ulia Child was a born and bred American.
She grew up in–wait for it–Pasadena. On the wrong side of the tracks, no less.
This little nugget of information has pretty much thrown for a loop my confidence in all of my childhood memories. Until last week, a few truths formed the basis of my youthful understanding of the world. 1. Jaws is the best movie of all time. (Still true, parenthetically.) 2. My grandmother’s rum pudding with berry sauce is so good it seems the angels themselves had a hand in the mixing bowl. And, 3. Julia Child is a hilarious, drunken French woman with a voice like a talking poodle. FALSE.
After I got over my initial shock, I eased back into Masters of American Cookery, by Betty Fussell. (For those of you who are silently judging me for spending a second week on the same book, let me just note that I celebrated my birthday last week, all week long, and the endless champagne cocktails and serenades from singing telegrams cut into my reading time. Ahem.)
Fussell begins with mini-bios of her four masters: chef and TV personality Child, food writer M.F.K. Fisher, culinary boy wonder James Beard, and renegade of the American kitchen Craig Claiborne. These people know from food, and Fussel’s brief sketches illuminate just how innovative and integral each was in advancing the notion of American cuisine. (In your face, French people!)
In her book The Gastronomical Me, Fisher wrote, "I ate with a rapt, voluptuous concentration which had little to do with bodily hunger, but seemed to nourish some other part of me. Sometimes I would go to the best restaurant I knew about, and order dishes and good wines as if I were a guest of myself, to be treated with infinite courtesy." My kind of woman.
Beard is the folk hero, "the Paul Bunyan of the kitchen." When asked by a student how much garlic to add to a recipe, he famously replied, "An acre of garlic." He is over the top in every way. At age three, he crawled into a pantry barrel and ate an entire onion, skin and all. He spent a lifetime creating recipes with endless lists of ingredients, meant to be served in giant bowls with baby pitchforks to hearty and appreciative diners. Claiborne was more subtle, the culinary equivalent of a straight man. Creator of the hamburger with truffles, he served for years as food critic of the New York Times, where he developed a highly sophisticated palate and a passport full of stamps. He introduced American readers and diners to Thai, Vietnamese and Szechuan delights. He believed that dining was an event that should be orchestrated as elaborately as an opera performance. Not a serious man, he believed in the seriousness of good food.
At its heart, this is a cookbook. Classic preparations of uniquely American dishes. Buy it for the history lesson, keep it for the recipes. I also highly recommend The Art of Eating and How to Cook a World by M.F.K. Fisher, and James Beard’s American Cookery, another staple for the bookshelf of the advanced amateur chef.
Signing off now. Next week: War. What is it good for?