There has been a lot of noise in the media about the upcoming film, Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep, and about Julie Powell's book, upon which the film was based. Ms. Powell, known for cursing her way through 524 recipes in the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a single year, complained that she could never seem to find the ribbon when combining egg yolks with sugar, or that her crepe suzettes reeked of alcohol because she had failed to light them properly. And all this from a self-proclaimed home cook! If Julie Powell couldn't roll out a crepe or prepare an omelette, where did that leave someone like me -- a lowly author of young-adult books looking to follow a few of Julia Child's recipes in the name of research for a novel?
When I began writing Dear Julia, a farcical comedy about a teenage prodigy who writes letters to Julia Child detailing her mishaps and blunders in the kitchen, it became clear that I would need to prepare the same recipes as my protagonist if I were to ensure some degree of authenticity. After all, you can't imagine your way through a recipe, particularly if you want to highlight the obstacles that stand in the way.
When I grow up I want to be a cook like you. Yesterday I made a sauce h0llondaze from your
rec ressupcookbook but I couldn't find a wisp of steam like you said and I think the yolks got to hot. The sauce sepuraded and I was going to throw it out but Dad said Elaine this is delishus. He pored it on his brockli.
Unlike my main character, Elaine, who has been perfecting and memorizing recipes from both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking since age six, and unlike Julie Powell, who had been cooking before she embarked upon her project, I was never much of a cook. In fact (dare I admit it?), I didn't much like cooking at all. When I started Dear Julia, I hoped I could make up a problem for Elaine by glancing at Julia's recipe and inventing an obstacle on the spot. Dropping an egg on the floor, say. But, within moments of first perusing Julia Child's recipes for dishes like Filets de Poisson Gratines a la Parisienne, I soon realized that I was kidding myself. To write letters in the voice of an aspiring teenage chef, I was going to have to brave the kitchen myself.
Before I knew it, I was up to my neck in the same ingredients that crowded Julie Powell's tiny Brooklyn kitchen during the Julie/Julia Project. These are also the same ingredients that grace the screen in the upcoming film, Julie & Julia. Unlike Julie Powell, though, who cursed her problems on her blog ("Three eggs, two eggs, who gives a shit!"), and Julie & Julia's food stylist Susan Spungen, who made 25 cakes in one weekend, I was not testing recipes for the sake of avoiding disaster. Au contraire, I was hoping to discover them.
I gave 5 sharp blows on the handle, but the omelette jumped over the side of the pan and slid into a crack between the stove and the refrigerator.
In a single summer, I prepared more than fifty dishes, and within the first day of throwing myself in headlong, I knew that I'd no longer need to invent problems. Problems were everywhere. The hollandaise separated; chickens came out half-raw; and omelettes burned. Souffles fell; chocolate seized.
Then -- a miracle. Despite my utter lack of experience, in a few short weeks the food coming out of my kitchen began to look and taste delicious, and I was starting to enjoy myself. Long after I had amassed a list of kitchen blunders and mishaps for my book, I continued cooking, amazing my friends and family with entrees like Filet De Boeuf Braise Prince Albert -- a fairly simple roast, actually, stuffed with truffles and foie gras.
Now I have not only published a young-adult novel, I've become a fearless, enthusiastic cook. I can whip up an amazing steak sauce in ten minutes, and I have a rudimentary grasp of knife skills. I understand the secrets of flavor and how to prepare simple, delicious food without becoming overwhelmed.
This was the legacy Julia Child left behind -- that French food does not have to be complicated and that, in fact, you can find most ingredients in your local grocery store. What started out as a way for me to test problems in the name of research paved the way for a lifetime of culinary passion. For Julie Powell, Elaine Hamilton, myself, and countless others, it's not just the recipes, but Julia Child's pioneering spirit that reminds us that making mistakes is not only part of the game, it's also part of the fun.