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Julia Child & the lure of the kitchen

Updated: Dec 6, 2023

A copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking

I love to cook. I don’t always have time for it, which is frustrating. And even more frustrating -- despite my efforts -- I can’t make quick and easy cooking work for me.

This is where my gurl Slone calls me bougie. As does my husband.

I am aware that I am in the minority, but I don’t own a crock pot, let alone an Instapot. I don’t purchase seasoning mixes. I don’t buy pre-made salad dressing – let alone salad in a bag. The only reason we have instant mac and cheese is that Behr likes it and he can make it in the microwave himself.

I do not judge anyone who does these things. They are convenient and keep many families fed. Even Williams Sonoma sells All-Clad crockpots. They are just not for me.

I’ve tried meal planning. I have batch cooked. I have frozen things. But for me, none of these things are nearly as satisfying as cooking something from scratch. I mean scratch, scratch.

It’s like a craving for the process more than for the actual food.

This week I have been fantasizing about rolling cold butter in the dough because I have never practiced the laminating technique that is necessary to make croissants, puff pastry, and flaky cinnamon rolls. I don’t necessarily want to eat any of these things – because if that was the goal, I live in a large city full of bakeries where I could purchase these things, in addition to Panera, Starbucks, and Publix if I wanted to go that route.

No. I just want to know if I can do it.

The fact that I work full-time teaching means I am spending less and less time in my kitchen. I come home from work at the end of the day and even the effort to throw together a quick soup is too much to bear.

But November brings out the cook in me, not only because of Thanksgiving but because it’s colder outside and I am leaning into the hibernation of the holiday season.

Like the changing of leaves, I witness subtle little changes to notify me that I will be hearing the siren song of rolling pins, saute pans, and roasting pans.

My first signal is when I pull out my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child. I have made only a few of the recipes from the famous French chef. I used to own these gorgeous collector edition copies of both volumes of the cookbooks on my shelf for years, reading them with gentle hands so as not to mar the lovely vellum-covered books. In direct contrast, my copy of The Joy of Cooking is grease-splattered, sticky, dog-eared, and torn. So last fall, I sold the collectible fancy cookbooks that were doing me no good and purchased a $20 copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking with a basic dust jacket that I threw away immediately. Turns out it looks even more elegant without the dust cover. The point was to remove the preciousness from the cookbook and actually use it. I have yet to recreate every recipe, but I am less ginger with it than the others.

It’s a cookbook that is more about technique, which I love. It’s also a cookbook about French cooking, which my husband does not love. Regardless, every fall season I pull out the book and study the illustrations and eventually retreat to my kitchen to make a quiche, potato leek soup, or omelet (I still have not mastered the flip).

I can't pinpoint where this longing to cook came from. I was not taught to cook. I grew up in the home of a woman who did not love to be in a kitchen. Almost everything we ate came from a box and was heated in the microwave. When I was much younger watching the movie Mermaids, my mother saw that Cher only fed her children from an appetizer cookbook, and I think a light bulb went off in her head. The next thing I knew, she was buying frozen chicken strips and TGIFridays frozen potato skins from Sam’s Club and we ate those things for dinner three times a week. And while my Maw did cook, she did not love sharing her cooking secrets. She wrote very few things down, measured nothing, and when you asked her directly how to make something, she pretended she didn't hear you.

I taught myself to cook. As a young single woman, I owned a copy of the Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook and had a kitchen space to play around with it. When I got married, I spent my days watching Barefoot Contessa, Nigella Lawson, and Everyday Italian and then would make what I had seen on TV that morning. On the weekends, I would attempt bigger and more complicated recipes, like hand-rolled pasta, souffle, and pies.

I find it interesting when people don’t enjoy cooking. It’s unfathomable to me. I have come to understand that there are people who derive no pleasure from food. In the past, I have assumed it was because they never experienced really good food, but now I realize that food is just as psychological as anything else and some people are not drawn to it, even repulsed by it.

I have also come to understand that many people are not comfortable in kitchens. My husband is a prime example of that. Where I find chopping vegetables meditative, he’s concerned about accidentally slicing off a finger. Also, because of his height, kitchen counters are not a comfortable height for him to work at. He gets bored waiting for things to heat or to saute. He’s also terrified of burning what he’s cooking or himself.

The kitchen is a space where I am 100% comfortable. I am more comfortable in my kitchen than my writing studio. You know that feeling where you walk into a room – either in your home, church, workplace, garage, she shed, wherever – and you feel completely at ease? You know that whatever you get into will be worth the time. That’s how I feel in the kitchen. Despite the fact that I have burned myself, cut myself, screamed in frustration over a poorly designed electric can opener, and thrown away a slightly undercooked chicken that only needed 15 more minutes in the oven. It wasn’t perfect therefore it was garbage. There is an episode of The Great British Bake Off where a contestant threw away a flawed ice cream cake, and I could totally relate.

This is what I now understand about my mother – she did not feel that way in the kitchen. But funnily enough, she read cookbooks. Like for fun. She rarely made anything out of them. I would get these phone calls from her where she would describe a recipe to me that she’d read from a quick and easy cookbook she’d picked up in the grocery store line, and then encourage me to make it. And when I wouldn’t – often because the first ingredient was cream of chicken soup – I would encourage her to make it. She would blow me off. I think getting me to make it for her would have felt like winning for her. When my first son was born, she and my father came to stay with us and I would cook for them. My nesting came late, so when I should have been napping or resting, I was in the kitchen making three meals a day for four adults. I actually enjoy cooking for other people.

I didn’t become a chef, though. Instead, I became a writer who also loves to cook. Much like my Maw, I am secretive about my recipes. And much like my writing, I don’t see my cooking as anything special. It’s simply the way I enjoy spending my time.

This season instead of pulling out Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the first clue of my transition, I found myself watching Julia on HBO Max. I’m endlessly inspired by this woman. I have already cried and I am only on episode three. And in a matter of days, when the grading I am desperately trying to finish is done, I can see myself sitting on the couch flipping through the cookbook, which will lead to me in the kitchen rolling cold butter into pastry dough, and throwing away five tries before I get it right.

Read Books. Wear Boots.




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