Summer Reading: What’s for Dinner?

This is a delightful summer read about food, wine, and finding a place and making it your own.

A child-less couple in their late thirties/early forties are stationed in Paris at the US Embassy in 1948. His role is to develop exhibits bridging the cultural gap between America and France. She is a housewife with time on her hands. Foreign language and customs, broken stoves, frigid apartments and shortages in gas and electric all seem insurmountable challenges to today’s reader, but these are nothing compared to life during wartime. France is reeling economically from the effects of the war, but bravely carries on to regain a “normal” life once again, to find their joie de vivre, and so must she.

Their status, as temporary as it is, is a constant reminder of the frailty of domestic life in post-war Europe. The Embassy is ill-equipped and underfunded; his assignment might change in a moment’s notice; their financial security is shaky, the distance between home and family in America is a difficult gap to bridge. Television is not yet a household word, and radio broadcasts the international tension in the looming Cold War.

However, Paris is Paris, and they enjoy the City of Light while they can. With other French couples and US ex-pats, they find the social scene, restaurants and personal passions. He is an artist, a wine aficionado, and a lover of fine French cuisine. To feed her beloved, she learns the language and takes classes at the Cordon Bleu Cooking School. She graduates, befriends the teaching chefs, and learns”les human relations” to shop like a native at the markets and find the best offerings; thus launching her career.

With two friends, she begins a cooking school and to teach properly, starts to systemetize French cuisine so recipes are teachable. From these notes she sets out to write the definitive book on classic French cuisine for the American housewife, which had never been done before in France, let alone in the US.

It took her almost ten years.

In 1950’s Madison Avenue had already defined that target market — American housewives — as being uninterested in cooking; only wanting boxed cake mixes and TV dinners. Who would want to toil over the perfect bechemel sauce?

Our heroine was not deterred. Her own endurance was tested more than once with recipes, coauthors, American publishers, transatlantic travel, uprooting and relocating with her husband’s new european assignments, and correspondence with friends and associates on both sides of the Atlantic before the book is finally accepted by Alfred A. Knopf (Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 1961).

They say timing is everything and especially in cooking. By the time the book was released in 1961, the Kennedys are in the White House; Jackie Kennedy’s love of French couture and the new Camelot era undoubtedly helped book sales climb.

After her first US book tour, the author ends up at WGBH in Boston, where she agreed to make a souffle in front of the cameras for a creative piece of public television programming. And the rest is history.

Lucky for us, Journalist Prud’homme encouraged his late aunt Julia Child to write her book in December 2003. Ms. Child died in August, 2004 at the age of 91, before the book was published but not before she shared her best stories with hin

In 2001, Julia Child donated her entire Cambridge, MA kitchen to the Smithsonian Institute and moved back to her native California. Around 2003, blogger Julie Powell wrote a daily blog where she cooked a recipe a day for a year from Julia Child’s first book; the story was made into a movie, “Julie and Julia” released in 2009.

I’m sorry to say I had only a caricature of Julia Child in my mind, courtesy of Dan Aykroyd’s Saturday Night Live spoofs of ”The French Chef.” And sadly I thought cooking was not for me, because I was such a trial and error cook.

Julia Child was once a mere mortal in the kitchen, too With humor and gusto, she approached cooking with a sense of adventure. She worked scientifically. In her kitchens in Paris, Marseilles, Bonn, Oslo, Province and Cambridge Massachusetts, testing her methods to discover what made a recipe a good recipe. Then she shared these discoveries with the world.

Who knew she would revolutionize television, Madison Avenue and create an entire industry? Or inspire new chefs, new schools, new restaurants and new ingredients we have readily available?

Thanks to her persistence (and today’s technology) we have any recipe at our fingertips (and no excuses). I won’t be jumping into béchamel sauces anytime soon, but I have hope. Julia Child carefully paved the way.

Do not read this book on an empty stomach!

Bon Appétit.

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