She was not an actress, not a singer, not a Kennedy–but a cook. Yet Julia Child remains one of the most iconic and well-loved Americans of the last century. It’s no exaggeration to say that if it weren’t for her and her classic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking we’d all be eating boxed potatoes and canned green beans for dinner. There would be no boeuf bourguignon, no sidewalk creperies, no tarte aux pommes. No Martha Stewart or Ina Garten. No Food Network. Perhaps there would be no arugula, five dollar loaves of sourdough bread, or people willing to pay four bucks for a cup of coffee. Julia Child, among James Beard, Alice Waters and a handful of others, began an American culinary revolution that is still in an upswing. She took the grandest and most complicated cuisine in the Western world and made it accessible. “If you can read,” she used to say, “you can cook”. And how true this is, as long as you have Julia at your side.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know who Julia Child was. I used to watch her on re-runs of The French Chef when I was a kid, fascinated by her stature and that high-pitched warbly voice; I wondered if she was serious. Although she was deft and full of kitchen knowledge, she still made mistakes. Things didn’t always come out perfectly but that was a part of her charm. She made you feel like cooking wasn’t so hard and that if she could learn to do it, you could too. When I first started buying cookbooks, I bought Julia’s. She was the most famous, I reasoned, therefore the most trustworthy. The Way to Cook and Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom became bibles for me. But somehow, I never bought Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was somewhat intimidated by French cooking, and many of the recipes seemed overly involved and complicated. It took me a long time to realize what I was missing.
Certainly, it can take a good day to make a cassoulet or canard en croute, but there is so much more to this comprehensive and detailed cookbook. There are many simple recipes that don’t require fussy ingredients. Recipes that can take you from fumbling uncertainty in the kitchen to a confidence that you, you too can make French food–and make it well.
Now this is a lot–but there’s more. As much as Julia has been an inspiration in the kitchen, I find her inspiring in another–dare I say even more important–way. Julia Child was a late bloomer. In an age where most women married straight out of high school, she was in her thirties before she met Paul Child, the love of her life and constant companion for fifty years. She was also well into her thirties before she ever picked up a saucepan. She spent ten years working on MTAOFC and didn’t experience her first real achievement in life until she was almost fifty. When success finally shone its light on Julia Child, it shone with all its glory. Whenever I think that I will never find the person who gets me, who will always have my back, I think of Julia. When I feel I haven’t accomplished enough in my life, that I’m not where I want to be–that I should just give up–I think of Julia. She has taught me that it’s never too late, and that if you truly have a passion for something and you work hard enough, success will ultimately come.
On August 7, 2009, Sony Pictures will release Julie & Julia , a movie long-anticipated by foodies everywhere. To celebrate, the lovely Helene from La Cuisine d’Helene came up with the wonderful idea to have a Mastering the Art of French Cooking challenge in which several food bloggers agreed to cook recipes from Julia’s book and post them today.
Check out what some of us are cooking:
Salad Nicoise at La Cuisine d’Helene
Potage Parmentier and Chocolate Mousse at La Fuji Mama
Cherry Clafouti at More Than Burnt Toast
Coquilles St. Jacques a la Provencale and Biscuit au Beurre at Lisa is Cooking
Oeuf a la Bourgiugnonne at Confessions of a Cardamom Addict
Fresh Peach Ginger Peasant Cakes at Passionate about Baking
As for me, I decided to make Rapee Morvandelle, a gratin (of course!) of shredded potatoes with ham, eggs and onions. I thought no egg dish could top my beloved quiche, but this little dish is even better. The potato gives it substance and the ham is a perfect foil for the flavor of the slightly caramelized onions. Dotted with bits of golden butter, it’s like the mostly heavenly of potato pancakes.
Julia Child’s Rapee Morvandelle
1/2 cup finely minced onion
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 cup (3 ounces) finely diced cooked ham
1/2 clove crushed garlic
2 tablespoons minced parsley, chevril and/or chives
2/3 cup (3 ounces) grated Swiss cheese
4 tablespoons whipping cream, light cream, or milk
1/4 teaspoon salt
3 medium potatoes (3 ounces)
an additional 2 1/2 teaspoons butter
1) Preheat the oven to 375F. Cook the onion slowly in the oil and butter until tender but not browned. About 5 minutes.
2) Raise heat slightly. Stir in ham and cook a moment more.
3) Beat the eggs in a mixing bowl with the garlic, herbs, cheese, cream or milk, and seasonings. Then blend in ham and onions.
4) Peel the potatoes and grate them, using large holes of grater. A handful at a time, squeeze out their water. Check seasonings.
5) Heat the butter in an 11-12 inch dish. When foaming, pour in the potato and egg mixture. Dot with butter.
6) Set in the upper third of preheated oven and bake for 30-40 minutes, until the top is nicely browned. Serve directly from dish.