Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Here's the Boeuf !

While vacationing in the East, we saw the Julie & Julia movie, and, when we returned home, I dug out my copy of Mastering the Art and dusted it off. I purchased mine in the early Seventies when I got my first apartment in Chicago, but I can't remember ever preparing a recipe from its pages. My recollection is that I was too intimidated. I felt confident enough to use Joy and the New York Times tome but the Julia Child work, devoted as it was to French cuisine, was too off-putting for me at the time. Moreover, I didn't have much time. As a liberated woman I was pursuing a career and attending business school at night. There was not much room in my schedule for dinners requiring six hours of preparation.

I thumbed through the pages, thinking to myself, you have the time now, and your years of cooking experience have rendered you confident enough to take on the woman herself. I decided I would make the Boeuf Bourguignon for a new friends. Never mind that it was August in the California desert and the heavy meal was a nonsensical choice given the 108 degree temperature, not to mention that I have become a lifelong devotee of the low carb diet due to girth issues. As I perused the list of required ingredients, I realized I hadn't tasted real butter in five years.

Rediscovering Julia made me hyperaware of Julia-related media activity, both social and commercial, not unlike the way you notice a particular car model when you've just bought one. I took note of the return of Julia's cooking episodes to various television channels. On one such episode, I got to wondering where my copy of Volume II of her epic work had gotten to. I returned to my bookshelves, but I could not find it. Kneeling in front of the bookcase like a novitiate at a convent chapel rail, I came to the conclusion I never bought the second book in the first place. Given the amount of use I had gotten out of Volume I, this seemed a wise decision. After all, those hard bound volumes weren't cheap and my early salaries, despite the first Master's degree that preceded the MBA were not stellar. The differential in pay for female employees in those days was steep as the side of a perfect soufflé.

I decided to rectify the omission and purchase Volume II forthwith. I logged into my Amazon account and pulled up a new copy. Phew! Volume II was not going to come cheap now either. I decided I really didn't need a new copy, and a used book would better match my yellowing first volume. Unfortunately, the asking prices on used copies were not that much different from the pristine newbies. Never fear, I thought, there's always eBay! I hit my eBay bookmark and typed in the appropriate search words. There were several auctions in progress and I selected the one that best fit my needs. I am too embarrassed to tell you how much I finally had to bid for the used copy to win it, but I now own both volumes.

With Julia mania in full flower, it is not surprising that my invited guests were more than happy to come eat Bouef Bourguignon despite the heat. I encouraged them to wear shorts with forgiving waistlines rather than attempting to look the part of guests at a traditional Gallic repast.

Assembling the ingredients for the dish required trips to four grocery stores. I had trouble acquiring small white onions, scallions and a big chunk of bacon complete with rind in the desert. The Coachella Valley is not a gourmet cooking Mecca. Retired people, seasonal residents, golfers, vacationers, and recent immigrants who run pool cleaning or garden maintenance services don't spend a lot of time preparing complicated meals. With a few exceptions, the fare runs to steaks, California salads, quesadillas and chicken fingers.

I did finally lay hands on all the necessary ingredients and, after a morning of golf to burn the calories I would be ingesting at my elegant dinner party, I started preparing the feast. An hour into the ordeal, the kitchen looked like Williams Sonoma during inventory. I had every casserole, sauce pan, sieve and measuring cup I owned out on a counter. Flour filled the grout between the floor tiles and dusted the front of my jeans. Attracted by the aroma, Tony Purrkins, our cat, scored a paper towel I had used to blot the beef before browning and tried to drag it into the living room, leaving a trail of blood in his wake.

I became nervous I had not purchased enough butter. Sure, I had counted up the tablespoons in the actual recipes, but I hadn't accounted for all the dots here and dabs there and the big pats that were to go on the side dishes of peas and potatoes before they were taken to the table.

The important difference about the way Julia cooked and the rest of us untutored kitchen rubes is that you never just throw anything into a pot. Each ingredient requires its own send up, its own moment in the sun. In many cases, the item in question requires its own sauce. That sauce might vary by only one or two ingredients from the sauce of another vegetable that is destined to end up in the same casserole; nevertheless, it must be prepared separately. Moreover, each ingredient is honored with its own optimal cooking time. Compare this with our contemporary mania for ten or twenty minute meals preferably prepared in one step and in dish. Not much honor there.

The penultimate steps for Julia's dishes are crucial and sacramental. Food is sieved away from its juices and those juices are augmented and then reduced, transformed one last time to a perfection of aromatic complexity, before they are reintroduced to their mate, like Homeric heroes back from a quest. The entire assembly at the end is like a bridal procession, when each bridesmaid and groomsman arrives at the altar at the preordained moment dressed to the nines. With all this thought and preparation, of course, the marriage is made in heaven.

My dinner was a success. The robust and distinctive intertwining of flavors, the freshness and fullness of the first bite, followed by the satisfying complexity of the aftertaste, demonstrated to me what only hours of hard work and patience can achieve. The leftovers were just as tasty.

My only issue with the experience is this. While Julia Child may have written a cookbook for American women without servants, she also wrote for American wives without jobs. I remember that generation well because it was my Mother's generation. While my Mother had a volunteer schedule that would put many executives to shame in terms of work product, she only held a paying job once, when I was in my late teens, and my father was not thrilled with the idea. Her job in his mind and to a large degree her own was to make a home for him and do a good job of child rearing. Although she rarely spent six hours in the kitchen even for a dinner party, Mom was a fabulous from scratch cook, and we only ate TV dinners as a novelty. I look back on those years as a magical time in American history when the postwar economy easily supported the single bread winner nuclear family lifestyle for most middle income folks. Yet, I do not wish to go back there.

I took the career route, and although I had a blast, I finished up a single and childless Boomer. I did cook gourmet food for many a hapless date. While American women of my generation were liberated and the workplace male was accepting the inevitable, the guys of my generation still yearned for superior food prep skills from their prospective mates. It was okay to get promoted to supervisor during the day as long as you could roast a chicken and bake a pie when you got home.

Today, I don't think X and Y generation men dare have any expectations of their brides other than the ability to twirl a microwave dial. The Julie of the film found the cooking a means of reducing the stress produced from working in a mind-numbing job and subsequently used it as a way to break into professional writing, her ultimate career goal. What about the rest of you modern gals? Where in today's fast food landscape does substantive cooking fit? Where in the insanity of binge eating, super sizing and fad dieting? Where in the contemporary household picture of condos and lofts? Or where in the media scene of Iron Chef cook-offs and toxic TV kitchens where celebrity food mavens wield Sabatiers like scimitars?

I think the answer to this has less to do with food than with feelings. Since most of us work only with our minds and have to remind ourselves to infuse physical exercise into our schedules like remembering to baste a roast, we're better off not being food obsessed. We only require about 1,200 calories, and the idea of spending hours to prepare a meal the size of a first class stamp, seems a poor use of time. Our own government is beginning to view food as a toxic substance, and, any day, may start taking action against people who enjoy food too much.

I think that where Julia meals fit is as a substitute for religion, art and community. In our secular, urban, mass produced, transient, stranger-dominated existence, our lonely old souls hunger for ritual, meaning and connection. We cry out to be fed holistically not with so many calories. This also explains why just going to a restaurant does not do the trick. A beautiful dish brilliantly plated at the hands of another cannot take the place of a personal statement even if you pick up the bill. It is like comparing a nuptial gift purchased from a department store registry with a wedding quilt stitched by the friends of the bride. When you walk into a restaurant, the aromas are all mixed up and impersonal. When you enter the home of a friend who has invited you for dinner, the smells coming from the kitchen are meant just for you.

The places in life left to us where we can express individuality, spirit, caring and connection to any meaningful degree are vanishing. Sure, I have my blog and my Face Book page, but they seem shallow and ephemeral compared to my grandmother's cutwork tablecloth or my aunt's handwritten and bound book of family recipes or the scratching post my father hammered together out of wood scraps in his shop off the garage for my apartment-bound cat. That cat is long dead and so is my father, but I still cherish the scratching post. It smells of the Virginia woods, of sawdust and of love.

As intimidating as Julia's cooking is, it is uncompromising and authentic, and because of that, it will survive, even thrive in our hologram world, as a beacon for all of us who desire real sustenance. Bon Appetit!

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