If the phrase “domestic goddess” conjures an image of the lushly curvaceous Nigella, you shouldn’t forget she had a predecessor – a queen of the kitchen who set the standard for all who followed. What Julia Child may have lacked in feminine allure, she more than made up for in unbridled energy and passion.
She, more than anyone in modern times, can be credited with not just enlightening Americans about the wonders of French food, but taking it into their kitchens. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, the first volume of which was published in 1961, made French classics such as boeuf bourguignon, coq au vin, bouillabaisse, cassoulet, sole meunière and many more accessible to the average American housewife, and thence to many others around the world.
As well as publishing numerous cookery books, she hosted a string of television cooking programs, beginning with “The French Chef” in 1963. Back when Nigella was just starting out on solids, Julia, in her trademark shirtwaist and apron, reigned supreme in the TV kitchen.
Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, most of her original episodes can still be viewed. That she comes across in them as a male comedian in drag has provided fodder for lots of parodies over the years, the most well known of which was Dan Aykroyd’s send-up of her on Saturday Night Live. (Which is hilarious, but don’t watch if you get faint at the sight of blood.)
Being around 6’2” tall, Julia was never going to be dainty. Some very tall women manage to look elegant and willowy. Julia, on the other hand, had something of the oak tree about her: indomitable and firmly rooted in practicality. In contrast to her imposing stature, she had a curiously high pitched voice, perfectly suited to a headmistress or an English upper class dog trainer.
For a taste (visual at least), here are a couple of gems:
It’s easy to look back now at those old shows and laugh, but I don’t know that we’re doing Julia a disservice if we do, as I think she was a natural born clown and meant us to be as much entertained as educated. In both she set the benchmark high.
This is an unimpressive example, but her lesson on the famed Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée (French Onion soup for the uninitiated) taught me the importance of having a decent knife in the kitchen … which I now have. Fortunately, unlike the hapless Dan, I haven’t yet sustained any major injuries. Providing you can keep from mangling yourself, great French onion soup is guaranteed if you follow Julia’s recipe (see below).
I’d known about Julia Child for a long time before the “Julie and Julia” saga propelled her to the forefront of public consciousness again, thanks to Julie Powell’s self-imposed challenge to cook her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in a year and blog about it. As a result, both Julie and Julia soared to the top of the pops – a novelty for Julie if not for Julia. If Julia had lived long enough to see herself portrayed by Meryl Streep, she’d have had a chuckle. Mind you, if the cards had been stacked a different way and I’d done something that warranted making into a feature film, I couldn’t think of anyone I’d love more to be me than Meryl. But I’m not holding my breath. And neither is Meryl.
Julia Child was an ambassador for the culinary arts at a time when they weren’t considered to be anywhere near as important as they are today. Her television program “The French Chef” was the forerunner of countless others in a genre that has exceeded anyone’s expectations over the ensuing years. In her book “Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table”, Joan Reardon notes that Julia in many ways far surpassed the “dubious frenetic machinations” of many so-called celebrity chefs who followed in her footsteps. Barbara Grizzuti Harrison says of her “Julia cooked. Julia ate. Julia felt no obligation to fill our minds with pure and lofty thoughts while we were filling our stomachs with sauce velouté. Julia, bless her soul, was old-fashioned.”
Below is Julia’s classic recipe for French Onion Soup (courtesy of Food.com). Her version is not quick (it takes two to two and a half hours or so), but well worth the time and trouble.
680 grams or about 5 cups of thinly sliced yellow onions
3 Tablespoons butter
1 Tablespoon vegetable oil
A heavy-bottomed, large covered saucepan
1 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. sugar
3 Tablespoons flour
1.8 litres boiling brown stock or canned beef bouillon
1/2 cup dry white wine or dry white vermouth
Salt and pepper to taste
3 Tablespoons cognac
Rounds of hard-toasted French bread (see recipe following)
1 to 2 cups grated Swiss or Parmesan cheese
PROCEDURE FOR THE SOUP:
Cook the onions slowly with the butter and oil in a covered saucepan for 15 minutes.
Uncover, raise heat to moderate and stir in the salt and sugar. Cook for 30 to 40 minutes stirring frequently, until the onions have turned an even, deep golden brown. Sprinkle in the flour and stir for 3 minutes.
Off heat, blend in the boiling liquid. Add the wine and season to taste. Simmer partially covered for 30 to 40 minutes or more, skimming occasionally. Correct seasoning.
Set aside uncovered until ready to serve. Then reheat to the simmer.
Just before serving, stir in the cognac. Pour into a soup tureen or soup cups over the rounds of bread and pass the cheese separately.
CROUTONS — HARD-TOASTED FRENCH BREAD:
12 to 16 slices of French bread, cut 3/4 to 1 inch thick
Olive oil or beef drippings
A cut clove of garlic
PROCEDURE TO MAKE THE CROUTONS:
Place the bread in one layer in a roasting pan and bake in a preheated 325 degree oven for about half an hour, until it is thoroughly dried out and lightly browned.
Halfway through the baking, each side may be basted with a teaspoon of olive oil or beef drippings; and after baking, each piece may be rubbed with cut garlic.
1) Don’t use “sweet” onions.
2) Be patient in making this soup. Do not hurry the onions as they are browning.
3) Heat the broth just until it steams while the onions are browning.
4) Good domestic brandy or semi-dry Madeira wine is fine if you don’t have cognac.
5) For the dry white wine, you can use sauvignon blanc or Chardonnay.
6) Instead of pouring the soup over the croutons, you can float a crouton on top of the soup in each bowl, and sprinkle cheese on top.
As Julia would have said “Bon Appetit”.
by Anne Green