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Sunday, October 16, 2011

Julia and Irma

I am a big fan of Julia Child, I admit it. I used to watch her cooking show on PBS as a child and I was fascinated by her height, her laugh and her inimitable voice. I remember thinking she must be English or maybe from France, since she could speak French so well. I watched her as a sort of performance artist with food, never even thinking about trying to cook her amazingly lyrical sounding food, crepe Suzette, Poulet Poele a l'Estragon, Salade Nicoise! In fact my first attempt at "cooking" I mixed together some ketchup with some leftover kidney beans to make "chili". I stood over the stove perched on a step stool and carefully heated my concoction and then fed it to my all too trusting babysitter. I couldn't have even been in kindergarten yet. Anyhow, I knew Julia was clearly way out of my league.

When I left home at 19 I had a few recipes in my repertoire, a meatloaf, nachos, orange chicken, baked fish. I could make rice and steam vegetables, I knew how many minutes to microwave a "baked" potato. I remember making dinner for a big group of college student friends one night, and I tried something "fancy": eggs cracked into and cooked in a cheese sauce and then served on toasted english muffins. I sweated over those eggs like a woman in labor. By the time everyone was ready to sit down and eat my hands were shaking from the tension of trying to keep the eggs from breaking into the sauce and getting the slippery things onto the damn muffins without falling apart. I can't even remember if I made a side dish. I do remember thinking cooking was just not my strong suit, but I maintained my fascination with cooking shows, and dear Julia, who by now was collaborating with special guest chefs; her voice still reedy and whimsical to me though her shoulders were stooped with age. I watched her like one watches an athlete or a dancer or anyone else who is doing something very well; with complete awe and reverence for her craft and no real hope of emulating it.

I started reading my roommate's cookbooks on the sly. She had been packed off to college with a pretty wide assortment, the Better Homes and Garden New Cookbook with its distinctive red-checkered cover, some thin books about Asian Food, and a huge plastic coil bound volume with a floppy cover called The Joy of Cooking. I read that book like a novel, learning new words like "barding a fowl" which meant to tie on pieces of fat or bacon onto the chicken or turkey to keep the breast meat from drying out. I had heard of turkey bacon, but BACON TURKEY? This was crazy! I wondered exactly who Irma Rombauer was and pictured some gray-haired little granny plucking her own chickens and making homemade fruit punches.

When I moved out of the apartment I stole my friend's Joy of Cooking cookbook. I flat-out stole it. I never had any intention of cooking anything out of it, I just loved reading it and looking at the nifty illustrations for how to dress a quail and such. It was a window into a world I never had any hope of entering; like Narnia, but with cleavers.

I grew up, met and married my husband and slowly expanded my list of acceptable dishes. I remember one disastrous early dinner party. I made an attempt at arroz con pollo with black beans, a dish I had seen my mother prepare a hundred times. I called my Mom to get all of the ingredients and check on cooking times. I decided to use canned black beans instead of making them fresh just because I wasn't sure how long you needed to cook dried beans. I had never cooked them before. I think I dirtied every pan in the house and I wrecked the kitchen and when we sat down to eat, the rice was crunchy and the beans were cold. Fortunately I had lots of sangria and witty conversation to distract from how crappy everything came out. I was so disappointed and flat-out mad at myself. I was raised by an amazing cook, my Mom could make dinner for 12 on a moment's notice with whatever she could find in the pantry and the freezer and here I couldn't make dinner with a roadmap and 4 hours to prep. My great-grandmother was a formidable Southern cook and once fixed my botched chocolate chip cookie dough by eyeballing the exact amount of flour it needed and beating it in with a spoon. My abuela (my dad's mother) had been an amazing cook as well, rarely using a complicated recipe, but always making the most of whatever she put on the table. I once wept at a Mexican restaurant because their rice tasted just like hers, rich and spicy and tomatoey. Since she had passed away it was the first time I had eaten rice and not felt bitterly disappointed. How could I have come from such a long line of food-lovers, chefs, cooks and hostesses and not FIGURED OUT HOW TO MAKE DINNER?! Was I destined to be the Salieri of the food world; a passionate appreciator but unable to make ethereal music of my own?

I decided then and there that someday I would be a good cook and someday I would make a Julia Child recipe.

Well, prompted by catching a re-run of her making it on "The French Chef" yesterday I made Julia Child's famous Boeuf Bourguignon Recipe and with it I made her Champignons Sauté au Beurre and the delectable Oignons Glacés á Brun. It took me most of the day, 3 cups of wine, 2 trips to the store and countless checking and re-checking of the laptop to make sure I didn't mess it up, but I did it. I served it with my Mom's recipe for parsley potatoes and some broccoli spears steamed in the microwave, just like Mom showed me back in 1990 or so. It was a triumph. It came out of the oven smelling better than a summer day in Heaven. It made my eyes tear up with how good it smelled. And then I tasted it and it was even BETTER. Ooof.

Today I decided I would round out the weekend with the other woman that persuaded me that someday maybe I could make dinner too; Miss Joy herself, Irma Rombauer. I made her pan fried (or sauteed) chicken dredged in seasoned cornmeal, a side of baked cabbage, and some simple seasoned rice. It was all good, all tasty, all done in 30 minutes. My butter softened copy of "Joy" lay next to the stove like an old friend telling me, "now add the olive oil" and "just a teaspoon of salt." I cleaned my plate, the kids wanted seconds, my husband was tucking into the cabbage (a veggie he is not overly fond of) with gusto. It was another triumphant meal from Irma, the Alpha to Julia's Omega, the Cervantes to Julia's Shakespeare. These amazing women have been the textbooks of my cooking education.


  1. "Joy of Cooking" was my first cookbook and I still use it, mostly for baking. Looking forward to reading more about your dinners--so amusing.

  2. Thanks! I just love how everything is written out so matter-of-factly. I love a good cookbook, I taught myself to bake bread with Bernard Clayton's New Book of Bread and am slowly tackling Julia Child's "The French Chef" cookbook.