Top photo by James Scherer
On television, Nancy Silverton and Julia Child prepare a brioche tart, a pretty thing with caramelized peaches. Silverton pulls the tart from the oven. Child guides her fork into the tart and mists up, her jaw working, her lower lip trembling, the huge, oval face familiar from a thousand television shows caught in a vast, silent sob that seems to have started somewhere around her toes. A long, silent, grief-filled moment passes, then another. If your parents were fond of both takeout food and PBS, this woman may have cooked more hot meals in your home than they did; it’s almost like a relative breaking down on the screen. She swallows twice, hard, and glances over at Silverton.
“The tart,” Child says, “is so good that it made me cry.”
Until she died two days short of her 92nd birthday last week, Julia Child was the best-known cook in the United States, a homegrown personification of French cuisine who was neither French nor chef. Her books, including Mastering the Art of French Cooking, The French Chef Cookbook and The Way To Cook, were straightforward, can-do manuals that empowered generations of Americans to fling around cheese soufflés and beef bourguignon. Her television shows in the 1960s were emblematic enough to do for the fledgling PBS network what The Simpsons later did for Fox. No food-and-wine center, no cooking magazine, no foodist conclave could thrive for long without her blessing, and although she never endorsed a product, or even blurbed a book, she was in sole possession of the most powerful mark in the food business — Brand Julia! — which one supposes she could have converted into cold, hard cash in the manner of James Beard or even Martha Stewart, Child’s only conceivable American peers.
Although she split her time between Cambridge, Santa Barbara and Provence for more than 50 years, many old-time Pasadena residents still point out the Montessori school she attended as a 5-year-old, the modest two-story bungalow on Pasadena Avenue she grew up in, the private high school from which she graduated. Along with Jackie Robinson, Edwin Hubbell and Eddie Van Halen, Child is one of the most famous Pasadenans in history.
Born Julia McWilliams, Child graduated from Smith College in the early 1930s, and went into advertising in New York City. In 1942, she moved to Washington, D.C., to work as a typist for the State Department, and eventually made her way to a filing job in the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor of the CIA. While on assignment in Ceylon, she met Paul Child, who was posted there as a foreign-service officer. They married in 1946. And after an apparently tasty meal of sole meunière and roast lamb in postwar Rouen, Child, until then completely uninterested in cooking, began taking classes at the Cordon Bleu in Paris, and started teaching French cooking to expatriate American women not long after. In 1961 would come Mastering the Art of French Cooking, written with her cooking-school colleagues Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. For 40 years in the United States, almost every young chef first discovered his or her passion for cooking in the pages of this book.
Generations of young, food-obsessed college students bonded over Childs’ version of an antique dish called Veal Prince Orloff, a braised loin stuffed with one mass of minced mushrooms sautéed with shallots and another mass of onion and rice cooked down to a fragrant jam. Veal Prince Orloff is blanketed with a rich white sauce enriched with Parmesan cheese and French Gruyère, sprinkled with still more grated cheese, sluiced with melted butter, and popped back into a hot oven to bubble and crisp for a few minutes before serving. Veal Prince Orloff takes a good two days if you make it Julia’s way, and it tastes like it. If you were more interested in food than you were in your formal studies, Veal Prince Orloff is what you fixated on instead of your final exams.
The classic recipe for the dish in Escoffier’s 1903 Le Guide Culinaire, which is fairly similar to Child’s if you happen to have $300 worth of sliced fresh truffles on hand to substitute for the mushroom duxelles, runs all of four lines in the edition on my shelf, five if you count the optional asparagus-tip garnish. Escoffier could assume that his readers knew what was in a Mornay sauce, knew how to braise and butcher veal, and probably had somebody in their employ whose job description ran to whipping up the occasional quart of onion-rice soubise.
Child’s readers, who may have only recently graduated from the sort of cookbooks where the trickiest obstacle was to open six or seven cans without nicking themselves on the sharp lids, needed more handholding. Her recipe in The French Chef Cookbook stretched to four full pages, including five full sub-recipes, and explicit directions on browning meat, on squeezing the moisture from chopped mushrooms, and on assembling a foolproof, if rather flour-laden, velouté. If you could follow Child’s instructions, you could duplicate not only this dish but essentially the entire French repertoire: quenelles and galantines; tarts and jellyrolls; roast duck with cherries and roast pigeon with liver canapés; stewed tripe and sautéed kidneys and le marquise au chocolat. It was still work — Child’s coq au vin was notoriously twice as involved as the coqs you might have found in French cookbooks by Samuel Chamberlain, Curnonsky or Savarin — but success was guaranteed.
If you watched her TV shows with any regularity, you knew how to make an aspic and how to clarify a stock; how to make a cheese soufflé that doesn’t collapse and a boeuf à la mode that collapses at the touch of a fork; how to mount a hollandaise, roast a suckling pig, and even (Lord help us) make beef Wellington with buttery pastry and canned pâté.
This was old-fashioned French food, you understand, the stuff with flour-thickened sauces and quarts of cream, egg yolks beyond counting and presentations that were often fussy for fussy’s sake. Even serious cooks who loved Julia beyond reason eventually moved on to the crystalline writing of Elizabeth David, the stunningly detailed recipes of Paula Wolfert, or the sheer artistic will of the late Richard Olney, an expatriate Iowan in Provence whose clean, naturalistic flavors are as much an influence on American cooking at the moment as Hemingway was on American writing.
But no American cook has ever been loved like Julia Child.
“You can’t make a sow’s ear into Veal Orloff,” she was fond of saying. “But you can do something very good with a sow’s ear.”