Wednesday, January 26, 2011

As Always, Julia

Vronsky is a very thoughtful fellow. The other day, he was walking by Book Court in Brooklyn, a marvelous independent bookstore I recommend you visit next you are in Cobble Hill, and saw As Always, Julia in the window, which is the entire collection of letters between Julia Child and Avis De Voto, who was a critic, gastronome, and member of the "literati" in Boston/Cambridge, as her husband was a prominent columnist for Harper's and she herself was a well known writer and critic for the Boston Globe among other things at a time when women, as a rule, did not engage in such intellectual pursuits and circles once they were married.

Julia and Avis were wonderful friends, but it would be many years before they first met face to face. The started off as pen pals. It all began when Child, then living in France with her husband, responded to one of Avis' husband's columns in Harper's, in which he bemoaned the fact that he could not find a decent knife in all of the United States. He had to order knives from abroad in order to get the sharpness and strength he needed to be even half-adept in the kitchen. Most of the knives available at the time were simple stainless steel which, although very easy to clean, did not hold an edge to the point where he said they couldn't even slice an apple, and if they were serrated, then you might as well go out and buy a new one. Plus, if he applied any sort of pressure to the handle, like when boning meat or cutting through something tough, like say, a carrot, the knife would actually break off in his hand at the handle.

Contrary to what maybe people believe at the time, dull knives are actually more dangerous. By pushing harder to make a cut, you exert more force and have less control, often resulting in slippage or breakage which could really do some damage. It is just like a fresh versus a dull razor when you're shaving, to use a silly simile, but it is true. When you have to force the knife, the loss of control is when accidents happen.

Anyway, Julia Child responded to this column with a nice note and a new knife straight from France. Avis wrote her a letter in return, thanking her for the knife and inquiring just exactly what she was up to in France, and so the friendship was born.

Reading these letters, it first and foremost causes a pain in my heart knowing that nobody writes beautiful, eloquent, well-though-out letters any more. Sort of like how I wish everybody still wore hats. My friend Sarah and I, still actually write eachother letters from time to time. Real letters, in pen, to bring back the days when we were pen pals from camp. Except we were not at the levels of Julia and Avis, talking about saffron or McCarthyism. Instead, we talked about boys, boys, clothes, and then boys again.

But I digress. Another thing that struck me reading these letters is just how far the American culinary scene has evolved in a generation and a half. There were no fancy pot and pan kits (and certainly no teflon), and clearly there was a dearth of proper knives for the home cook. People probably had a skillet, a stock pot, and a sauce pot or two and that was it. There wasn't a microwave and certainly no George Foreman's. Check out the cover of the book...look at that TINY little oven! And I bet you that the Beef Bourginon coming out of there is absolutely perfect. Even my mom has cribbed off Child's recipe.

And it wasn't even the tools in the kitchen that would seem spare by today's standards. The American palate was so limited. Just imagine: no Chinese food. No sushi or Korean BBQ. No pad thai, tacos, fajitas or Latin food of any kind. Even French food was anathema in the home. Shallots or green beans? Anathema. My dad even drove this point home the other day. His own father worked at the local auto shop in high school growing up, and the shop was owned by an Italian family. Since his own father (my great-grandfather) died very young, my grandpa had no father figure, so the shop owner would frequently invite him home for dinner, where they ate traditional Italian food like spaghetti, meatballs, perhaps some cannellini beans and of course, tomato sauce. Pretty standard right?

For my grandpa, and for others in the town, it was literally the most exotic food they had ever heard of. Sure, it was quite common amongst the immigrant population, but as far as main stream diet? No way. Something outside of steak and potatoes? Madness! I always joke with Vronsky that Chinese food is actually the world's cuisine, but it is hard to imagine a world without Chinese take out, or just a world where no one you know has ever had a dumpling or white rice. Or even heard of such a thing. Forget the fact that pizza is a made-up word and what on earth is an artichoke? I believe that was part of Julia Child's appeal--she opened up a whole new world of food that people could prepare and enjoy on their own, something that is still true today. Sure, most people don't make their own pad thai (although it is easy to make your own peanut sauce), but lots of people use tarragon in their cooking, or eat tofu at home, and cook with soy sauce or garlic or shallots, something that was nearly unheard of before Child. It is no wonder people rarely eat Beet Wellington anymore except at badly catered conferences--as Avis said in one of here letters, "Just the phrase 'Wellington Casserole' sounds it is!'"

1 comment:

  1. I do miss real letters, as I am a man from the "pre-web" days. But I cannot imagine life without French food (for a good Brooklyn French joint, check out Robin des Bois), and for that, I thank Julia Child. Merci a vous, Julia!