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How Mastering The Art Of French Cooking Turned My Life Around

08/15/2013 06:50 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2013
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August 15, the anniversary of Julia Child's birth, is a good time to reflect on the role that her Mastering the Art of French Cooking played in many of our lives. It is was in cooking from Mastering the Art, for example, that I made strides toward becoming an adult, creating my first home, and entering into the buoyant spirit of the sixties.

I had grown up with a distant mother whose cooking and baking were the most reliable form of nurturing I received and though I had heard of mothers and daughters baking cookies together, and bonding in the kitchen, those homey scenes were never to be part of my childhood. My mother baked "by ear" -- a hard legacy to pass on even if she'd been invested in doing so.

Every now and then, I'd stand in her 1950s kitchen watching her pile a mound of cinnamon scented fruit into a perfectly fluted crust, and sometimes I'd ask "what's in that?"

"Just sugar, cinnamon, and apples," she'd say. "I don't measure." This with a proud lift in her voice. Her indifference to measurements, and to sharing the secrets of her culinary craft, left me frustrated and confused. I was the kind of child who needed measurements, needed to understand the secret to things.

Although my mother owned three cookbooks, I never saw her use them, and the recipe cards she occasionally did take out and place upon our yellow kitchen counter contained the most minimal of directions. One cookie recipe read "mix together, drop on cookie sheet, and bake." What happened to "cream the sugar and butter," I wonder as I examine it now. "What about the temperature of the oven, and, hello, how long should they stay in?

In the end I, too, would learn to bake, but not until my twenties, when I lived far away from home and not without the guidance of Julia Child. It was 1964 when I cooked my first meal and baked my first apple tart, both from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The dinner was to be a celebration of the fact that I had passed my M.A. exam in English at U.C. Berkeley and had decided to stay on for the Ph.D. My guests would be two of the most serious and fun graduate students I knew. Cooking for them would be a pleasure, or so I hoped, and it would somehow demonstrate that I had chosen my own way in life, a way that was different from that of my mother. (Did I notice that like my female parent I had implicitly coupled adulthood with my ability to produce a decent meal? No, I did not.)

I had, at the time, never read any recipe longer than one side of a 3 by 5 card and had no clue as to the complexities of the meal I'd planned to serve: Poulet Sauté aux Herbs de Provence (Chicken Sautéed with Herbs and Garlic, Egg Yolk and Butter Sauce); Crêpes de Pommes de Terre (Grated Potato Pancakes); Tomates á la Provençale (Tomatoes Stuffed with Bread Crumbs, Herbs, and Garlic), and Tarte Normande Aux Pommes. Little did I know what lay ahead.

Fortunately, unlike my mother, Mastering the Art did not hold back on measurements, or on precisely how to measure. What a relief! In contrast to some of my professors, moreover, who often taught us how to close-read literature by allowing us to watch them as they did it, Mastering the Art gave very concrete directions. And it came with illustrations! I was no longer the confused and frustrated little girl excluded from the mysteries of her mother's kitchen. I was being led by the hand through every step.

I didn't have a television in 1964 and had never seen one of Julia Child's cooking shows. Only later, in the 1970s, would I understand how reassuring she actually was. Mastering the Art, in contrast, was not that motherly in its tone. Nor did it sound like a very fun aunt, which is the way I would come to think of Julia Child herself. Instead, the book seemed very French and very insistent. But its specificity, its investment in teaching gave me courage. And despite the fact that I would find the recipes for my initial dinner incredibly complex -- taken together, the peeling, shredding, squeezing, stuffing, browning, baking, sauce making, and warming drove me close to the limit of my powers for doing more than one thing at a time -- the meal was a success. When my friend Sarah pronounced her first bite "gourmet," I felt my life as an adult had officially begun.

Two years later, after I moved in with the only man I'd ever wanted to marry, the man who'd told me on a San Francisco corner, "if it weren't for you, I'd be homosexual," I would begin to cook from Mastering the Art every night. Dick, the man I loved, did all the dishes and helped to hand whip egg whites when my arm gave out, so the labor involved in this ambitious project was shared. Ranking the meals, moreover -- with our minus, check, one star, and two star system -- became a serious form of mutual play. With Dick and Mastering the Art, I began to have those cozy scenes in the kitchen which I'd never had with Mother.

Julia Child was nationally famous by 1966 and, in Berkeley, a food movement was beginning to unfold, but Mastering the Art was also an expression of our circles' own ebullience. We were students of literature and were being trained to think about complexity. At some point in our years of study most of us had taken a course in Elizabethan poetry with what Dick's dissertation called its "graceful beauty" and "sugared multiplicity." Why shouldn't our cuisine be complex and beautiful as well? We were in Berkeley, moreover, it was the sixties, and we felt we could change the world. At the same time, we were confident that our graduate labors would produce fine jobs. Cooking through Mastering the Art, an adventure involving considerable optimism and openness to risk, was an expression of our personal and political aspirations.

Mastering the Art, however, was more than a reflection of the buoyancy of the age, it was an inducement to it as well. As I have written elsewhere, I had learned from reading James Baldwin in 1963, the year I joined the Civil Rights Movement, that a committed political life could and should involve "sensuality." "To be sensual," Baldwin wrote in Down at the Cross, "is to respect and rejoice in the force of life itself, and to be present in all that one does, from the effort of loving to the breaking of bread." For me, sensuality and joy in life were primarily expressed in food. Cooking through Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a daring and optimistic venture, inspired and energized me not only in my domestic life, but in my new political activities as well. For me, a child of the 1950s, Mastering the Art was all about rebirth.

How has a favorite cookbook influenced you?

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