Sunday, February 11, 2007

Reading. Child.

I used to come home after school every day and have a snack while sitting at the kitchen table, before reluctantly practicing the piano for an hour, monitored by my mother from her upstairs study. (Eventually I learned how to practice while reading the latest issue of Gourmet magazine, hiding the open magazine between books of piano music. Larger trade paperback novels could also be held open in this manner; smaller mass market ones were trickier). In order to extend my precious snack time, I would read cookbooks while eating, making my way through the various Silver Palate cookbooks and other 80's classics that my mother had collected over the years. There was a whole series by some publisher with different volumes devoted to cocktail nibbles, sweets and petit fours, cookies, and sandwiches. And there was Julia Child, the pages of The Way to Cook marked with post-its, various recipes scribbled with notes in my mother's loopy handwriting.

The most fascinating cookbook, to me, was Julia Child's Menu Cookbook. Each menu centered around a theme - a birthday dinner, a casual buffet (that involved deboning a chicken and stuffing the poor creature with homemade pâté), dinner for the boss (or other VIP), cassoulet for a crowd, even a "low-cal banquet." The menus came with wine suggestions, perhaps a cocktail, an appetizer, main course, side dishes, and a dessert, along with alternate menu substitutions and suggestions for dealing with leftovers. It was hard to imagine a dinner of roast duck accompanied by a parsnip purée carefully piped into zucchini boats, using a piping bag with a fluted tip, or carefully molding a deboned and stuffed chicken into a neat sphere and tying it with string so that the finished product would look like a perfect melon. Nobody I know cooks like this, or even aspires to. Julia Child's menus belong to a time when women worked and raised children and still somehow managed to roast a rack of lamb (with frilly paper hats on the end of each bone) and stuff tomatoes for their husband's boss. (Or did they? Did anyone ever actually make these menus that required hours of boning and stitching and stuffing and carving and piping?).

Now they tell us to buy a simple first course - some cheese and good bread, or a smooth pâté and fancy crackers - and a dessert from our favorite bakery, make some yummy main course that cooks itself without us having to watch it, toss together a gentle salad of delicate lettuces and herbs. The bigger and fancier our kitchens are, the less we cook. And nobody eats things like roast duck with cracklings or Cornish game hens sitting in fried-potato nests. But with her unexpectly funny, dry writing, Julia Child makes us long for those kinds of dinners, makes us laugh at the idea of her "subduing" the roast duck in the privacy of her kitchen, makes us want a husband who, like Paul Child, mixes lethal drinks in the same poisonous green hue as the Emerald-Eyed Buddha of some legend and builds handy wooden frames to contain ice for the cocktail party raw bar. Maybe some day.

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