I just finished reading As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto. The book captures a beautiful friendship, carried out almost exclusively in letters, since Julia and Avis lived on different continents for much of their acquaintance. In addition to sharing their friendship, we see an insider’s view of how Mastering the Art of French Cooking evolved from an idea between a few friends to one of the most influential cookbooks ever written.
Julia Child had no idea how to cook. As a child of privilege, a full-time cook prepared the meals in her childhood home in California. She even mentions in her autobiography, My Life in France, “I had zero interest in the stove.” However, Paul, her husband, loved good food and wine. As a new bride, Julia wanted to impress him.
When Paul was assigned to a post with the U.S. State Department in Paris in 1948, Julia embraced life in France; learning the language, customs, and, most importantly, how to cook la cuisine bourgeois – good, traditional, French home cooking. Avis, her newly discovered friend, on the other side of the Atlantic, corresponded with Julia for over nine years,exchanging over 400 letters. An accomplished cook, Avis was also a writer and editor. To read their letters, comparing ingredients found in the U.S. and those in France, how to find the best knives (they were definitely found in Paris) and what to serve at dinner parties, is just thoroughly enjoyable. They also share their sorrows and voice their opinions on the political landscape of the day.
All of this got me to thinking, how did I learn to cook? Although my grandmother, who lived with us, was a wonderful cook; she never included us as she prepared meals. Nor, did my mother, who put a meal on the table every night, but with little effort and not much enthusiasm. In fact, she told her doctor, after recovering from a broken hip recently, that this was just the excuse she needed to give up cooking.
I guess I learned to cook like many other young women in the 1970’s. I got a Betty Crocker Cookbook as a shower gift and an assortment of the latest electric appliances. Just the other day, while researching recipes for dinner, I came across an old recipe for Beef Stroganoff. It was one of the first things I learned to make as a new bride. Printed in the booklet that was placed inside my Farberware Electric Skillet, the ingredients included canned mushrooms and other shortcuts that busy cooks in the ’70’s expected. Every new cookbook extolled the virtues of using canned soup, processed cheeses, store-bought breads and other readily available products to make our lives easier and unfortunately, our food less enjoyable. Luckily for me, I have evolved as a cook, but just can’t give away my old electric skillet. It taught me so much. It’s nifty guide, glued to the handle, explained the basics such as which settings would result in “stewing,” or “braising” or the ever puzzling “simmer.” So, I dusted it off and made dinner with real mushrooms and no canned soup.
But before I did, I went to my pen pals….Allrecipes.com, epicurious.com, foodnetwork.com and cooksillustrated.com to research “Beef Stroganoff.” In the time it probably took Julia or Avis to pen one letter, I surfed four sites and came up with the best new recipe. Pretty efficient, but without the benefit of a Julia or Avis. Maybe I’ll call a friend next time and ask her for a favorite recipe. Here’s one of mine:
cut into thin 2 x 1/2 inch strips
1 pound sirloin tip
season with salt and pepper
heat 2 Tablespoons olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat
add the meat and cook ’til just browned, about 2 minutes
remove to a plate and melt 2 Tablespoons of butter in the skillet
add and cook 1 small onion or two shallots, chopped fine
add and cook 1/2 pound of mushrooms, sliced
add: 2 cup beef stock, 2 Tablespoons brandy or cognac
simmer for 10 minutes, then stir in:
1/2 cup of sour cream, 1/2 Tablespoon of Dijon mustard, salt and pepper to taste
1 Tablespoon chopped dill (optional)
stir in the meat and any reserved juices
simmer (do not boil) for 2-5 minutes to blend flavors
serve immediately over fresh egg noodles
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