EPS Review #164 - Julie & Julia

Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, by Julie Powell, Little Brown, 2005, 309pp.

A depressed secretary decides to cook every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume 1). It takes her out of herself, and she develops a devoted following on her blog, which she later turns into this book.

The book gets an extra star from me for being funny. You have to like rude humor, though. Here's Julie on bone marrow: 'Unbidden, the word violate popped into my head. "It's like bone rape. Oh God, did I say just say that out loud?"...The taste of marrow is rich, meaty, intense in a nearly too-much way. In my increasingly depraved state, I could think of nothing at first but that it tasted like really good sex.' M.F.K. Fisher this isn't.

I can't resist inserting my favorite marrow memory here. Having had dinner already, P and I met up with our friend Madeleine late one evening at a bistro in Paris. I saw waiters whizzing by holding plates with flat discs of bone with rock salt. I could not resist ordering one, and that's when I learned the beautiful phrase l'os à moëlle. [ Bourdain strongly recommended the marrow with parsley at St John, but I found it, sheared longitudinally, too rank. ]

The reason P pressed this book upon me is that I had my own MTAOFC period when I was young. I did not watch Julia's show so much, but I did cook a lot from the two volumes. Thus I felt happy recognition when Julie makes eggs poached in wine and they turn out like grey balls in purple goop. My keenest memory is of the puff pastry, whose exponential nature fascinated me. The first time I made some it was Mother's Day, and, as Julie often did to her guests, I forced my mother to stay up late into the night for her special treat of tough brown tart in a sort of calamine sauce. But I got loads better at puff paste, and eventually made elephant ears that to this day can send me into a reverie. I ate a lot of my own cooking back then, especially the éclairs, and sometimes my parents or grandparents would come home to find no food, but every pot and pan lying about dirty. At least I did cook them Beef Wellington (overdone) and Baked Alaska (flaming liqueur dripped on the carpet).

Julia Child and Zippy I wanted to send this review with an image of a Zippy comic involving Julia Child, that used to be in my copy of the cookbook, bought when I was living in Somerville not far from Julia's house. [ OK, I found it later, in volume two, near the puff pastry. ] But now I seem to have my grandmother's copy, taken from her huge closet full of cookbooks. One summer evening, as she boiled chicken croquettes and white sauce in a plastic pouch, I asked her why she cooked so many instant dinners. She replied: "For years I cooked three meals a day, and then I decided enough was enough." I dread when this surfeit happens to P: it will be too late for my arteries, and by then my only remaining pleasures will be her Chicken Marbella and Passionfruit Meringue Roulade. Anyway, as for Zippy, it just shows what an icon the woman was. The British haven't much heard of her, though.

Julie lards her book with imagined vignettes from Julia's life: the secret service in Sri Lanka, her older husband, Paris and so on. These scenes do not work very well, but make you want to read Julia's autobiography. P accuses me of making a big deal of Ms Powell's secretary-hood, but the author makes a big deal of it herself. She stands pretty well outside her corporate hierarchy, at some government agency responsible for the design of the new World Trade Center. Amazingly (reprehensibly) they forced some non-disclosure agreement on her. The lack of authorial research seems true to secretary stereotype, as perhaps does her greater sense of being alive. At the same time though, her writing is very good, if colloquial, and perhaps she has had a better education than she lets on. Er, not that secretaries are uneducated. Anyway, I found that this class angle added interest.

P also said that Julie's devotion to her blog readers made her understand better my preoccupation with the internet, which is a good thing. P was even uploading and editing photos the other day, and talking about killing stuff from the Task Manager. We are a wired household.

And finally, aspic. Julie is funny about it ("like silk lingerie, if silk lingerie were repulsive"), and bravely cooks recipes that nobody would try nowadays. One aspic I remember very well was in Dijon, pre-kids. It contained savory tomato and samphire, and sat on a bed of deep-fried julienned leeks, with tiny vegetable jewel-spheres scattered within. Yum. But now I have written "aspic" too many times and it is going into a horrible brain-loop. Anyway, perhaps there is some in my future.

Exponential Puff Pastry

P wrote: I remember the tomato aspic too. BTW the link to the passionfruit roulade is not to the recipe I use.

Ewan wrote: There is a mathematical transformation called The Bakers Transform which is the puff pastry making transform. You can prove that if you do it often enough, any two points will become separated (doh I guess) but interestingly it was one of the early bits of mathematics that led to Chaos theory and the theory of dynamical systems.

I think of this often when I'm making bread.

I also think of packing theory when I put bacon in a pan. There is something very satisfying about fitting the highest possible number of bits of bacon into a frying pan.

Mathematics and cooking. Not so far apart.

Elise wrote: What a delight, Erich, to find you reviewing a book that I read last winter.. A delight because it is a topic that I resonate with, (unlike some of the books that you read) and also for all of the memories that it has brought back and which you have shared. It is indeed rude humor and some things seem a bit overdone......but I enjoyed it. I actually got it because I thought it was more serious than what it turned out to be, but it was a fun surprise. I had found it in my discount catalog.....