Watching Meryl Streep as Julia Child.
The first sight of the cover of ``Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ in ``Julie and Julia’’ evoked surprise tears in me. The sound of that almost daffy, but so-passionate and practical, voice continued to bring small eruptions of grief throughout the film. I wept for the joy both women, Streep and Child, brought to their work, of making something wonderful – interpreting a part or a dinner.
Forty-one years ago, on a February Saturday afternoon in Beverly, Massachusetts, I put the finishing touches on a recipe from Julia Child. Alas! I can’t remember exactly which one, but it was chicken and vegetables stewed ahead, full of rich butter and wine and onions. We were having a dinner party, and the guests were my husband’s sister and husband and a new couple my husband wanted to get to know.
As I bent to the oven to pull out the yellow Dansk casserole, I realized I would have trouble standing back up because the little ripples of contractions I had felt after lunch were speeding up. My second baby, not due for 10 days, was apparently coming to the party. We cancelled the new people and called the family to come take care of our first daughter. As my brother-in-law drove us to the hospital, I told him I hoped the dinner would be good. He later confirmed it was excellent. I never got to taste it, or to meet the new couple.
When I arrived home from birthing that daughter, my husband’s grandmother arrived at our house with a large wicker basket filled with a freshly roasted chicken, little roasted potatoes and carrots, bread and buttered vegetables and pie for dessert. I thought it was the most wonderful dinner I’d ever seen. All I have to do now is see a generous wicker basket and I feel the promise of treats, being taken care of.
That same daughter, at age 8, when it was her turn to plan and (with help) cook the dinner, made her first hamburgers that turned out too hard and crispy. We all told her they were good, but she knew better. She and I turned to Julia, and we learned how to make Julia Child hamburgers:
Chop onions, lots of onion, saute them in butter, add to hamburger in bowl with bread crumbs and herbs and more butter and salt and pepper and mix with hands. Shape into patties and saute in MORE butter, leaving them a little bit rare.
They were, this time, delicious. The moisture of the onions and the butter keeps the meat moist and the bread crumbs make it rich and crumbly so it falls apart on the plate, making it easy to combine the bits with the mashed potatoes. We ate them forever.
Whenever I was bowed down by the weight of midwinter, small children not napping, laundry up and down the basement stairs and shoveling snow, I’d make a cup of tea and sit at the kitchen table and read Julia, and plan to cook. Chopping and sauteing and swirling sauces restored my self-esteem, took me to Europe and the cosmopolitan world of Paris. Suddenly, I could do anything. I was restored.
So why the tears? I’m still not certain. Something to do with the innocence of such young hope in me, of anyone that age, of the two women in the film following their passion – and because it was lovely to see a portrayal of men as wonderful, loving husbands who were equally passionate eaters.
I gave away my copy of ``Mastering the Art’’ when health considerations required changes. I’m not going to buy another one now because I have a new heroine, Alice Waters, who, in the ``The Art of Simple Cooking,’’ gives me strength and optimistic outlook. I admire her powerful dedication to teaching children about good food and raising it in the Edible Schoolyard. I love her way of teaching, not specific recipes, but ways of preparation, so, as she says, cooking isn’t a treasure hunt to find just the right ingredients, but rather figuring out how to make something wonderful from the ingredients you find. Her food is delicious too, and healthy. But every once in a while, I think it’s good to just give in and make Julia Child hamburgers.