Thursday, September 3

Whine Selection

Regina Schrambling, "Don't Buy Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking: You will never cook from it". August 28

ONE: I did, a lot; still do on occasion, though I don't often cook from anything much anymore. I spent a couple years cooking several times a week from Julia's book (what? Simone Beck is chopped foie gras?), as well as Louis Diat's and Henri-Paul Pellaprat's. I didn't come out the other side a cuisinier, but I did come out knowing how to cook.

TWO: this piece, like the movie and the Blogging Event which inspired it, are not for me. Just so's we all understand one another. Had it occurred to me, in 1978, to write a book about the "experience", or Ur-blog it by calling ten people and telling them about it, utilizing up-to-the-minute, NASA-developed touch tone dialing, I would have sat down with a cold cloth until the idea passed. When I first heard about the Julie character blogging her way through Mastering the Art I thought, oh, great idea! Then I dialed up a connection and read some. End of great idea. I am not the audience for this sort of thing. I do not care if that audience is hoodwinked repeatedly because of its devotion to quotidian pop-culture manias, unless they are perpetrated by Politics, Commerce, or come through my walls and disturb my reading.

THREE: I don't understand why it should require much experience of the culture before one simply throws up one's hands, preparatory to meeting each and every media-driven mass trampling of what was once a perfectly fine flower bed, bothering no one and giving pleasure to the few who knew it well, with a fittingly Gallic shrug. Don't Buy "Mastering the Art"! Sheesh, lady, the people who have to be told that are never going to learn the lesson. The people who peddle books are never going to stop putting movie stars or muppets or Whatever Sells on whatever stack of wood pulp they have in stock. Can you get a Passion of the Christ Bible at Half-Price Books? Wouldn't particularly surprise me. I think we ought to be thankful there's no Burger King Limited Time Only Chicken Cordon Bleu sandwich and special Julie & Julia commemorative cup deal going on.

Okay, so, it's Slate, and so the perpetual pretense that one is commenting on something real, rather than spinning the same old cog in the Perpetual Zeitgeist Machine, has to be maintained. But look, supposing you dissuade some poor-impulse-control buyer from ponying up $25 here. What happens? The money's gonna be spent on the next gimcrack down the block, which, odds say, will probably be absolutely worthless, not just practically so. Whereas all those Volume Ones are going to wind up at garage sales across this great land, probably within the next twelvemonth, and possibly inspire some kid someday to do some real cooking.

So, before we start (sadly, yes), Ms Schrambling, if you really have a problem with people buying a cook book so far over their heads, and so beyond the minimal amount of effort they are likely willing to put into the practice, I suggest you take it up with Ms Powell, who used the thing as a prop.
Thanks to my consort, I have owned the two-volume set of Mastering the Art since 1984, the year after I graduated from restaurant school, but even I have never cooked from it. My copy of Volume 1 is tattered, but only because I've used it for reference over the decades—it is infallible as a sourcebook. I would think the problem is my short attention span, given that I grew up cooking from my mom's 1950s Betty Crocker cookbook and was trained professionally using recipes that had been distilled to their essence so that technique could be taught fast. But Julia's recipes were written for a rigorous cook with endless patience for serious detail.

I wish this flabbergasted me more than it does. It's not for want of trying on Ms Schrambling's part. I'm hoping that "recipes distilled to their essence so that technique could be taught fast" is merely the product of a tin ear--hers, or her instructor's--but I fear the worst.

Recipes aren't distilled because they're teaching "technique". They're distilled because they're teaching restaurant cooking, which is a form of fast food. I do hope your instructors understood that. It must be finished to order. Depending on the establishment, and the clientele, a one- or two-hour lag might be acceptable, but what has really happened is that a complex (if desired) series of events has taken place, utilizing a division of labor, in order to simplify the final preparation. You do not walk into a fine dining establishment, order the Poulet rôti, and wait while the captain relays the message to the guy who takes the chicken out of the locker, trusses it, and bastes it for the next 2-1/2 hours. Or not many.

Neither can I understand the "don't cook from it, but use it as a reference" routine. That's what Larousse is for. Mastering the Art isn't a compendium. It's a collection of recipes for the home.

Okay, so if you know how to cook every cookbook is a reference work, and if you've got The Girls on the shelf, and damn am I tired of coming up with ways to avoid pasting the full title in again and again, you might use it that way. But this is all from The Repertoire. If you've never followed a recipe, what do you need it as a reference of?

Listen, I'll admit I have about ten bones to pick with the whiz-bang American food culture since 1975 for every morsel I find savory, but this is a big one: the idea that the World of Betty Crocker and the Go-Go American lifestyle exempt us from putting in the time and effort required to learn something of great worth. Americans give themselves a free pass on this sort of thing, and then turn around and ask why anyone would go to such bother. How th' fuck are you supposed to know?
Consider the boeuf bourguignon depicted so romantically in the movie, which has had restaurant chefs and amateurs alike breaking out their "9- or 10-inch fireproof casseroles" in the hottest month of the year. The ingredients and instructions for its recipe span three pages, and that is before you hit the fine print: The beef stock, braised pearl onions, and sautéed mushrooms all require separate procedures. Step 1 involves making lardons and simmering them for 10 minutes in a precise amount of water; seven steps later, the fat is finally skimmed off the sauce, which is either boiled down to thicken or adjusted with liquid if it's too thick.

First: Americans are excused for having short attention spans and no patience, but they aren't presumed to live in air-conditioned bubbles during the hot months? Sure. Two: I've got a 1977 printing. The recipe runs across three pages, but would come pretty close to fitting on two, with its introductory paragraph and wine and vegetable accompaniments intact. You slam into the onion braising and mushroom frying just after the casserole hits the oven, what would probably end page one of a dedicated pamphlet, and the horrible ordeal of stock skimming assaults you soon after. In other words, it's listed in the actual order in which you actually do actual things in the actual recipe. (And fer chrissakes, you don't need a "precise" amount [it's an exacting "1.5 quarts", by the way, not "10 to the third mole at 25º C.") of water; you need an ample amount so the lardons don't stick together when simmering.)

I mean, I crank out a lot of good lo' Fanny Farmeresque beef stew and pot roasts during the winter. How many steps are they, and how much mess? Even tossing the latter in a crock pot requires prepping onions, carrots, potatoes, turnips, garlic, and green beans, and even using one of the reasonably good shelf stocks available now (but not then) you're still advised to strain and deglaze before serving. How much less do you want to do? Toss everything into a pot and pray Betty sorts it out? Maybe cooking isn't for you at all, let alone trying to knock out haute cuisine.
And this is considered an entry-level recipe. Everything in the tome looks complicated, which of course guarantees the results will work but also makes cooking feel like brain surgery. Even simple sautéed veal scallops with mushrooms involve 18 ingredients and implements and two pages of instruction.

This is a fabrication. Seriously. And aided by the horrible American convention that one identify dishes by naming however many ingredients one cares to. This is, after all, the country when someone savoring the precious nectar of a '61 Chateau Petrus can be said to be "drinking a Merlot".

There is a recipe for Escalopes de Veau à la Crème which involves: veal, butter, shallots, white wine, brown stock, cream, and mushrooms. How much less work do you want? There are two, a Provençal dish with brown sauce, and Blanquette de Veau à L'Ancienne, which are more complicated. So what? Someone making a classic Blanquette de Veau is not sautéing veal and mushrooms, except in the sense that Joe Dimaggio was playing a kid's game. Throw veal and mushrooms in a pan and turn on the heat if you want. Perfectly acceptable, perhaps quite good, but not an excuse, in a food writer, for missing the distinction between true gastronomie and the production of ballast for a Stevedore, as Rex Stout once said.
If after 26 years of cooking for a living, I am worn out just reading those recipes, I can only imagine how a newbie who can barely identify a whisk will do,

Maybe he'll be less unwarrantedly jaded about it. Maybe she won't have been held prisoner by Betty Crocker in her youth.
let alone how someone who has never seen Dover sole in his supermarket could cook sole meunière, the other iconic Julia dish that restaurants and home cooks have been reflexively celebrating since ogling it in the film. It's a plot point, and the recipe is not in the book, although others for sole are, helpfully indexed under "poisson.")

Ah, well, you can always buy Volume II, with the complete index in comforting English. Lady, why shouldn't someone trying to master the art of French cooking learn some simple French culinary words and phrases? Do you gripe if you sit down at the piano and the instructions are in Italian?

Ms Powell's work can stand on its own merits, if any. But the infestation of food writing and broadcasting over the past three decades, dedicated to the idea that knowing this month's magazine-approved Trend trumps the requirement of doing any real work, is, well, un-fucking-palatable.


Kathy said...

It's kind of sad. This woman really has no idea how FUN cooking can be. Most activities worth doing are not easy. There are exceptions, of course, like,

bill said...

Jeeze, I luv ya Dog, but you're going all Ioz on us. So, you think we should all just shut up and stop being so fancy pants about everything, but should also simmer our lardons (sounds like a Cheney nickname) for ten minutes" etc. Shame on you sir!

Sator Arepo said...


1) In fairness, '61 Petrus is very likely only *mostly* Merlot. But the wine-labeling standards in this country are much like "organic" ingredients: If it's 75% or more Merlot (or what-have-you), go ahead and call it that, regardless of what comprises the other freakin' quarter of the wine.

2) As for playing the piano as an analogy--complaining about leaving ample time (and water!) to braise your lardons is basically like not understanding that ten minutes at the keyboard does not enable one to play Chopin.

3) Your ability to turn my "go fuck yourself" into a page of prose would go a long way towards getting my letters to the editor, er, *printed* once in a while.

No wonder the National Review Online never responds to my email.

Anonymous said...

I stand in defense of Betty Crocker in her Fifties incarnation. My late mother came from an admirable line of Midwestern farm/pioneer wives and home cooks who were the exact opposite of lazy corner-cutters. They cared about cooking working-people's American food well, and were famous for their abilities.

The BC Cookbook was my mom's standby during the early years of her marriage to my stepdad, her first turn at being a homemaker as my father had been shot down in the Pacific Theater only a few months after my conception and their marriage in '43. Her mother, my magnificent Scots-descended Grandmother, gave her the BC volume as a wedding present in 1950, and Betty did not fail her.

The book is excellent for newbs: it assumes that you may not know techniques and takes you thru them with excellent pictures, but is also easy for the experienced cook to use.

Li'l Innocent

Davis X. Machina said...

I dunno, I learned cooking from Child and Beck. It only looks like a recipe collection. But then, I learned music theory from the Schirmer collection of Bach chorales, which only looks like a hymnal.

The test of a good cookbook -- and MTAOFC, without peer in this regard, saving maybe Marcella Hazan -- is whether, after you use a recipe from it twice, you ever need to read it again, except to check the odd measurement, whether the tout ensemble just works, in an it-could-not-be-otherwise way.

What was it that Einstein said to Max Born? "Make things as simple as possible, but not simpler".

Julia and Simca failed, if failed they did, only by not anticipating that their book was going to be used by people who weren't actually thinking. They produced recipes, they weren't writing kitchen pseudocode.

Anonymous said...

i read the Julie blog while she was writing it and found it fun and amusing but the only recipe i tried was when some disaster struck and her husband made deep fried chicken livers / not a Julia Child recipe / smile / i was so enthralled i ran to my library (the best small town library in America) to look at their chinese cook book and oh thrill my heart found the recipe for the chicken livers and they were great ! i am 75 and i also learned to cook with Betty Crocker but that was before Julia Child went to Paris i think / i love your blog, Mr Doghouse and this post is delicious because i am someone who loves to cook / my current gig is with a FreeMeal lunch some of us do every day using food that wd be thrown away. so yes there is such a thing as a free lunch in my town at any rate.

i have several of Julia Child's cookbooks (not Mastering the Art) and learned how to make scrambled eggs from listening to her book from when she went to the Cordon Bleu) and i had a reminder on my kitchen wall WWJD what would Julia do ? have another glass of wine, of course !



Narya said...

I learned to cook by living alone for most of my adult life, but I learned to cook because my immigrant Italian grandmother was a great cook as is my mom, and I grew up eating Real Food. My copy of Joy of Cooking (with an inscription from that grandmother) is still a useful reference, even though I've had some professional (albeit as a pastry chef rather than as a hot-line cook) training and experience.

Point is, if you like to eat, if you savor the complexity and depth of sensation that's available from food, then learning how to cook it is an obvious step.

As an aside, I stumbled across Julie's blog near the end of the year of cooking, went back and read through the archives, and actually enjoyed it.

Anonymous said...

i meant to mention my favorite food writer, Elizabeth David, the heroine of British cooking during and after WW2 / An Omelette and a Glass of Wine, Is Their A Nutmeg in the House? , French Provincial Cooking, Italian Cooking / not a glossy photo in the lot, not even a standard list of ingredients, just charming and elegant writing about the joy of cooking (!) and eating.

i consider myself a true foodie / the first time i had fettucine alfredo it was made with the golden utensils at our table at the then popular Ristorante al Fredo in Rome in the early 60's / i groan a little at all the current variations of fettucine alfredo


Keifus said...

Yeah man, I don't know if I agree here or not: my complaint about the current batch of foodie-tainment is that it's based on envy more than education--too much exotic (and okay, trendy) ingredients and kitchen ninja skills--designed it seems, to communicate "we're better than you," which is to say, to sell high-end product. There's a love of the art that does come through though (or is marketed).

It's even possible that Rachel and Emeril have gone off and disappeared from exposure. We can only hope.

Meryl Streep and the Julia story made the movie at leat half enjoyable. I can only assume that the blog was as insipid as you say. There's no way I'm going to look it up now.