Mastering French Cooking? Try Practicing It First!

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

I was fretting about how to write this post without being controversial, and then I thought "What am I doing?! That's the point!" and so I'm going with it.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child and her French cohorts Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck has gained popularity this year because of the film Julie & Julia, for which the great Meryl Streep has been nominated again for her kind of scary, dead-on-balls accurate portrayal of Julia Child. Of course, people got excited and ran out to buy the encyclopedic treatise on French cooking translated for Americans. And I was one of them. And yet I've never actually made a recipe out of the book! And I've owned it for a year now. And I have other friends who've done the same thing. Every "serious cook" has a copy on their cookbook shelf. In fact, many aspiring home cooks go out and buy this as their first official cookbook. Yet never really get past the first chapter. Or make even one recipe Why?

Because the book sucks as a cookbook.

There, I said it.

Simply put, it's quite literally a direct translation of French cooking. All of it. Hence, it's impressive volume (or two). French cooking can be some of the easiest food you can prepare -- roasted chicken with potatoes and one roasting pan...with nothing but fleur de sel, freshly ground pepper and fresh herbs?? Yes please! But still a lot of French cooking, steeped in history and making use of local ingredients both evil and benign (snails anyone?), can be downright intimidating. On a good day. Most of the time, they sound both impossible and frankly, not that tasty.

Take, for example, Aspic. Aspic is a dish where other ingredients (meat, vegetables or even fruits) are set into a jelly that was made popular in the Middle Ages when cooks found they could keep food longer by "suspending" it in this jelly substance. Sound easy enough? We've all seen the Jell-O with pieces of fruit on the buffet at Sizzler's growing up back in the 80s. I get it. But no...there's more...much, much more...

How about meat suspended in beef flavored jiggly jelly made with the natural fats and gelatin found in the cartilage of your choice meat product. A little funky now, no? And try making this yourself! Honestly, does any average American even eat this, let alone want to know how to make it?

Or how about recipes for liver, sweetbreads, brains and kidneys. All lovely dishes, I'm sure, but ones I frankly would rather leave up to restaurants in New York to do for me. Why? One huge reason that Ms. Child failed to anticipate: you can't find these ingredients! We don't live in France!

My parents always make some of these funky dishes for Christmas and Easter. Christmas in fact always has a bit of Piftie (pronounced "piff-TEE-eh") that is boiled pig's feet in a gravy-flavored gelatin. I ate it once. When I was 5, to humor my grandma. And it's not my favorite thing. But when they do make it they have to venture out of the confines of their suburbia bubble in La Crescenta and mingle with the real people to get the proper ingredients. Many a time I remember being dragged on one of these day-long excursions, usually involving some skiddish European market with a letter or two missing on the sign, and at least three men outside with stained white t-shirts that pull up just above their hairy bellies, smoking cigarettes and drinking Turkish coffee. It was terrifying. And then we'd go in and through the stench of non-refrigerated produce and meat products, past the cured meat section that ran loud with the sound of industrial sized meat grinders making fresh sausage from only God knows what, and into the waaaaaay back of the meat area to find a whole host of scary things!

Pigs feet, calf's head, pig's tails, all different kinds of testicles, spectacles and severed heads that read more of a Rob Zombie Meets Emeril Lagasse Nightmare. And these places would of course be located (always) in the valley. Where porn is also shot. How lovely.

I remember these details and shockingly it hasn't swayed me from entering the cooking arena myself. Will I do the pigs feet and calf's head soup anytime soon? No, probably not. I don't see the damn point. Will I try it once in my life? Yes. already have, thank you very much. But my point is I don't see many Americans (for whom this book was written, after all) running out to a shady butcher shop in the valley to buy animal "parts" to put in Jell-O.

A lot in her book is quite useful, however. Her chapter on sauces is easy and straightforward, her recipes for gratins, souffles and quiches are easy enough. Desserts are hit and miss in terms of difficulty. But what I do find very interesting is the renaissance of Julia Child within our generation, and how we can't admit we're struggling with it.

If you're like me, you're a ___old mom who either stays home with the kids and works desperately to take her food blog off the ground and writing a cookbook, or working part time or full time with a career. Long gone are the days of moving to Paris with your husband and being "bored" to the point where you have nothing left then to enroll yourself in Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. Um...nowadays if I can manage to take a shower once a day I consider it an accomplishment. Le Cordon Bleu classes? I'm happy to make a farmer's market once a year. Despite my thirst for knowledge and cooking, I simply don't have the time (or means) to make snails for dinner. Sorry, Julia. I don't live near a Dean & Deluca. And I don't think that makes me a bad cook or not serious about cooking.

The reality is that Julia Child's book just doesn't translate anymore. Not in this age. And it's mostly because she assumed (incorrectly) that Americans would (a) have the opportunity to try French food on a regular basis as she did and (b) that we'd all want to make it all the time. It's hard. It's not at all conducive for an average American wife (again, for whom the book was written), schlepping 2.5 kids to and from school and to their soccer practices, etc. and working on her own side gig, etc. to stop all of this and start making cassoulet. It's not going to happen. Grandma's make cassoulet because grandmas have time to make mother-effing cassoulets!

What bugs me is I see and hear all the time that people who get inspired to cook run out and buy this book because it's whispered about like it's a demi-god of some type. Then they open it up and close it immediately, not even being able to pronounce half of the recipes. Then they get discouraged and give up cooking. And that pisses me off.

Mastering The Art Of French Cooking will most certainly NOT teach you how to cook. Period. It will teach you to make classic French dishes. But I strongly believe you need to first have French food to see what it's even about before you try making it. Eat escargot before you try making it. Try quiche first so you know what it's supposed to taste like. Then go and try to make it. And don't feel bad at all about not being able to. This kind of French cooking is hard and takes practice.

Look, Julia Child wrote an excellent piece -- a wonderful collection of translated culinary keepsakes. A record of French history like Gregory of Tours. And that in and of itself makes her work invaluable and a treasure, and earns its rightful place on one's cooking shelf. And you should look at it that way. And when you've practiced a bit and feel comfortable trying some of her recipes, then go for it. And know that you should be making them a few times before you get the hang of it. And that's ok! But if you want real recipes to actually make for dinner, then try Ina Garten's Barefoot in Paris. She hits all the main points of French cooking you'll actually want to eat and not kill yourself making.

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