I recently finished My Life in France, by Julia Child (written with her nephew, Alex Prud’homme). I had been amazed to read elsewhere that one meal had awakened her dormant passion for all things food, and I wanted to know what that meal was.
Julia went on, in turn, to awaken passion in many Americans. Her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, written over the course of several years in collaboration with two friends, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, was published in 1961. Within 2 years, she appeared on our television sets, quirky and lanky, amusingly natural, and was awarded an Emmy in 1966.
How could one single meal be so pivotal in someone’s life? I found it amazing and yet not surprising that 55 years later, well into her 90’s, Julia vividly and intensely recalled its every detail from 1948. To hear Prud’homme describe their collaboration on My Life in France is to appreciate the gratitude he had for the opportunity to reconnect as well as his high regard for her dedicated creativity and determination. One meal sparked Julia’s mission, and later his.
The first sentence in the introduction reads, “This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life. . .” and the last page ends with her characteristic “toujours bon appétit.” In between are innumerable and enthusiastic accounts of being at table with friends, relentless perfectionism in testing recipes, conversations and lessons from her teachers – who could be found anywhere from exalted roles at Le Cordon Bleu, to small stands at Parisian vegetable markets, to behind the counter at her favorite patisseries.
I wondered what would have ever happened to Julia – as I wonder about many seemingly innocuous choices and circumstances in my own life that end up having the most profound effect – if she and her husband had simply driven straight through to Paris after their boat docked in Le Havre in 1948. What if, I thought, Paul Child had decided not to stop for lunch at one of his favorite restaurants in Rouen, on the Place de Vieux Marche where Joan of Arc had been burned at the stake? In 1345, La Couronne had come to be, and ever since it had been serving up a Norman interpretation of sublime.
What if Julia had never sampled the smooth and briny portugaises (oysters on the half shell) accompanied with crisp pain de seigle (pale rye bread) and buerre d’Isigny (light, unsalted table butter)? What if Paul had ordered something other than the sole meuniere that transported Julia to describe it as a “morsel of perfection” with its “light but distinctive taste of the ocean” more than 50 years later? What if she had declined to drink the Pouilly-Fume that accompanied the fish and salade verte with vinaigrette, or had no baguette – with the “crisp brown crust giving way to a slightly chewy, rather loosely textured pale-yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and yeast in the odor and taste?” No fromage blanc with cafe filtre to close the meal?
Julia maintained that lunch was the most exciting of her life. I was excited by that, off at a ramshackle pace to devour the rest of the book recklessly and rapidly. Turning the last page a day later, I reflected on whether one (meaning me, of course) could have had such a life-changing meal herself. Could I even remember the details as vividly as Julia had? Did I realize its significance at the time? I couldn’t bear to think that serendipity or circumstance may have taken my path right past the door of my personal La Couronne without my ever knowing! Quelle tragédie!
Meals in our house growing up were hardly as adventurous. Just as the movie spoofed “If It’s Tuesday, It Must be Belgium,” we knew if it was hot dogs it must be Saturday, or if it was chipped beef on toast my dad was on strike at the factory. I could relate to what Julia described as nutritious, but unexciting food during her girlhood.
My mother’s self-proclaimed specialty was a chicken and rice casserole, prepared in copious amounts and ladled out of stew pot. Its undulating mass expanded to fill any plate’s well in a sea of beige with nary a parsley sprig for relief. Invariably this would be accompanied by a strawberry-banana jello and whipped cream layer salad, reminiscent of every church supper. “Oh, no thanks,” we’d demur, visiting as young adults, “we’ve already eaten.”
When my brother and I shared an apartment, he was working in a factory, saving money for chef school. Instead of soup stock, he was pouring molten brass in large, dangerous vats. We laughed at our parents’ propensity for describing what they had to eat via long distance telephone. What time had they arrived to get in line at the dinner buffet? What appetizer had a neighbor brought over for Happy Hour? Your dad made his gravy, they’d report.
When John went off to the Culinary Institute of America, they traveled across half the country to Hyde Park for his graduation, where they ate in the student-run Escoffier restaurant. My father proclaimed it the best meal of his life, the cuisine flavored in part with their pride on that happy day.
For my wedding and other special events, John subsequently provided platters of cunning little animals and flowers, carved exquisitely from fruits and radishes. The remarkable whimsy! He would show up bearing the fabric roll that cradled his expensive German steel knives. I learned from him and later observed in others that talented cooks revere their cutlery and it needs to be just so.
After my divorce, I embarked on a series of disastrous dating experiences. This period culminated with a person who was so timid about food that he recoiled in horror from bean sprouts and endive – “What is this, dendrites in my salad?” I decided I would no longer spend precious weekend time with anyone who was not at least somewhat adventurous with food. If they liked sushi, I figured, we could move forward. If not, “NEXT!”
It was during this time that my 12 year old, Robin, and I traveled to France and Germany. It was a life-changing trip, to be sure, and there are several meals that we shared that could hold a title: a grand lunch at the Musee d’Orsay; dinner at a tiny restaurant in the 7th arondissement – where a grandmother leaned over and exclaimed “Bonne idée!” to Robin, who was expertly sopping up the butter sauce from her escargot with her baguette; dishes of wild game and sauerbraten shared in Heidelberg with John and his new bride, Gwyn; outdoor dining at the homes of German friends near Stuttgart.
There’s a point in every dating ritual where the participants entertain in their respective kitchens. To my relief, Peter Wuebker had proved to enjoy all kinds of cuisine, though he turned out to be less fond of Italian than I. To my delight, he intimated of culinary accomplishments, with a propensity toward Asian flavors. Upon my return from Europe, Pete decided he would cook me a meal in my kitchen one day, and I was happy to let him. I expected this meal to be good, if only because he had something to prove.
I wasn’t disappointed. As Julia did with her lunch at La Couronne, I remember this dinner at my house, cooked in my kitchen, with exquisite detail. It was on this night, over Scallops in Jade Sauce, that I decided Pete Wuebker might be a keeper.
He arrived bearing a well-worn copy of “Pacific Flavors” written by Hugh Carpenter, whom I later learned espoused Chinese cooking “without fear.” Portentous, given my self-imposed admonitions regarding the ideal man. His supplies included some sharp knives (mine were always notoriously dull, the better to emerge with human skin intact, I told myself), a large amount of spinach, and a dozen of the fattest scallops I’d ever seen. Clearly, this was a literal interpretation of the recipe’s ingredients, which called for “1-1/2 pounds of large sea scallops.”
I was banished to the living room after the wine (a nice Vouvray, I might add, since I selected it – the poor man’s Pouilly-Fuisse) was opened, where I listened to the clatter and sniffed the aromas wafting in from the kitchen. Ginger and Chinese chili sauce. Never one to shy away from spicy, he told me later he used cayenne to add color before the broil.
I was called to the table adjoining the kitchen, and seated with a flourish. Presented to me that fateful evening was the dish you see here. It was marvelous. The scallops were plump and chewy, and the cayenne gave them a bounce. The jade sauce, consisting of spinach pureed with heavy cream, was the perfect counterpoint, both visually and on the palate. The ginger and basil notes in the recipe behaved as yin does with yang.
Carpenter says, “Nowhere is the versatility of Oriental cooking better demonstrated with seafood. The ability to use sauces interchangeably, or substitute one type of fish for another, or vary the cooking methods leads to exciting new combinations.” The everyday ingredients in Carpenter’s recipe merged with the seafood in a freshly, surprisingly beautiful blend. And Pete had added his own unique twist with a characteristic red dash of pepper.
Flushed from the August heat, which was well-supplemented by the broiler going full tilt, we ate and talked. The candles burned, the wine was finished and we sat back in our chairs. I could hear the buzz of insects on the window screen, and muted voices of neighbors on their porch down the street. Things were settling in, and it was deliciously comfortable.
I didn’t realize it then, but of course I do now, that this was the life-changing meal. It was indicative of how our relationship was going to be: A flavor of the sea, with plenty to chew on. The everyday would merge in surprisingly different manifestations, more often than not with a bit of spicy interest. The perfect amount of familiar and not. As Julia would trill, “Bon appétit!”
I think unconsciously we might assign priority to the specifics of our surroundings at the times in life that we received the most important sustenance. It’s no accident that many of these times are associated with the table. We break bread, we present our concoctions as gifts to enjoy, we promote what Julia described the waiters as doing at La Couronne: They “. . . carried themselves with a quiet joy, as if their entire mission in life was to make their customers feel comfortable and well-tended.”
Sustenance to me comprises well-being and comfort, not opulence, but certainly the luxuriousness of intimacy, delight and trust with one another. I’ve received it in generous amounts from the people who value me, and I have tried to reciprocate with those whom I hold dear.
These meals of the spirit are often offered and accepted in the context of simple hospitality, at table. Julia Child recognized this and made it her life’s work. The rest of us can also recognize and enjoy. Toujours, à la vie, bon appétit!
Julia Child, Sole Meuniere, La Couronne, Escoffier Restaurant – Flickr, via Apture
Pacific Flavors cover – vagabond bibliophile
Scallops in Jade Sauce – Teri Sandison, in Pacific Flavors
Family and Friends in Europe – Betsy Wuebker