A used book store can be a portal to another world and a treasure trove. Amidst the thrillers and chillers and books about vampires who shop too much or the like, I was so pleased to recently find the book My Life in France by Julia Child and devoured it one sitting. Julia Child was an American who lived in France from 1948 to 1954 and immersed herself in traditional French cooking and later popularized French cooking in America starting in the 1960′s with many cookbooks and a television show.
She admits she had a healthy appetite but had not been encouraged to cook when growing up in California. She did some cooking at home after marrying Paul Child, a diplomat employed by the United States Information Service, but her husband noted “her first attempts were not altogether successful” with brains simmered in wine a notable failed experiment.
Once she and her husband moved to France, she became enraptured and engrossed with French food, the vibrancy of the markets and the expertise of seemingly everyone she met. The food mattered to the French people. Her food epiphany occurred at her first meal in France. She tasted sole meuniere – “a morsel of perfection” she wrote.
She loved French food so much she attended the famous Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris and set up her own French cooking school.
This experience in part lead to this American embracing, comprehending and communicating the glory of French food for millions of people. She and two French colleagues wrote a best selling classic French cookbook in English titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
This led to her having a hugely popular cooking television show on public TV in America and writing ten other cookbooks. Her enthusiasm and common sense cooking were appealing and highly influential to several generations of American home cooks and professional chefs. I used to watch the cooking show when I lived in America and owned most of her cookbooks and tried to learn the French classics from her well trusted recipes.
The intensity of interest, pride and debate about what constitutes good food and correct techniques for coaxing the best flavors from ingredients is the same in Thailand as in the France described by Julia Child. Since my principal joy in Thailand is eating and making Thai food, I have been inspired by Julia Child to learn more and share what I learn.
As an aside, Thai culinary expert Sirichalerm Svasti or “Chef McDang” notes in his own cookbook that he was influenced to abandon a career as a diplomat in training at Georgetown University in Washington, D.C. and become a chef when he saw Julia Child on television. “Then Julia Child came along. Let me tell you, she was a hoot. Funny, totally natural, completely unafraid of making mistakes on television. The way she came across was very inspiring,” he wrote in the introduction to his popular cookbook The Principles of Thai Cookery.
WHAT I LEARNED FROM JULIA CHILD
1. Read every recipe twice before you make it to ensure you have the tools, ingredients and understand the techniques so the food is as good as it can be.
2.) Make each dish several times before serving it to guests so you understand how to replicate the recipe in your own kitchen with your own equipment. At the first real dinner party I ever hosted, I tried to make the fabled French dish coq au vin (chicken stewed in red wine) for some friends. Success was achieved eventually, but I had not really understood the recipe nor made it before so dinner was an hour late arriving to the table. Careful reading and practice would have made me realize I should have cut the chicken into smaller pieces, had more wine for the stew and should have made it ahead of time, thus avoiding the embarrassing and agonizing wait (Susan, Jim and Mary – thank you for your patience back in 1987)!
3. If writing a recipe for someone else to prepare, test the recipe many times with a view that the recipe reader might not have the same equipment, that the heat from a stove can vary, ingredients common in one area may be scarce in another and you cannot assume that the reader knows that one ingredient could be substituted for another. Research the traditional recipes and test, test, test while keeping the recipe simple but authentic.
So today I will test and retest some recipes, just as Julia Child did. As she wrote, “I learned why good French food is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.”