Posts tagged: Mastering the Art of French Cooking

REMEMBERING JAMES BEARD

Flying to Portland, Oregon, James Beard’s hometown where the 2010 IACP Conference was being held, I found myself rereading Epicurean Delight, the biography of Beard by my husband Evan Jones that was published five years after Jim died in 1985. So many lovely and telling reflections of his character surfaced that I wanted to jot them down but I didn’t have a notebook handy on the plane so I wrote them on what we publishers call the end papers of the book. In Epicurean Delight the endpapers are illustrated with a montage of immediately recognizable action drawings that the artist Karl Stuecklen sketched of Jim at play in his kitchen—whisking the eggs, sniffing the soup, tending the grill, and just contemplating his domain. As I filled in all the blank spaces I could find, writing across Jim’s forehead or the apron covering his ample chest and tummy, suddenly the words seemed to be popping out of Jim himself and the whole mosaic of bons mots came vividly to life.

Here is a sampling of the quotes starting in the upper left hand corner:

  • “In the beginning there was James Beard . . .” wrote Nora Ephron.

And from Beard himself:

  • “Designing hors d’oeuvres is not different from designing sets and costumes . . . Food is very much theater.”
  • “We’re Americans and can do as we please.”
  • “When I walk into a market I may see a different cut of meat or an unusual vegetable and think, ‘I wonder how it would be if I took the recipe for that sauce I had in Provence and put the two together?’ So I go home and try it out. Sometimes my idea is a success and sometimes it is a flop, but that is how recipes are born. There really are not recipes, only millions of variations sparked by someone’s imagination and desire to be a little creative and different. American cooking is built, after all, on variations of old recipes from around the world.”
  • “A cookbook should reflect the personality of the author along with his or her kitchen technique. Some cookbooks are put together like paper dolls. There is no feeling of humanness in them. I write about things I like and the way I like them.”
  • “Hands are our earliest tools. Cooking starts with the hands which are so sensitive that when they touch something they transmit messages to your brain about texture and temperature.”
  • “Freshness in vegetables is more important than anything else.”

I realized as I read these excerpts how much I had absorbed from Jim Beard over the years. I always loved working with him because he helped me develop a more relaxed and creative approach to cooking and I could tell that he was much more comfortable working at the stove that having to tap out words on a typewriter. He welcomed any distraction. If the phone rang and it was Mrs. X from Iowa City he would happily take the call and go through all the steps of the recipe she was having trouble with to figure out why her cake hadn’t risen. Around noon he’d begin to get restless for lunch so we would descend the stairs to the kitchen where he would swing open the door of his large fridge and sniff around for leftover bits that he had tucked away, composing in his taste imagination a harmony of flavors. Half an hour later we would sit down to a simple and always delicious lunch, often interrupted by the sudden appearance of Larry Forgione, the chef proprietor of An American Place, or perhaps Carl Sontheimer, the father of the Cuisinart food processor, seeking advice or enlightenment. You didn’t need Google in those days if you knew James Beard.

I came to know him when one day in 1961 I cheekily picked up the phone myself to ask him if he would look at the advance proofs of a big book on French cooking that we at Knopf were about to publish. He didn’t hesitate to say yes and after devouring it in just a few days, he called me to tell me how impressed he was with the book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and that we must be sure to bring these unknown authors over from France to introduce them to the American public. Then he took charge and persuaded Dionne Lucas to put on a French dinner party at her restaurant, The Egg Basket, and he personally invited the key players of the food world to attend and meet the authors of Mastering.

That was Jim Beard—utterly sure in his judgment when he spotted the genuine article, unhesitatingly generous in his support, creative but at the same time realistic, and above all blessed with perfect pitch when it came to his palate. In a sense he was born before his time and he encountered considerable obstacles as he tried to awaken the American palate to appreciate really good home cooking and to make the most of our extraordinary regional produce. His cooking began in the marketplace in Portland where he would roam with his mother among the farm stands, selecting only the best to be transformed into delectable dishes that she served in her boarding house, or to visit the Chinese quarter with Let, their Chinese cook, so they could bring home the cod cheeks that the fish monger always saved for them.

The first morning of the IACP Conference we took a Being James Beard Tour in downtown Portland and although urban growth has swallowed up the outdoor market where Jim and his mother shopped, the memories still remained. Robert Reynolds, who has sometimes been called the poet chef of Portland, read passages that he had selected from Epicurean Delight at each stop and I could see that he was deeply moved connecting with this man he had never really known before.

The last night of the Conference I had the good fortune to eat at Robert’s very special restaurant, Chefs Studio. The place consists of one room large enough to accommodate a dozen or so at a big table. Votive candles were lit and strewn across the white paper-covered dining table, set for fourteen with big glasses awaiting good Oregon Pinot Noir. On three sides the rough walls consisted of exposed beams and a few posters while the remaining wall was open to the kitchen. There we could watch Robert and his crew of four performing their ballet, adjusting flavors before carefully plating each dish.

From start to finish the food was superb, exactly what Himself would have loved. All the dishes were based on the season’s bounty: freshly gathered morels, tangy ramps and radishes and radish leaves, young spinach greens molded into little vegetable timbales, tiny berries and slim stalks of early spring rhubarb. The only item that had traveled from afar was the grass-fed lamb from the Southwest. As we were relishing its good, pure-lamb flavor, we talked to the rancher who had nurtured the herd—a young woman who clearly loved her calling—and we all exchanged sample bits of our life in food, ending with more stories about Jim.

To me that evening at Chefs Studio was the highpoint of the IACP Conference and I wished that there could be more of this kind of sit-down dinner where people could get to know each other and experience the regional products. Meanwhile I look forward to a visit again in a few years when the dream of the James Beard Public Market that is being planned will have become a reality and I can wander through the stalls and visit with the vendors and learn more. I hope I’ll find some cod cheeks to bring home.

TO KNEAD OR NOT TO KNEAD?

Why do we make bread at home, particularly these days when there is so much good bread to be found in our local bakeries? Certainly most of us don’t have a brick oven or a way of creating the steam that is necessary to achieving a great crust, so our efforts can’t be as good as a professional baker’s. I’m talking about crusty loaves—boules, baguettes, ficelles, and hard rolls, which fifty years ago you could hardly find anywhere, even in New York City.

That was about the time that Julia was working on the second volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and as we were poring over the final selection of recipes for it, I mentioned that it was a shame that Americans, who at last were mastering French cooking, thanks to Julia, still couldn’t enjoy that essential element of a French meal: an excellent, hard-crusted, golden brown loaf that when broken open revealed a patchwork of holes with shiny interiors and tasted simply of good bread. Nothing was better suited to mop up the last delicious morsels on your plate and a French dinner just wasn’t the same without it. The only solution, I slyly suggested, was for Mastering II to reveal the secrets and give the American cook a recipe that would work.

My idea caught fire. As Julia put it in the introduction to the book, “Until our editor, in her gentle but compelling way, suggested that we really owed it to our readers to include a recipe for French bread, we had no plans at all to tackle it. Two years and some 284 pounds of flour later, we had tried out all the home-style recipes for French bread we could find”—and they still hadn’t come up with the real thing. Julia put her husband, Paul, to work on it at first because he had made bread in college, but after 60 loaves (a few of which he mailed to me in New York and they all looked like the twisted arms of an old olive tree) he gave up. So they packed up American flour and American yeast and salt, and set off for France where they made contact with Professor Calvel of the Ecole de Meunière in Paris. And then, as she wrote: “It was like the sun in all its glory suddenly breaking through the shades of gloom.” This epiphany was particularly acute because what they learned seemed to defy most of the tenets of bread making they had previously encountered: Calvel’s dough was supposed to be soft and sticky, almost too tacky to be handled, and it was left to rise in a cool spot, not warm, for many hours. The proper shaping of the loaves was a crucial factor, as Julia wrote me in a postcard from Paris, not mentioning that they still had to find a way to simulate the baker’s wood-burning oven and to come up with a device to get that whoosh of steam so essential to the crusting of the loaves. But Paul worked out those technicalities (they were always a great team) and soon Julia was ready with a 20-page recipe for Plain French Bread.

Needless to say, I became addicted to making my own baguettes at home. Initially I used an asbestos plate, as recommended by Paul, as a substitute for the hot floor of a French oven, but after asbestos was condemned I lined my oven shelf with tiles. I also found an old, pre-electric iron that was perfect for heating up on my gas flame on top of the stove. When it had turned red hot and after I’d coaxed the long loaves onto the oven tiles with the help of an improvised baker’s paddle, I would pick up the hot iron with tongs, plop it quickly into a pan of water on the oven floor, and slam the oven door shut. You could hear the whoosh of steam inside. If there were children around, they always seemed relieved once I had performed this feat, and soon they were eager to get into the act.

I have long believed that if you want children to be interested in cooking, start making yeast breads together. They feel something so magical as the dough changes from a sticky mess under their hands to a smooth and bouncy mass that holds together. And it’s all in the kneading. Then they put the dough back in its bowl, cover it, and let it take a rest. When they return some time later and remove the covering, the dough has doubled or tripled in volume, usually trembling at the brim of the bowl. Now comes the part they love best: punching the dough ruthlessly down again. They also love the shaping and are always surprised at how when it comes out of the oven its shape has changed. It has a mind of its own.

So I confess to having an ambivalent feeling when I read in the fall of 2006 that Jim Lahey of the Sullivan Street Bakery in Manhattan had come up with a miraculous way of making the perfect, authentic country loaf that was going to revolutionize bread making. The attraction for home cooks was that is was easy, required no kneading, and that it was baked in a heavy, very hot Le Creuset-like cooking pot which gave it a great crust and those holes that are the pride of every baker. All it took was time—most of it waiting time—and the ability to handle very wet dough, which didn’t need kneading. Mark Bittman writing in the food section of The New York Times thought the results fantastic and Jeffrey Steingarten, an exacting cook, thought it the best country loaf he had ever made (after a little tinkering, of course) and wrote it up for Vogue.

I tried it a couple of times and was delighted with the taste and the texture of the round country loaf, although some of the holes seemed excessive in size so if slices were used for a sandwich bits of the filling might drop out. Recently I tried again, this time experimenting to see if I dropped a fairly long portion of the moist dough into a foot-long Le Creuset pan I had for making pate, I would get something that resembled a baguette. It was pretty good, but it didn’t really look like a baguette, with its handsome slashes, but like one of Paul’s olive tree branches, only plumper.

The truth is I missed the kneading. For me a good deal of the pleasure of making bread is tactile—kneading the dough gently at first so that it doesn’t stick to my work surface, scraping it off the board, flouring, folding, and continuing to knead rhythmically until my hands tell me it is ready. The dough gradually loses its tackiness and its resistance and comes alive under my palms, springing back at me when I press my thumb into it to see if it has been kneaded enough. My step-daughter tells me I become like a little girl I am enjoying it so much. And Julia used to say that hand-beating and kneading were good for our upper arm muscles. But this tactile sense also tells me when I have added enough flour and when the dough is just cohesive enough to roll out into the baguette shape. After it has had its final rise, then comes the slashing of the loaf, a procedure that takes some practice to master. With the revolutionary no-knead method, on the other hand, the dough is so moist that all you can do is just plop it into the hot pot and slap on the lid.

My objection is not entirely sentimental. Flours vary in their water content, making it hard to rely on precise measurements. Recently I botched a batch because the dough was too wet when it went into the pan, and although it crusted well, the interior remained damp. Had I been handling the dough, I would have known this and worked in considerably more flour.

But I did absorb a valuable lesson: You achieve a better-tasting bread if you use less yeast and allow the dough a long, slow rise. So now I’m playing with these findings and making a better baguette. But I haven’t stopped kneading.

BLESS YOU, JULIA

We might have expected a certain amount of twittering from the Nervous Nellies over how much butter Julia lavished on those delicious French dishes that she translated for the American home cook in Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book, after all, was written before the Fear of Fat Mania (Julia’s expression) became an epidemic in this country in the 90s. Julia was never moved to modify the ingredients because they represented exactly what was called for in the classic French cuisine and moreover she didn’t believe in such nonsense. Her motto was that pure butter in moderation was good for us and that if we all ate a little of everything and didn’t indulge in seconds (or heaping platefuls), we’d be fine. Of course, in the aftermath of the fat hysteria, she was proved right. Hydrogenated products were found to be more harmful than butter and pure animal fats, and it was all those hidden fats and corn products in fast foods that were the culprit. Still people cling to old myths, particularly when it’s easier than changing one’s eating habits.

But I found it disappointing that The New York Times had to dredge up these old issues in their story on August 23rd about the soaring sales of Mastering, thanks to the move Julie and Julia. The good news is that these young people inspired by the movie are turning to a book that will really teach them how to cook.

Clearly food writer Regina Schrambling does not agree and in her August 28 piece on Slate, titled “Don’t Buy Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and subtitled “You will never cook from it,” she claims that Mastering “has always been daunting” and that all those copies bought in the last few weeks are going to remain untouched. She then admits that she herself, after graduating from restaurant school, never cooked from it. So how is she in any position to assess it?

The truth is that she, and The New York Times, too, miss the whole point. The book is aimed at readers who really want to learn how to cook and need a lot of guidance. That’s why the master recipes are sometimes long and detailed. Everything is spelled out so that the neophyte cook understands the ingredients, the techniques involved, the possible pitfalls, and how to remedy mistakes. That does not necessarily make the recipes “labor-intensive and time-consuming,” as the Times reporter gratuitously stated, or that they are geared only to “a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail” (Schrambling). How does one learn if you are not given instruction? Is there any other art form that does not require understanding and practicing the fundamentals? Moreover, once you have understood and mastered the method, it is imprinted on your cooking brain so that next time, as Julia often said, you won’t even need a recipe.

I myself learned to cook from Mastering. I had always loved cooking but I knew so little about it that I was frustrated. After spending three and a half years in Paris in my mid-twenties, where I had been exposed to marvelous, everyday French food, I longed to reproduce such lovely dishes. I wanted my food to have the French touch, to taste soigné, not just indifferently cooked. But there was no book that really taught me how—that is, not until Mastering came along. It changed my life, really empowering me as a cook. And I was not alone. After we published this first volume at Knopf suddenly almost everyone I knew in New York was cooking from it—people who had never boiled an egg were giving three-course dinners à la Julia, and loving it.

That’s what I find so inspiring about the current surge of interest in this classic teaching book. I think we’ve had enough of cooking as entertainment and we really want to learn the art of cooking with finesse. I say bless you, Julia, for giving us the tools.

What Would Julia Have Thought?

I have just returned to Bryn Teg, my mountain retreat in the Northeast Kingdom of Vermont, after a whirlwind trip to do my share of promoting the about-to-be-released movie, Julie and Julia. After sixteen interviews in one day in Toronto and seventeen in Boston plus a panel discussion following a screening of the film, instead of being drained, I felt exhilarated. There is such an outpouring of affection for Julia that the fun of having her in the guise of Meryl Streep back on the screen is positively infectious.

When I first looked at my schedule I wondered whether I had enough to say about everyone’s favorite cook and if I wouldn’t just be repeating the same old stories. But curiously each interviewer seemed to have a slightly different personal take on the subject and their questions were varied and probing enough to keep things perking. There was one question that persisted, however, and that was: What would Julia have thought of the movie?

There’s no easy answer to that but it’s interesting that it seemed such a concern. It is as though her fans wanted to protect her. Obviously it’s hard for anyone to see herself projected on screen, and the telling characteristics of voice and gesture as acted out by someone else can make one uncomfortably self-conscious. For all her good sportsmanship, I sensed that Julia was rather embarrassed by the Dan Aykroyd caricature on Saturday Night Live. But, first and foremost, Julia was a pro and she valued superior performance. So I am sure she would have admired the marvelous alchemy that takes place as Meryl Streep becomes the essence of Julia before our eyes.

Also, Julia was a bit of a ham, as she would readily admit. She understood that you have to create drama in a role, and a touch of high-pitched exaggeration is part of the game. She certainly would have warmed to the Paris scenes, particularly the moments at the market when those macho French vendors seem enchanted by her exuberance and clear love of food. As for chopping those piles of onions in order to perfect her knife skills, that would have hit home.

Above all, Julia would have been delighted by the young people in the audience who went away thinking cooking was fun and wanted to get into the kitchen with Julia. Julie, as played so engagingly by Amy Adams, begins to really enjoy the challenge she has set herself and she feels empowered by her mentor’s presence.

Julia Child was driven by a sense of mission. She genuinely wanted to teach her fellow Americans the secrets and subtleties and rewards of French cooking. So how could she not appreciate Julie and Julia for awakening a whole new generation to Mastering the Art?

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