Sunday, November 02, 2008

Julia Child and America's Test Kitchen

I've been meaning to blog all week. Sadly, no particular topic seemed compelling enough to overcome my ennui. Here is the one topic that keeps nagging at me, that I must share.

I finished reading Julia Child's autobiography, My Life in France. I had suggested it to my book group as an offbeat choice from our usual fair. My only exposure to Julia may have been one or two PBS shows as a child, and the parodies of her by Dan Akroyd on Saturday Night Live when I was a teenager. I consider myself a foodie. I like biographies. And, with the holidays coming up, I figured the book might be entertaining.

What a truly unexpected pleasure! Her story is not just for foodies. The book begins with her arrival in France with her husband Paul. The two met during WWII in the OSS in the Pacific. They married after the war, and were initially posted to Washington, D.C.

A year or so later they are posted to France where Julia finds herself. She discovers that she loves good food and wants to know how to make it. She approaches food with a passion and scientific curiosity. Eventually she enrolls in the Cordon Bleu (which is not the perfect ivory tower that outsiders often assume it to be). She makes the same dish dozens of times to understand why it works, what will ruin it, and how to recover when it has problems. She meets two French women who have written a book on French cooking for the American housewife, and eventually agrees to help them with the book. This partnership leads to a multi-year odyssey that culminates in the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (now in a 40th anniversary edition).

The book primarily focuses on the story behind the great cooking tome. However, we also gain insight into life in the U.S. foreign service and the effect of McCarthism. We also are treated to some lovely vignettes around Julia's home and family life, including how she and Paul sent hand-designed valentines to their loved ones each year and the construction of their cottage in the south of France. And finally, we learn the roots of Julia's television career and eventually celebrity which always seem to surprise her.

This is a fabulous book. Julia was a remarkable individual.

Reading about her passion for food and how she approached recipe development reminded me of the work of the recent PBS show: America's Test Kitchen. I simply adore their magazine, Cooks Illustrated. I have their cook book: The Best Recipe (now in a new edition: The New Best Recipe). Cooks Illustrated does what Julia used to do. They scientifically evaluate a recipe and find the best way to make a dish, and they explain to the home cook how they arrived at the recipe they now recommend.

So, as you make your Thanksgiving plans, and think about holiday gifts, maybe you should include a little Julia in your thinking!

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