Friday, August 27, 2004

Toasting a lost icon

In 1961, after 10 years of relentless recipe testing, translating and pitching to publishers, an essentially unknown American named Julia Child saw her name credited on the cover of a 734-page bible of French cuisine titled ?Mastering the Art of French Cooking.?

The encyclopedia-like cookbook, published by Alfred A. Knopf, was hailed by critics and Child was soon on her way to an illustrious career as the ?grande dame? of the American kitchen.

That career came to an end Aug. 13, when Child, at the age of 91, died in her sleep at an assisted living facility in Southern California.

Child?s work, which ultimately included nine television series and 10 cookbooks, is indelibly marked on the minds of countless American cooks. More important, perhaps, is the influence Child?who embraced cooking as a pleasant and casual art?had on our culture as a whole, helping us to appreciate fine food and wine as a part of everyday life.

If Martha Stewart is?or was?our ?Domestic Diva,? Child was no less than the genius producer of the spectacle Stewart starred in.

Child, born Julia McWilliams in 1912, found her way into the world of fine cuisine at a relatively late age. Much of her initial expertise came from learn-ing to cook for her sophisticate husband, Paul Child, whom she married in 1946.

When the couple moved to France in 1948?after Paul accepted a job with the U.S. Information Agency?Child found that the French had long since raised the bar in creating culinary delights.

She lingered in Paris food shops and restaurants, enrolled in a class at the Cordon Bleu cooking school and eventually met two French women who would help her reshape the American palate in decades to come.

With Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Child tested hundreds of recipes for classic French dishes, from Coquilles Saint-Jacques to Coq au Vin.

When the three women succeeded in publishing ?Mastering the Art of French Cooking,? life in the American kitchen started a poignant evolution. Fine French food?which in the 1960s was still somewhat elusive in the restaurant world?was suddenly obtainable at home.

In my family?s house, Child?s influences from her first publication and those thereafter had a subtle, but seemingly continuous impact. Meals were always fresh, usually homemade and often mimicked French classics.

My mother was an excellent cook in her own right, having worked in New York City from 1953 to 1955 as a part-time host of two widely aired television cooking shows. The spotlight at times was shared with Dione Lucas, considered by many to be Child?s predecessor.

In time, Child?s wit and charm brought her to the fore and she commanded the role of teaching America how to cook. In 1970, ?Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. II? was published, again with Simone Beck as a partner.

Years later, in the 1980s, after having lived in France myself, I acquired an old 1967 copy of ?Mastering the Art of French Cooking.? I carefully carried it from house to house as I went through college. When I stuffed all of my belongings into storage before taking off to criss-cross the globe, I made sure the book was in a safe, dry place.

After I returned to France for the better part of four years in the early 1990s, I finally took the time to read Child?s labor of love.

In the preface pages, she credits the people of France for opening her eyes to the notion that fine foods can?and should?be part of the fabric of our cul-ture.

She wrote: ?To La Belle France, whose peasants, fishermen, housewives, and princes?not to mention her chefs?through generations of inventive and loving concentration have created one of the world?s great arts.?

Inspired, I embarked on following the book?s recipe for one of central France?s best-known dishes, Boeuf à la Bourguignonne?or Burgundy-style beef stew?tucked into the middle on page 315.

Upon discovering the meal was far and away the best thing I had ever cooked, I realized, with great pleasure, that Julia Child would have more influence on me than I had ever imagined.

Like thousands of others who have used Child?s recipes over the years, I had learned that cooking indeed is an art, and we are all capable artists.

Gregory Foley is a staff writer for the Idaho Mountain Express. He is a former restaurant sous-chef who sometimes eats Boeuf à la Bourguignonne for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

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