The Child within

There are essentially two kinds of people who have acquired deep specialist knowledge: the contagious and the contemptuous. I know this all too well, being a professor, and an academic condescending to a student is as perverse as it is outrageous. One of the true teachers of the twentieth century is Julia Child (1912-2004), someone who could stand as the very definition of fabulous. Her career was unexpected and deeply rooted in her humanity, for Julia was someone who exulted in life and raised cooking from a chore to something vibrant, exciting, and sensual. As well it should be. What is remarkable about Julia’s career is that she went into cookery purely by chance and as a direct result of her passion for Paul Child, the friend who became her husband. They are both pictured below in a whimsical Valentine’s Day photograph from 1952, an image that captures the deep affinity that bound these two people.

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I always compare Julia Child with her British equivalent, Fanny Craddock (1909-1994). These two TV chefs from both sides of the Atlantic have long been staples of the drag-queen circuit, most likely because of their extraordinary respective presences. While Julia Child stood out in front of the camera because of her imposing height of 6′ 2″, Fanny was distinguished by her painted eyebrows and perpetually surprised expression that reminds one of a shrew in the process of being electrocuted (below). With Fanny there is the sense that she is speaking at the audience whereas Julia always manages to cultivate a conspiratorial affinity with her followers, one that was real. Fanny seems to want audiences to be able to cook so they can better themselves, best seen in the comment she once made about how to pipe cream on to a sherry trifle: “Don’t tell that woman next door how to do it and then you’ve got a bit of one-upmanship … which is always satisfying”. I must, in the interests of frankness, declare at this juncture that I am of the firm opinion that a trifle is a sickly and inhumane concoction that should be served only to prisoners and politicians.

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With Julia, on the other hand, her goal was always that her audience enjoy themselves, both during the preparation and in the enjoyment of the food. On this score, she had no time for the blog by Julie Powell which inspired the movie Julie and Julia (2009), which, in her opinion, was a gimmick, and mainly because Julie never talked about how the final product tasted, which for Julia was a cardinal sin of disrespect. The movie is notable not only for being the first film based on a blog but also for Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance in the role of the culinary pioneer. The radically different approaches between Julia Child and Fanny Craddock may be seen in two clips of them instructing viewers how to make a good omelette, with Fanny performing here, and Julia here. Whereas Fanny looks like she would spank anyone who didn’t carry out the task according to her specifications (doubtless part of her appeal to a certain generation of privately educated men), Julia appears to be having a friendly chat with the viewer as she busies herself.

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One anecdote relates how, at a book signing taking place in the early fall, one person in the line gave Julia Child a small bag of homemade truffles, cheerily suggesting she save them for Christmas. Julia immediately tore into them and announced “Oh no! We’ll have them right now!” and started to purr as she enjoyed a truffle she had popped into her mouth, all the while signing other books. I think this story is very much a metaphor for how she lived her life: living in the present moment and doing things the way in which she wanted to, a rejection of puritanism. When things went wrong in front of the cameras, an audience, or friends, Julia would state defiantly “Never apologize”, a motto that was important to her as a lanky person who was somewhat exuberant –and awkward- in her movements and overall demeanour. I feel a great rapport with her in this, being one of life’s clumsy people. Hell, for me, would be having to parallel park in limitless spaces for all eternity.

The key to Julia’s enthusiasm is in the support and love she enjoyed with Paul. Letters they exchanged reveal a profoundly sensual and authentic bond between the two, and food played an important role in their relationship. In her first meal in Rouen with Paul, she experienced an epiphany that changed her palate and, indeed, the course of her life and countless people influenced by her magisterial cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (published in two volumes released in 1961 and 1970). She reflected later that this meal constituted “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me”. I have had one relationship in which food was a very key ingredient –pun fully intended- and it is no accident that this has been the most striking, deep, and influential relationship I’ve had in my life. We would talk over food, savour and discuss the flavours, and, all the while, enjoying each other. A meal we shared at the Modern in New York stands out as the most satisfying culinary experience of my life, enjoyed with an individual who enabled my heart to sing tunes I didn’t know were there. It was a long evening of sumptuous courses on the tasting menu, gently lubricated with Laurent Perrier champagne, and impeccable service and seats. Emotionally, gastronomically, and intellectually, the evening was a benchmark. Nothing can ever take that incomparable evening away, not even my own insecurities or failings nor the disruption of a rupture. Thankfully!

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I’m currently in Paris and a restaurant which I frequent frequently is Le Trumilou. It’s a place that Julia would approve of in very forceful terms. Julia had an unreconstructed distaste and suspicion of health fads in cooking, and attributed her longevity (dying just shy of her 93rd year) to red meat and gin, defiantly and perhaps accurately. Le Trumilou is located next to the Seine and run by a pair of brothers who took it over from their godparents. The interior looks like a 1950s photograph and hints at a retro makeover, but in fact it simply hasn’t bucked to, and become enslaved by, trends. The restaurant offers different daily specials that are both simple and pleasing such as chicken with thyme, suckling pig, roast rabbit, and duck with prunes (pictured above, from Saturday’s dinner, and served with a gratin as per my special request). It is comfort food that does not disappoint, and during these past few weeks of a particularly painful break-up, the fare at Le Trumilou has been a companion that has not let me down and has offered the particular and peculiar reassurance that only solid rustic cuisine can provide. One reason for this is that I had the good fortune to be brought up with a good supply of local country food. Rabbit pie, freshly caught river fish, and homemade bread and cakes punctuated my upbringing, so Le Trumilou’s offerings momentarily conjure up the childhood state of not realizing how harsh life’s realities can be.

There is, sadly, a puritanical attitude towards food on the part of some people that manifests itself in a suspicion of taking pleasure in meals, photographing them, and talking about them. This is the Craddock approach. The Child attitude is very European, particularly Gallic, in not rushing food, in knowing what you are eating, and in allowing meals to be fecund opportunities for exchange, laughter, and enjoyment. It is not for nothing that some of Christ’s important teaching moments occurred within the context of shared food nor that the central element of the Mass is a meal of bread and wine literally transformed, transubstantiated, into nourishment for our soul as well as for our all-too-weak bodies. I am reminded of Gerard Manley Hopkins’s striking poem “The Bugler’s First Communion” in which the priest-poet describes administering the Eucharist to a crimson-clad lad: “Forth Christ from cupboard fetched, how fain I of feet / To his youngster take his treat”.

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Today’s cufflinks are at once pretty and optimistic, as well as both whimsical and serious. They are crafted by Orla Eggert for the company he founded with his wife, Flora Danica, and I’ve already blogged about another pair in my collection by this quirky artist. He delighted in making jewellery that took, as its inspiration, the herbs in his garden, and this pair features chard leaves, made out of sterling silver coated with a gold wash and dating from the 1950s. It is not the most recognizable of herbs, and it was not I who first identified it. Julia Child does something radical with this unassuming leaf in the second volume of her masterpiece: a Swiss chard gratin. The combination of cheese, butter, lemon, and cream transforms the plant into something very special. Gratins are always an interesting item to have because, by their very presence in a special dish, they already assert their superiority over other side ingredients and vegetables. It is nothing other than the apotheosis of root crops (or leaves in this case) and a muted declaration of rivalry against the main course’s primary ingredient, whether meat, fish, or a vegetarian option. The gratin for me is a very attractive metaphor, as is cooking itself. By means of daring, passion, and imagination, something ordinary can be made exceptional and memorable. And, despite the pain and pleasure of falling in love, it is the only feature in our lives that has the power to metamorphose us and make us strive to be the people we should be. Despite ourselves. Would that we could all permit ourselves to unleash the joie de vivre of our inner (Julia) Child…

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