Frank”. That discovery even tops our beloved Julia in my view. Bravo!

    A.de L.
    Madrid, Spain

  12. Bruce says:

    Ah! Edith Wharton…her writings provide some of my best memories as a young girl holed up in my room for days on end…

    My dear Mrs Jones, you are so right about home-cooked food. We need it. We crave it! I have just returned from a Christmas holiday in the United States, and I really don’t know how “home-cooked” food is possible anymore when the fruit and vegies look and taste like plastic, the meat has no flavor, fresh fish is impossible to find outside of the coastal areas, and where processed foods take up more than 2/3 of the supermarket. Granted, I was in Phoenix, but Chicago is no better. My son was so happy to get back to Madrid and have me begin cooking. “Mama, you are the best cook in the world”, is the only review I am really interested in these days. At the tender of age of 6, he knows and appreciates his food. His American cousins have never tasted lentils, dogfish, octupus, garlic soup, shrimp croquettes, chick pea casserole and sautéd spinach with prunes. Friday is “fresh-baked Friday” – a treat is waiting when he gets home from school, perhaps an apple tart or some blueberry muffins; and Tuesday is soup and bread and butter night. He looks forward to this! Saturday nights we eat in the dining room with china and crystal. Mind you, he is still not ready for the Ritz, but we are working on it! We change clothes and he helps to serve the aperitif! Believe me, this is more exciting to him than a video game! Children need and crave this kind of attention and training. Home-cooking provides children with memories that last a lifetime.

    Over the past 18 years, Spain has taught me “how to eat” – the dishes may not be as elaborate and elegant as the cuisine francaise – but the simplicty, freshness and variety are unparalled. I believe Spanish food is distorted in the world view. It is not just paella, those dreaded and impossible-to-recreate gambas al ajillo and V8 version of gazpacho. (I judge a Spanish cookbook by its gazpacho recipe. The supposed premiere recipe does not even include olive oil!) But alas, Spain is also losing her traditions, and even Spaniards are now also craving the home-cooked food of yesteryear. It is me, an American, who has learned and perfected all the traditional recipes from my husband’s grandmother as his two sisters have NO INTEREST in carrying on tradition.

    On another note, as you love France and its cooking, have you seen or heard of “Trish’s Paris Kitchen”? It is wonderful. She is Irish and a big hit in France. The series ran in Ireland and in the UK. She is really special and someone that I look to emulate as she gets her facts right and takes such care with her food. It is amazing how even on the Food Network I recently heard one of the “big stars” proclaim that Madeira is from Spain and on another show, set the table whilst handling a fork by the prongs!

    Happy New Year and thank you for your wonderful career and most especially for the “Diary of Anne Frank”. That discovery even tops our beloved Julia in my view. Bravo!

    A.de L.
    Madrid, Spain

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