Cooking with Julia

Associated Press 1978 file photo

Television chef Julia Child changed the way Americans look at food as well as the way women looked at cooking and themselves.

By Pamela Hasterok
Special to the Herald

She wore pearls, towered over men and drank more wine than she ever put into a dish.

She was Julia Child, and she would have turned 100 a few weeks back.

She was the first celebrity chef, one of the first to have her own television show and the first to champion using the freshest ingredients and treating them kindly.

What many consider contemporary culinary movements, Child pioneered 50 years ago – using fresh meat and vegetables, promoting butter and cream as conduits of flavor and honoring the animal by cooking all of its parts.

Most of us alive today missed her highly entertaining PBS show, the most famous episodes of which since have been glorified in the movie “Julie and Julia,” and spoofed on “Saturday Night Live.”

But we have her book.

Ah, the book. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961 and still is selling strong. Its recipes can be taxing, time consuming and downright fussy, but here’s the thing: They always work.

Try to find another cookbook on your shelf you can say that about.

I inherited the book from a favorite aunt soon after college, and that was it. Instead of a starving cub reporter serving my dinner companions Mexican casseroles and gooey noodle dishes, I was a Sophisticated Woman, capable of turning out a perfect Gratin Dauphinois, making an airy éclair and preparing a killer Beef Bourguignon – and I don’t eat meat.

With Child, anything is possible.

She taught me how to saute mushrooms perfectly (high heat is the key); use butter without restraint, roast a delicious chicken and try highfalutin-sounding French dishes without fear.

But most happily, Child taught me to serve desserts with no shame. I instantly abandoned fruit and yogurt sauce as a meal-ender and began perfecting Soufflé a la Orange (the more Grand Marnier, the better), Crêpes Suzette (Grand Marnier again, this time in flames) and Reine de Saba, the richest chocolate cake you’ll ever put in your mouth. I dove into making Charlotte Chantilly (put 20 ounces of spiked whipped cream into anything, and I promise you, it will taste wonderful), managed a decent Bavarois au Chocolat and fell in love with the above-mentioned éclairs.

Now this, this was cooking.

Child demystified French cooking for generations of women. For the first generation, she demystified cooking, period. She taught housewives there was more to a meal than meatloaf and a casserole made from Campbell’s cream of mushroom soup. She reintroduced the notion that farm-fresh was best and that you could create a fine dinner with simple ingredients, say, an herbed omelet and green salad or a hamburger cooked in butter with sauteed onions.

“She brought home the fact that you can make food from scratch,” said Kara Komick of Durango, a home cook from Durango. “She helped people see that making real food was important. It gave women a new sense of purpose.”

Komick’s mother, Diane Wildfang, owner of Rochester Hotel, remembers throwing fancy dinner parties in Southern California in the ’60s and ’70s using recipes from Child’s books.

“We experimented with TV dinners, and that wouldn’t do,” she said, recalling the burgeoning foodie movement sweeping California. “Then we decided to cook.”

And Child was her guide. At one party where Wildfang was hosting business associates she wanted to impress, she served Child’s tried-and-true roast rack of lamb (complete with bone booties) and a fresh green salad. Everything went swimmingly, just as it should, when she saw a friend clandestinely carrying her salad plate to the kitchen. There amongst the greens and vegetables lay a pile of rubber bands, cut from the scallions and inadvertently deposited on her plate.

“That’s what good friends are for, and everyone else was too drunk to notice,” she said, laughing and tapping into another essential lesson Julia imparted to home cooks.

“She made us not take it so seriously. We learned it should be fun to cook, and it’s only food … it’s not world peace,” she said.

Even for those who weren’t fans, who didn’t watch her shows or cook from the book, her influence on American cuisine lingers.

Barbara Helmer, owner of Kennebec Café, prefers a simpler style of cooking, more in the Italian way, and believes Child’s focus on long cooking and cream-based sauces is out of date.

Yet, she concedes, she makes her stock from veal bones, scraps and fresh herbs in the French manner and the Beef Bourguignon she serves is still a melt-in-your-mouth favorite. (Child braises hers slowly in wine and herbs with carrots, mushrooms and pearl onions.)

Other Colorado professional chefs confide they only knew her as the funny woman on TV, who seemed to enjoy the cocktails and wine as much as the cooking itself. But their menus, too, feature classic French dishes Child championed during her 40-year television career – Oysters with Mignonette Sauce and Sole Meuniére at La Tour in Vail; Filet Mignon with Gratin Potatoes and Confit of Duck and Breast with Braised Greens at Flagstaff House in Boulder.

That brings up another discovery Julia was one of the first to herald to American audiences – French wine. She used it in cooking, of course, from soup to nuts, but she accentuated it as a pleasurable complement to a meal. Everything is better with wine, she seemed to convey even into her 80s, when she and chef Jacques Pepin would prepare classic French dishes on PBS and then sit down to share them over a glass of Burgundy or chardonnay.

One local chef has seized the day and Julia’s reverence for wine and started a wine bar/restaurant in, of all places, Mancos. Jason Blankenship, formerly of Kennebec Café, admired Child’s philosophy of food, using fresh ingredients, the best you could get, and her belief that wine is an everyday part of life.

So this summer he opened Olio, changing the menu at his eight-table café every week and basing his dishes on what’s available from local farms. He offers 25 wines by the glass, not something you would expect to find on your way to Utah.

“She tried to get people to cook fresh food, fresh meat, real vegetables… instead of the processed garbage they were eating,” he said.

Julia Child. She may be gone these eight years, but she isn’t forgotten. Excuse me, I’m off to the fruit stand. Child’s Pêches Cardinal (peaches in raspberry sauce, and I add Chambord-laced whipped cream for good measure) is calling me.

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