…well, maybe simplicity.
Turns out, very little I do is ever simple and yes, that could use some tweaking. My impatience is legendary and the very notion of restraint is wholly antithetical to my disposition. This combination has became lethally unproductive and frustrating this summer. To make matters worse, the dog days of July spawned a bit of creative ennui, and it was the sneaky kind that betrays little joys and treasured comforts. Make no mistake, I cooked and we ate, but almost purely out of habit and without much inspiration or impish delight. I’m not sure I even played music. But I took photos because…duh.
Needless to say it felt like I hit a sizable road block. Part content and part technique, my disinterest was becoming a total drag – it was disappointing to watch all the energy I had put forth just fizzle into the ether and it was irritating to wonder how much time I had wasted. But mostly I missed that addictive little thrill I could count on when I cooked and pondered, and I simply didn’t know how to conjure it up again. There I was sifting through motivational platitudes trying to think my way out of a creative slump, but it doesn’t work that way. So I broke down, admitted I needed help and called in a professional – Julia Child.
I’ve dabbled in French food on occasion and even had some success with Boeuf Bourguignon and an occasional soufflé. But my obsession with Asian and Italian cuisines has dominated the last two years and for good reason – familiarity. A year in Japan and 10 days in Rome cemented those bonds. While I did travel around France way back in 1982, to this day I cannot recall a single meal. With the resurgent popularity of Julia Child on CNN and HBO, I couldn’t help but take notice, but it wasn’t until this summer that I fully bought in.
“Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.”
Bastille Day, formally known in France as Fête nationale, is celebrated on July 14th. I usually love to embrace international holidays and festivals – Chinese New Year, Ramadan, Korean Chuseok, Passover. But I was cranky, tired from a poor night’s sleep and generally irritated with the world on Bastille Day. Plus it was a billion nasty, humid degrees in Atlanta, meaning I was in no mood to contemplate, let alone celebrate an uprising, even the justified kind. To be fair, storming the Bastille in 1789 may have sparked the French Revolution, but given the late unpleasantness I sat this one out. I was having a day, as my boy Food Taster would say.
Of course my media feeds were flooded with so many French recipes that I went to sleep dreaming of butter. By the next afternoon my mood had vastly improved and I finally succumbed to the promise of savory Coq Au Vin and a nifty little cheese soufflé. I was determined to enjoy an evening in my kitchen with a lovely red wine, a few candles and some French café music. The meal was simple for sure, but the beautifully layered flavors only came as a result of an extremely layered process. And that means time. A lot of time.
A really good example of this layering is the way mushrooms and onions are introduced into Coq Au Vin. During the early stages of cooking, chopped onions and mushrooms are sautéed with carrots in the lardon drippings to enhance the braising liquid, which is pretty much a bottle of red wine. Hours later, pearl onions and more mushrooms are bathed in butter and only added to the pot upon serving. These multiple and seemingly redundant steps create exponential, but simultaneously unique and nuanced flavors. As my boy Sous Chef would say, it was a savoring meal, not a gobbling meal. And it’s kinda outrageous that it required only simple ingredients. Oh, and patience…and restraint. Challenge accepted.
So about the cookbook…one summer when the boys were much younger, I decided I’d become completely ignorant. Yes ignorant was the word I used – I could quote lines from Cyberchase, recite the genus and species of every dinosaur and sing most of Disney’s greatest hits by heart, but hadn’t cracked an grown-up book in ages. So I decided to play catch-up and once again become a worldly, educated citizen.
Now every day we made a pilgrimage to our neighborhood pool to cool off and get away from the idiot box. Along with the goggles, ear plugs, pool toys, floaties, snacks and towels I dutifully began to carry along a copy of a notable Salman Rushdie masterpiece. I know there were hundreds and hundreds of other literary choices I could have made, but come on…it’s me. It had to be The Satanic Verses.
There I would sit at a suburban Atlanta pool club reading a book so heretical that Rushdie was in hiding and so appallingly foreign that the “normal” moms averted their eyes when I plopped it down next to the sunscreen. But they saw it. That book was a weapon intricately carved from Islamic and Hindi magical realism, but it was the word “satanic” on the cover that really nailed it. Not surprisingly, I was never asked to join a carpool, so mission accomplished. While I clung to my book as if it contained the final shreds of adult sanity, I tried and tried but could never finish. Still, that absurdly complicated piece of literature was symbolic of my struggle, my little failed rebellion to remain educated. I’ve always remembered that summer and how a mere book reminded me I was not a scholar, but also not a moron.
And that’s how I got to Mastering the Art of French Cooking – my new best friend, my new crutch book and better yet, my new weapon. I bought a small paperback which I can drag around everywhere and simply check-in on omelets or tarts at a moment’s notice. You might think that never happens, but it is both a therapeutic fix in a waiting room and an inspirational tool in the grocery store. And it throws people off balance in much the same way The Satanic Verses did, only without all the pearl clutching. I’ll never finish this one either and again I’m way out of my league. But now I have the pleasure of cavorting around with a funny, brilliant and occasionally prickly giant of a human being. That’s one of my most favorite things to do.
There are times when I’d be perfectly content with a Whopper, a beer and a football game on TV. I can always find joy and decadence in what I love, regardless of pedigree or expense. Still, I’m willing and determined to push my boundaries just a teensy bit, not just with food but in life. I’m someone who identifies the scary-smartest, most intense and least approachable person in the room and decides, “yep, we are going to be friends.” It’s not so much a game or challenge as it is a genuine desire to connect with those who seem least likely to gravitate toward me, who can introduce new ideas and in turn appreciate some of my unique gifts. On Bastille Day I realized that was missing in my life and Julia Child stepped in.
There are delightful surprises waiting for us, but only if we strike, and that requires fearlessness, foolishness, or a little of both. I’m warming up to simplicity, but perhaps patience and restraint can only be aspirational friends for me – they are looming in the corner of the room sighing, “well, there she goes again” and arguing whose turn it is to go reel me in.
Nah…we are definitely going to be friends.