of the inimitable julia (and my alternate life)

I wrote this post about five months ago–just felt like publishing it today:

One night last week I went to bed at 8:20. I really needed to veg. There are probably things I would rather have been doing, like having a long talk with my sister or at least a pedicure. But those not being an option I went for the next best thing. I watched Julia Child. Two years ago my hubbs gave me both volumes of Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in its vintage hardcover glory. With it he gave me a six-part series on DVD in which Julia Child gives the best of the basics in her inimitable style.

Have you played Alternate Life? It’s that conversation where everyone says what they would do if they had a blank second life to fill out. The only real rule is that it has to be very different than the life you have, which of course you prefer. I have many interesting alternate lives, but there’s only one front runner. I’d go to Le Cordon Bleu and be a chef. (But I’d still somehow manage to meet Alex and marry him. He would just be married to a chef, okay? We’d make it work.)

If you’ve never seen Julia, she was a tall, stiff-necked woman in a blue coverall and, one assumes, sensible shoes. She measured herbs in the palm of her left hand, chortled at corny little jokes, and always looks like she’s about to hand around plates the second the cameras are off. Why do I watch her over and over (and over)?

I admire Julia immensely. She was no stranger to clumsy moments in the kitchen. Some of the real highlights of the show are such moments. Like when she’s dumping hot beef bones from a roasting pan into her stock pot and we see several miss the pot entirely and plummet to the floor. I’ve seen her burn, slice, and sear herself–without pausing in her monologue. Despite the hazards she’s fearless. She samples raw hamburger for seasoning and snatches vegetables to taste from boiling water. And despite her very great skill, she’s no perfectionist (“Now if your omelet isn’t perfect as it comes out of the pan, as is often the case, it’s quite legitimate to shore it up with your impeccably clean hands . . .”) There’s always a little thrill in every episode, such as during the chicken salad segment when a little dog trots quietly through the kitchen in the background.

She had a fine-tuned dramatic sense. There’s no single-act play better than Julia, serving crepes suzette in a dimmed kitchen. “The guests have enjoyed their saddle of veal  (beginning the crepes suzette) . . . Now here you have to have five minutes of entertaining talk, like ‘the last time you were in Monte Carlo’ . . . (lighting the crepes on fire) Remember, keep on basting them until both the flames–and the applause–subside!”  To Julia food was the medium and cooking it a fine art. She delivers every dish with a flourish.

She was funny without trying and it puts us at ease. I never make chicken stock without hearing, Let’s get that funny-looking herb bouquet out of there because it looks like a dead mouse.” One of my all-time favorite quotes comes in the beginning of the paté episode: “Rather than duck you could use veal or rabbit or wild boar or whatever you happen to have around the house.” (After all, I love to cook with what’s on hand–see Dig for Victory!) On fish mousse: “You can always tell when it’s done because it begins to smell deliciously fishy!” She calls rutabagas “rooty-baggers”–insert guilty little chortle. “Throw in a few kitchen treasures,” she exclaims while making soups, “such as cooked turnips!”

Because when I’m watching her, I’m a chef. She tells me what to do and why to do it and shows me with her enormous age-spotted hands. Thanks to Julia I strive for poetic salad composition. “Some people make these salads and put it all together and then toss it around and it ends up looking like dog food! You should have a poem of an arrangement!” She taught me to cook green vegetables to the exact moment of maximum flavor and texture and that there’s “nothing worse than a gritty leek” or water in the salad. Though I have rebelled against her dual addiction to parsley and tarragon I know not to cook with a wine I wouldn’t drink and never, never to run out of vermouth or shallots. When searing meat I think, “DON’T overcook it!” and hear the echo of a little chortle.

Any Julia fans? Share your favorite Julia moment or make my day and tell me your alternate life.

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13 Responses to of the inimitable julia (and my alternate life)

  1. Sarah says:

    Yes! I read My Life in France a few months ago and enjoyed it immensely. Miss you friend!

  2. Micki says:

    Thought you might find this interesting. The summer after I graduated from college, my dear friend and I worked for an older couple in a huge, beautiful old home right on the water on Nantucket. We had many famous visitors that summer, but my favorite was Julia (oh yes, Paul was there too, but he didn’t say too much!)! She was wonderful! I made her morning eggs (the only thing I was allowed to cook!) and baked the family’s favorite “Mrs. Peterson’s Special K Cookies” (which, by the way, Julia asked me for the recipe!). She made several visits into the kitchen during her stay with us and spent time getting to know “the help” – asking us about our families, how we spent our days, what we wanted to do after we left the island, etc. She was just like you see her in those videos, so easy and a delight to be around. (And yes, I do have photographic evidence!!! 🙂

  3. Krisie says:

    Betsy – thank you for taking me outside myself, to be joyful in something you obviously take such joy in. Your writing so beautifully conveys your feelings and takes me on a ride. I love it. Keep writing and keep cooking.

  4. Erin says:

    i have never had a desire to watch Julia’s show (blasphemy I know) until now. you wrote about her so well.
    I think I have about 400 favorite blog posts of yours, but this is definitely one of them.

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