Mouthing an Anguished “BUTTER”

julilaAfter careful consideration and no small amount of research—four biographies read, the collected letters, her later and lesser works—I have purchased a hardcover copy of Julia Child et al’s seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Prior to this purchase, I’d been working through her French Chef Cookbook—and by “working through” I mean reading before bed, dogearing, dreaming of it in the isles (e.g. page 184 gives us “Feasting on the Remains”—and it becomes clear to me that only Julia could make the insinuation of carrion appetizing)—but always falling back to the old stomach-filling reliables: pasta and red sauce, a sturdy if discounted market cheese that must be wolfed on the quick before going green and fur-dark, some packages of pre-made “ready in minutes!” Indian goo. I have been in a culinary rut.

So welcome, finally, to the green and white wallpaper cover and sturdy, stitched binding for which Mastering remains so famously known. At nearly 700 pages and well over 3 pounds, Knopf loaded the heavy needles and threads when the book first came out in the fall of 1961 and they have kept the good supplies at work in the bindery, recently releasing this very fine 50th anniversary edition. I am daunted but not undone.

And that’s the broader message Julia brought to the table—you can be daunted in life, but do not get undone. I’m studying this message carefully these days. The unflappable nature, the hardboiled logic, the steady nerve in the face of incoming fire. If Julia had been an infantry man I would definitely have wanted her in my trench: shooting and hustling and firing all day, then digging deep the shelter of night and balancing lit stoves against a lumpy outcropping of rocks and mud to heat army rations of beans while warbling a good story of Paris and Norway and the OSS. You could sleep soundly next to a soldier like that and wake in the morning knowing there would be creamed wheat and butter and a crackling if steady radio connection to mission control and good aim.

If Mastering the Art was the equivalent of Julia putting on her uniform and polishing her gun, the WGBH show The French Chef proved her a trusty and sure shot. At that time in what came to be known as “educational television” entire shows were filmed in one shot. No re-takes, no editing. Whatever happened was what happened and it happened a lot.

WGBH did not have the budget, initially, to edit or even buy enough tape. The first 13 shows of The French Chef are lost to all time and cosmos simply because the station threw them back into the machines and recorded new shows over the old. Of these initial episodes, Julia wrote in her introduction to the companion cookbook that “they did possess some of the unpredictable quality of a contemporary happening.”

A closer look at a contemporary happening: The shooting schedule was intense and despite rehearsals, the 28 minutes usually brought a little something that got out from under her. Take, for example, the time an overheated studio led someone somewhere to stash the all-critical butter away in some unseen, unknown place. When Julia reached for it, she recounted, “All I found was a little bowl with a paper in it saying ‘butter.’ So I had to say, ‘Merde alors, forgot the butter, always forget something,’ and go practically off camera to the fridge. And I pull out the butter carton and find to my horror that it has only about 30 grams of butter in it. Luckily I was able to spot when one camera was off me and focusing on the chicken, and was able to mouth an anguished ‘BUTTER’ to the floor manager, who snuck into the fridge, with trembling fingers peeled paper off a piece of butter, and snuck it on the work table, with no camera spotting him.’” If that is not straight gangster cooking in the cool of Luke, I do not know what is.

As I ready for the study ahead, all 524 recipes beckoning with languid fingers of aspic and lips stained avec soufflé, this is the attitude I most want to keep in mind: Don’t get upset, just get it done. There is a life-approach buried not far beneath all this butter, egg, flour, and cream, and it’s in no way limited to the kitchen. I am certain that, more than any particular recipe or any deft presentation of technique, it is this steady, friendly assurance that keeps millions of people around the world committed to Julia and referring to her, comfortably, by first name alone.

Observe, for example, the steady get-it-done demeanor of her 28th program, The Great Potato Show. Pretty much anything that could go wrong in this program did. And yet—what grace! What assured conviction even as the lowly potato and its humble cohort—the heat of the stove, a misplaced stirring spoon—threw every possible curve at her. Julia baby! You got this!

“Potatoes, as some of you may not know, were considered poison up until about 1771,” Julia offered by way of improbable introduction. “Some people thought they gave leprosy, and it wasn’t until Mr. Parmentier gave a bouquet of potato flowers to Louie the 16th that potatoes became a very fashionable vegetable.” She goes on to add “They’re just all over the world today!” Indeed.

Things go south from there. Julia seems to have something in her throat throughout the taping as she gurgles, gargles, and growls over the stove, tasting periodically and giving the all-clear with the truism, “Nothing like buuutter” before swooning over her “darling non-stick pan.” It’s little wonder groups of artists, writers, and assorted jokers used to get high in Greenwich Village while watching Julia Child cook. Oh, to have been born in the 40s and come of age in the 60s, before Julia, God, and Country! I would have fit right in.

“Now, I’m going to try to flip this over, which is a rather daaaring thing to dooooOOOoo,” Julia declared at 14:30, clutching the pan. “When you flip anything, you just have to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this.”

Julia tossing hot mashed potatoes in the air.

Mashed potatoes taking flight, finding both levity and humorless velocity above the stove.

Julia chasing air-borne potatoes, unsuccessfully, with wooden spoon.

More potatoes declaring independence from all earth-bound grasp of gravity.

“No,” Julia calmly surmised. “That didn’t go very well.”

It’s up there with the great understatements of all time, like when NASA described the Challenger explosion as “obviously a major malfunction” or Sir Cosmo Duff Gordon, who survived the sinking of the Titanic, remarked, “It was a rather serious evening, you know.”

And once you go down the famous understatement rabbit hole, which is one of my favorite rabbit holes, you must pause and pay homage to Flight 9 and its perilous journey from the UK to Indonesia: “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking,” pilot Eric Moody announced as the British Airways plane sputtered toward Jakarta. “We have a small problem. All four engines have stopped. We are doing our damnedest to get them going again. I trust you are not in too much distress.” Eric Moody, 4-ev-a.

“See, when I flipped it,” Julia continued, scrapping thick potato funk off the coils of her electric stove, “I didn’t have the courage to dooOOOoo it the way I should have. But you can always pick it up, and if you are aaaalllooone in the kitchen, whooOOOoo is going to see?”

Julia’s bottom line, stated with camera-facing ease: “The only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them.”

Things I have flipped. A brief but, I think, comprehensive stocktaking:

  • My heart.
  • What I do for money.
  • What I do for fun.
  • My bank account.
  • My expectations.
  • My country of residence.
  • My middle finger.
  • My heart my heart my heart.
    • I want that last one on the list 4 times.

All very good things to not only flip, but to know how to flip. I am doing my damnedest to get them going again. All four engines, ladies and gentlemen. There have been some small problems, but I trust you are not in too much distress.

A final stocktaking, pantry-side and with Mastering balanced against my hip: I have bread and milk, plus canned fish and tomato sauce and pasta and water and salt and no goiters so I will make canned fish tomato sauce sandwiches and drink milk and thumb thumb thumb through Mastering until such time as the coffers even out or it’s time to cook my birthday dinner party, whichever comes first. Oh! 38! 38 in April at last.

Julia, you would have been my first choice for that impossible game of who would you invite to dinner? And if you are floating through a heavenly, butter-infused ether reading (why would you?) all the garbled nonsense people write about you or to you or for you on such a dastardly, adoringly regular basis, well:

  • Hello!
  • Let’s practice flipping potatoes together, maybe between the 1st and 2nd birthday courses, like you did around minute 14:30? I’d like to master the art of flipping for all that comes in the next 38 years.
  • The birthday cake should be Queen of Sheba, you say? Per episode 100? Reine de Saba, and don’t skimp on the butter, you sagely instruct? Done.
  • After dinner I will teach you all my finest dance moves, as biographer Noel Riley Fitch has claimed dancing was “one of those stomach-churning social necessities” for you. Don’t worry. We will roll up the rug. I’ll get the good sherry out from under the sink.
  • There will be fig compote and political grandstanding and Mos Def and the courage of convictions and many, many of your trusty paper towels for mopping our dance-addled brows. There will be plenty of everything.

Bon appetite!

mom notes




(Mom on what to cook from The French Chef Cookbook, as she pasted into my copy for Christmas, 2006.)