Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Retro Classic Cooking Show: The French Chef

I want to jump into this old food photograph in The New York Times. The scene is a church picnic in Georgia in 1951. People are bowing their heads giving thanks for the food they are about to receive at a potluck feast. No sheet cake from Costco with a mile long list of ingredients (many you can't pronounce) in sight. The author lamented how little home baking there is for bake sales anymore. Interestingly, she notes,

"I have witnessed....the more upscale the community for the bake sale, the fancier the store-bought cookies. (Sprinkles Cupcakes may be the single biggest supplier of bake-sale goods in West Los Angeles.) Lower-income parents, especially first-generation immigrants, often turn up at school parties with the best-tasting homemade treats."

My own lack of cooking has weighed on my mind a lot lately. For someone who once dreamed of culinary school, I now don't cook at all, I simply reheat. Due to personal events I've documented as of late (moving limbo, dog passing away, family illness), I simply can't cope and just do what too many Americans do: throw something mindless in the microwave or stovetop. When we are in our new home and settled, which we hope is really soon, a goal is to cook much more, even if that means frozen food sales at my local Trader Joe's will plummet. Sorry Trader Joe's.

I love having a closet full of clothes, hats, bags (almost all of it secondhand) to play dress-up if I want to be inspired by everyone from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Ginger Rogers to Peggy Olson. But I also want to cook prairie foods like Ma would have made, and great French meals. On my pile to go to the new home: The Little House Cookbook: Frontier Foods from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Classic Stories, which I asked for from my mother as a birthday gift in November and haven't made anything from yet, and my mom's copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I suddenly coveted after rewatching one of my favorite food films, Julie and Julia (my others are Babette's Feast and Ratatouille). The "Julie" part follows Julie Powell, a food-obsessed, bored cubicle worker wondering what's more who starts a blog (can't relate to that at all, ahem), and cooks her way through MTAFC in a year, while the "Julia" portion comes from the fantastic memoir Child penned with Alex Prudhomme, My Life in France. I still remember the scene when Julie whips up a raspberry Bavarian cream, and says braised cucumbers are a revelation. I want to do that at home!

While I had a like-hate relationship with Julie Powell's book (the hate from the excessive unneeded cursing and oversharing of her friends' bedroom exploits), I loved this passage the most which she had written from her blog:

"Wealthy Victorians served Strawberries Romanaff in December; now we demonstrate our superiority by serving dewy organic berries only during the two-week period when they can be picked ripe off the vine at the boutique farm down the road from our Hamptons bungalow. People speak of gleaning the green markets for the freshest this, the thinnest that, the greenest or firmest or softest whatever, as if what they're doing is a selfless act of consummate care and good taste, rather than the privileged activity of someone who doesn't have to work for a living.

But Julia Child isn't about that. Julia Child wants you - that's right, you, the one living in the tract house in sprawling suburbia with a dead-end middle management job and nothing but a Stop and Shop for miles around - to know how to make good pastry, and also how to make those canned green beans taste alright. She wants you to remember that you are human, and as such are entitled to that most basic of human rights, the right to eat well and enjoy life."

Eating the amount of canned bean soup and frozen vegetable burritos I have been, even if they are organic, is not really eating well and enjoying life. I recently discovered the cooking show the Jazzy Vegetarian on public television. Really, Laura Theodore's Quick Lasagna Rolls are more my speed than much of Julia Child's fare. Still, I was curious about The French Chef, which aired on public television from 1963 to 1973, and had never seen. Netflix, the library and Youtube are all good options for your Julia fix.

In her show about potatoes, which she gives some interesting food history, she also noted her surprise that people think potatoes are unhealthy since they are only about 70 calories for a cup, but then goes on to use liberal amounts of butter and cheese. This is the same woman who quipped the key to weight management is to choose your grandparents wisely, although there may be some part truth there.

Just the name "Julia Child" invokes fear in many people's heart. Some are intimidated by her recipes, but more often it's the fear of butter. I considered what Child said about our fear relationship with food,

"That's a very dangerous situation that we're in, very dangerous for the state of gastronomy, because people keep being afraid of food and they're not taking food as a pleasure part of civilized life but of medicine...

I think it's been useful that we're much more conscious of sensible eating. It all gets back to moderation and great variety of food and the main thing is knowing what you're doing.

I hope it will steer itself toward good sense and the realization how important food and dining are in our lives because it's the simple pleasures as also being the most nourishing pleasures. I hope we come into a new era of great food and good sense."

Talking point: How many people do I know, especially women, think they are making a "good" food choice by heating up a factory farmed animal and pesticide laden veggies nuked in plastic (with the chemicals from the plastic seeping into the food) cooked in a dirty microwave simply because the package says "Lean Cuisine" or "Weight Watchers." How about bottled water? The public doesn't think much about drinking something that's been lingering in plastic. Isn't it all about fear? Should we believe something is healthy just because a corporation trying to sell us something says it is? This time of year many people begin to fixate on their physical appearance with swimsuit season coming up. Considering factory farms, pesticides and the plastics that seep into our food supply and clutter our landfills, the state of our thighs seem pretty irrelevant. I don't fear Julia's butter. I fear an unquestioning society.

While I can't eat a great deal of what's in Child's cookbooks since I don't eat meat, and don't subscribe to everything she says, I appreciate the doors she broke down for women professional chefs. My boyfriend is part of a French chef's association and it's very much filled with mostly white, older men, but I look around at the young chefs at the culinary program they are involved in and it's a sea of diversity.

I also think dining should be a more civilized affair. At a recent dinner at a restaurant, the younger generation all had their devices in their laps and they were rudely typing away. It clearly sent a message the conversation was unappealing to them and they needed to be entertained elsewhere.

"For me, dinner at a fine restaurant was the ultimate luxury. It was the very height of civilization. For what was civilization but the intellect's ascendancy out of the doldrums of necessity (shelter, sustenance and survival) into the ether of the finely superfluous (poetry, handbags and haute cuisine)? So removed from my daily life was the whole experience that when all was rotten to the core, a fine dinner could revive the spirits. If and when I had twenty dollars left to my name, I was going to invest it right here in an elegant hour that couldn't be hocked." – Katy Kontent in Amor Towels novel Rules of Civility set in New York City in 1938.

Did you watch the French Chef? Have any memories of you or your loved ones cooking anything from MTAFC?


  1. First, thanks for sharing that article from the NY Times. A friend of mine forwarded me a blog post back in December from "The Tipsy Baker" that was a response to the Times article. I loved the blog post but somehow never managed to read the original article. Here is the blog post:

    Being a baker myself and the mother of an elementary school child, I was completely there with them on the topic of folks bringing store bought items to bake sales -- it mystifies me. Why just last week my daughter's teacher decided to have a special "tea" at school during which the 5th graders would read each others latest essays and comment on them. Well, that's all I needed to hear and I just had to whip up a batch of mini-scones that morning to send in for tea time! I enjoy it, so I do it. If you don't enjoy it or have time for it -- volunteer for something else. (Okay, now I'll get off my high horse.)

    I also just love the movie "Julie and Julia," though I never did read the original book. I went to see it with a friend of mine when it first came out. I so loved the sound of the Raspberry Bavarian Cream that a few weeks later for this same friend's birthday I found a recipe for it online(I didn't have Julia's book) and used raspberries from our backyard to make one for her. It may not have been perfect, but it was so much fun and quite yummy!

    I remember seeing bits and pieces of the original French Chef shows when I was a kid growing up in the 60's. I've watched a few complete shows in recent years and they are terribly fun even if she is cooking meat (I too am a vegetarian). Once, when my sister and her family were visiting and I was cooking in the kitchen, I launched into my imitation/spoof of Julia, "first you whack the chicken. . . " It's become standard fare when we are all together, and sometimes I substitute things like, "first you whack the tofu. . . " It's a hoot!

    Wishing you happy reading, cooking, and baking -- and that you will be doing all of those, very soon, in your new home!

  2. Hi Amy! "Respect the cookie!" I love that line. Even though that post is from December, I thought how relevant it is amidst the whole ridiculous "never worked a day in her life" Ann Romney comment, regardless of her economic status, and many a reader's view how hard working they were and didn’t have time for irrelevant things like cookies. I suspect many the low income immigrant the New York Times author wrote about are among the most hard-working of all and made those wonderful tasting things.

    Even though it's not as pure as 'from scratch' baking, I still have fond memories of making a Duncan Hines cake with my mom. I can still recall licking the bowl of chocolate cake batter from my mom’s sunshine yellow bowl, which was heaven to a young child. I got the same bowl (even the same color!) at an estate sale and can't wait to whip up some Julia goodness in them (maybe even a Duncan Hines cake for old times sake). Julia has quite nice chapters on vegetables and desserts, so maybe worth checking out from the library even for a non-meater.

    That raspberry Bavarian cream you whipped up sounds really divine, as does that tea time for the essays! I am definitely someone who reads the paper every day and is passionate about many causes in our world, but getting lost in some candied lavender once in a while seems pretty appealing to me right now. I think the modern world has made many of us way too cynical about things.

    Thank you, hoping to "whack the tofu" myself soon! :-)