If you cook well at home, like watching food porn shows on the tube, appreciate the truly amazing diversity of food in stores these days, or own great cookbooks, you owe a big thanks to Julia Child.
And just for the record, those of you old enough to recall the infamous Dan Aykroyd Saturday Night Live skit should know that Julia loved it so much she kept a copy cued up in her VCR and showed it to everyone. Ever after, she would chime in with “Save the liver!” as a favorite non sequitur.
This daughter of a wealthy California family came to cooking rather late in life. After serving with the OSS in World War II and meeting her husband Paul Child, they were transferred to Paris with the State Department in 1948. Introduced to good French food, she was transformed by sole meunière, a classically simple dish of fish in brown butter and lemon. Suddenly, a woman who’d had little interest in food or cooking through the first thirty some years of her life couldn’t get enough of either. She began training in formal French cooking at Le Cordon Bleu, but ran afoul of the Ameriphobic headmistress and never graduated. In the process of immersing herself in all things cuisine, she met Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholde, and Les Trois Gourmandes was born, the wellspring that lead, some ten years later, to volume one of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Roughly two years later, The French Chef was born on WGBH in Boston, my home town. The rest is, as the saying goes, history. Literally every cooking channel, show, and even the way most cookbooks are laid out owes its existence to Julia Child. Yes, there were others, before and during her rise, but none came even close to plowing the row like she did.
I grew up watching Julia do her thing; my folks were pretty darn cosmopolitan, and appreciated good food and the cooking of it. My mom encouraged my desire to learn to cook, so Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Irma Rombauer’s Joy of Cooking, and James Beard’s American Cookery became culinary touchstones for me.
With Julia, what you saw was who she was and what you got, whether you saw her on TV, read her books, or met her live and in color. Through all the years of The French Chef, her number and address were published in the phone book; if you called or just dropped by, you were more likely than not to get Julia herself, and to find yourself in a conversation or her kitchen. She was famously irreverent, even on air, always finding a way to casually toss anything that she deemed useless over her shoulder, to crash a la Monty Python on the floor behind her. And yes, she did once note of pasta right out of the pot, “These damn things are as hot as a stiff cock.” She charged forward with indomitable energy from day one to her final hour, her spirit rarely anything but full bore.
Here’s my personal tie and case in point, why to this day I love that woman with a passion. My mom was a very successful artist in the Boston scene. Every year, she contributed works to the annual WGBH fundraising drive, which were held as televised auctions. In ’68, I went with her to “The Pru,” the Prudential building where the events were held and filmed, to drop off artwork. Lo and behold, there was Julia Child, in the flesh. Mom told me to go say hello, and I did. Julia gave me that trademark smile, shook my hand, asked my name; I told her I loved her show and liked to cook. She asked what my favorite thing to make was, and I told her macaroni and cheese. She asked how I made it, and listened intently as an eight year old explained how it was done. She allowed that my recipe sounded very nice, and made a suggestion about cooking and “stretching” the roux for best results, said “Nice to meet you, Dearie” in her trademark warble, and went on her way. I still do the roux exactly as she explained it to me.
So, Happy Birthday, Julia Caroline Child, née McWilliams. You have touched millions of lives like no other. Thank you, and Bon Appetite!
And for y’all, here’s the dish that got it all started…
Julia Child’s Fillets of Sole Meuniere
Excerpted from The Way to Cook by Julia Child. Copyright © 1989 by Julia Child. Reprinted with permission from the publisher Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House, Inc.
4-6 skinless, boneless fillets of Sole
1/2 Cup Flour (I like Wondra for this)
5-6 Tablespoons clarified Butter
Fresh Parsley, chopped
Salt and Pepper, to taste
2 Tablespoons Capers (Optional)
NOTE: Clarified butter has a much higher smoking point than almost any oil you can name;
it also adds a delightful, nutty flavor note to dishes. If you’re genuinely carefully about removing all the solids, clarified butter can be stored unrefrigerated, like oil, for up to three months.
To clarify butter at home, place it in a heavy saucepan and melt slowly over low heat.
Remove the pan from the heat and let stand for 5 minutes.
Skim the foam from the top, and slowly pour into a container,
discarding the milky solids in the bottom of pan.
Lay out and pat dry the fillets. Season with salt and pepper.
Dredge in a light coating of flour, removing excess.
In a skillet on medium-high heat, pour clarified butter in and allow to heat just before browning.
Place fillets in, not overcrowding the pan. About 3-4 in a large skillet.
Brown on one side for about 1-2 minutes and flip over to brown other carefully.
Remove fish to a platter and add capers to butter, if using, for another minute.
Pour capers and butter over fish.
Garnish with lemon and fresh parsley.