Then She Said It, and I Knew Something Had Changed

It was the most mundane of Saturday morning chores. I was standing in line at the service desk of the department store waiting to return a blouse. At the front of the line, a customer needed a price check on a pair of pants, and the lone service rep, a tall, elegant lady with an ample Afro, dispatched another employee to the pants department to research the situation. I smiled at the woman in front of me in what I thought was silent communion and slipped into the half-reverie/half-stupor of waiting in line. This was gonna take awaiting-in-line-jpeg while.

If her phone hadn’t rung just then, the service rep might have called the next person in line, who happened to be the woman in front of me. But it did. Someone was phoning in about a lost pair of eyeglasses. The service rep rummaged through one drawer and another, but found nothing, so she gave the caller the bad news and hung up. The other employee returned from the price check and the pants transaction was completed. At last the rep called the woman in front of me.

The woman stepped to the service desk, and it was clear that she had spent the last few minutes not in stupor or reverie, but in a state of escalating agitation. She addressed the rep, first muttering and then raising her voice so everyone could hear. “Unprofessional,” she said loudly.

The service rep picked up the phone and whispered into it. “Mike, this woman is angry with me. I can’t wait on her. Can you come out?”

Mike appeared instantly from a nearby office, but that only seemed to make the woman angrier. “DID YOU HEAR WHAT SHE SAID ABOUT ME?” she asked, addressing everyone in earshot.

And then she looked the service rep in the eye and said it.


I felt the people on line behind me freeze. The service rep’s face contorted in hurt and rage. “What did you just say?”

In the next moment, I heard myself saying, “That’s not okay. Bringing race into it is never okay.”

A woman behind me chimed in soothingly, “We don’t need that kind of talk here.”

Mike gently but firmly enfolded the service rep in his arms and led her to a back room, saying, “Take a few minutes.”

He returned to the service desk and silently finished the woman’s transaction, while she sputtered, “I didn’t say what you think I said. I didn’t say . . .” She turned to Mike for confirmation. “Now I feel bad. I don’t care what these people think,” she motioned to the rest of us. “But she thought I said something and I didn’t say what she thought I said.”

But we had all heard exactly what she said.

Mike finished her transaction without a word, and she left. I finished mine, and went off to do some browsing. And thinking.

I had never heard anyone use that word, or any variation of it, in so aggressive and public a way.

Now, I’m a white middle-class Jewish woman who lives in the largely liberal greater New York area, and I understand that my relatively privileged life renders me a poor accountant of the racism that continues to haunt the United States in 2016. And I fully accept the idea that we’re none of us untouched by implicit bias—the covert racism so ingrained that it goes unrecognized while it does its ugly work. (If you’re not familiar with the concept, just think about whether you’ve ever wanted to lock your car door at the sight of a black youth in a hoodie. Of course, if you’ve been that black youth wearing a hoodie, you know exactly what implicit bias means.)

There was nothing implicit or covert about what happened on that Saturday morning: one woman insulted another with a racist slur. I know I can’t compare that momentary exchange to the potentially life-threatening, or at least lifelong, effects of bias in law enforcement, education, jobs, housing, and the judicial system.

But it was jarring nonetheless. I tried to work out why, and I can’t help thinking it’s more than the fact that as a white, middle class woman, I don’t face this sort of thing every day. No, I think it’s because I believed—like so many—that despite the racism that still pervades our society in both implicit and explicit ways, we’ve made some progress in the last half-century. And one of the areas in which we’ve made progress (or so I thought) is that we’ve developed a sort of societal consensus on how to speak to one another. Racial insults of this kind are not supposed to happen. They’re supposed to be history—discussion fodder for my kid’s high school English class when they study To Kill a Mockingbird.

Lately it feels like this consensus is coming apart. True, the exchange in the department store amounted to just one tiny incident, not a scientific sampling. But it seems to mirror other incidents that I’ve read about or seen on TV and social media. It seems like some people who never quite accepted the consensus have emerged from underground to proclaim their right to express their bigotry as if it were a long-lost, cherished freedom. Were they just waiting for a little encouragement from a TV huckster cum demagogue?

I find a little comfort in the fact that others waiting in line with me were as shocked and offended as I was. And that people from all corners of society are equally offended—and are saying so in public. But I’m worried. I hope this is not the unraveling of our painstakingly wrought, always fragile, not-yet-finished societal journey toward equality for all.

When the most mundane of Saturday morning chores becomes a racial confrontation, I wonder.


From Vilna, with Love: Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook, Rediscovered

Every now and then there’s a new book that calls to us from the past. A forgotten manuscript, newly rediscovered, that hums in our ear, “This is how we were then.”

Sometimes we vilna vegetarianreply in delight, as with What Pet Should I Get? by Dr. Seuss. At other times, we are by turns confused, horrified, reverential, as with Harper Lee’s Go Set a Watchman, the recently unearthed first draft of her masterpiece, To Kill a Mockingbird.

Yet another new-old book has come to us recently. It hasn’t gotten as much attention, but its particular call from the past is no less powerful, both for what it tells us of its place and time, and for what we know, nearly eighty years later, of how that place and time came to an end.

The book is The Vilna Vegetarian Cookbook: Garden-Fresh Recipes Rediscovered and Adapted for Today’s Kitchens by Fania Lewando, lovingly translated, annotated and adapted for contemporary kitchens by Eve Jochnowitz, and published by Schocken Books.

Fania Lewando and her husband Lazar were the owners of a vegetarian restaurant in Vilna, the Jewish name for the city of Vilnius, whose nationality teetered between Poland and Lithuania in the years after World War I. Vilna was home to a Jewish community large and lively enough that at one time the city was dubbed the Jerusalem of Lithuania. It was a cosmopolitan metropolis where the Haskalah, the secular Jewish “Enlightenment,” flowered, and a dynamic arts scene thrived. The famed YIVO, the Institute for Jewish Research, had its first headquarters there.  The Lewandos’ cafe was a gathering place for the city’s Jewish intelligentsia, who appreciated her innovative vegetarian cuisine. Besides running her restaurant, Fania Lewando was a noted spokeswoman for the cause of vegetarianism and the then-young science of nutrition. She published her cookbook in 1938.

Fania Lewando cropped

Fania Lewando

The next year, the Soviets took control of Lithuania; they were followed in 1941 by the Nazis. According to an essay in the new edition of Lewando’s book by Efraim Sicher, her great nephew, the Lewandos were likely captured by the Soviets while fleeing the Nazis, and probably killed soon afterward. The Jewish community of Vilna was obliterated like so many others.

But the YIVO had relocated to New York in 1940, before the Nazi occupation, and somewhere along the way, a copy of Lewando’s book wound up in its library. It sat there until a few years ago, when Barbara Mazur and Wendy Waxman discovered it. They showed a oopy to Joan Nathan, the Jewish food writer, who brought it to Schocken. Eve Jochnowitz, the Yiddishist and culinary ethnographer, had actually seen the book some years earlier at YIVO and had fallen under its spell. She was tapped for the project. The new volume is the result.

In it, the past speaks to us in a surprisingly contemporary voice. A lifetime before Michael Pollan coined his famous, “Eat food. Mostly plants,” Lewando was writing the first lines of her book: “It has long been established by the highest medical authorities that food made from fruits and vegetable is far healthier and more suitable for the human organism than food made from meat.” Indeed, she cooks up fruits and vegetables of all sorts in seemingly endless ways. While many of recipes are rooted in the Old World Ashkenazi palate (latkes, kugel, blintzes), several  would be at home on the restaurant menus of today (cauliflower cutlets, for example, leek frittata, coffee ices, and marinated pears that are a lot like the sweet-sour gastriques).

But The Vilna Vegetarian is definitely of its time. The recipes are written in old-timey cookbook style; there are no ingredient lists; ingredients and measures are contained within the rather terse instructions, which assume that readers have basic kitchen skills. They also reflect the technology of the time; as Jochnowitz explains, no oven temperatures are listed because the coal and wood-fired ovens of the day couldn’t calibrate exact temperatures.

There are no photographs of the food in this book; instead, colorful botanical illustrations from the 1938 edition decorate its pages. It also includes essays from that period on the value of fruits and vegetables and Jewish vegetarianism, and a chapter of notes from the restaurant’s guest book written by Vilna luminaries, some of whom, we are told, survived, and some who did not.

The breadth of Jochnowitz’s work on this volume cannot be understated. In addition to translating from the Yiddish and parsing Lewando’s personal kitchen usage, she also converted the original metric measures to American cups and spoons, tested recipes, and added helpful notes for today’s cooks where necessary.

Most of the recipes can be prepared and enjoyed by contemporary readers. (Who among us wouldn’t enjoy a stuffed turnover or a homemade vegetable soup?) But some recipes will only be read with wonderment by 21st-century cooks, like the one for pickled apples that calls for lining a barrel with cherry leaves and dill, filling it with apples, adding buckets of boiling water, sugar, salt, and molasses to cover, and weighting the lid with “freshly washed stones.” Oh, and replenishing those buckets of sugar syrup daily for eight weeks.

I won’t be trying that one any time soon. But I am very glad to read about it. And glad, sad, and generally awestruck by the entire book, and by the voice of a woman who still calls to us so clearly: See, this is what it was like at my table.


If you would like to watch a video of Eve Jochnowitz preparing Fania Lewando’s Rice Dumplings Stuffed with Mushrooms while describing the process in fluent Yiddish (don’t worry—it has English subtitles) here’s a video from the blog, In Mol Araan.  As the caption says,”I like the part where we add more butter. Also the other part, where we add more butter.”



If you would like to see what Vilnius looks like today (with stretches of cityscape that look like the photos might have been taken in Fania Lewando’s time—and some fleeting scenes from the local Holocaust museum) here is a video tour from The New York Times website that I came across while preparing this profile.


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The Gastronomical She: The Art of M.F.K. Fisher

The last few decades have seen our attitude toward food change dramatically. We used to take it for granted. Sure, we stopped to eat it several times a day; we obsessed about its caloric content and its nutritionalMFK FIsher wolf value; we celebrated and mourned with it; in times of shortage or famine, it became the focus of our lives. But it wasn’t so long ago that food as a subject for artistic or intellectual examination was unheard of. Traditionally, when we studied history, we charted the movements of kings and generals, heroes, and sometimes, heroines. When we wrote poetry or sang songs, love was (and still is) our theme. In recent years, TV has given us celebrity chefs; restaurant culture and easy air travel have introduced us to exotic cuisines; and universities have recognized a field called culinary history. Still, this consideration of food as a “serious” subject is rather new. Plenty of people continue to think about food only when they’re deciding whether to bring home pizza or Chinese.

Imagine, then, the audacity of a 29-year-old author named M.F.K. Fisher, who in 1937 published a volume of essays on food. Serve It Forth combined history, memoir and meditation, a combination that would characterize Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s writing for the next half-century. Fisher “seized culinary writing” writes Joan Reardon in her lovely triple biography, M.F.K Fisher, Julia Child and Alice Waters: Celebrating the Pleasures of the Table (Crown, 1994), “from the domestic scientists, the packagers and promoters, even the ‘gourmets,’ and with cunning and daring, she placed it at the center of those ‘ageless celebrations’ of life.,’” Serve It Forth was the product of Fisher’s days as a young student bride, first in Dijon, France, where she tasted the glories of French cooking, and later, in Los Angeles, where a part-time afternoon job left her free to spend mornings reading culinary texts in the Los Angeles public library.

This peripatetic education prepared her to chronicle the eating habits of ancient Greece and Rome, the role of the potato in everyday meals, her own experiences eating snails, Catherine de Medici’s culinary influence on France, dining alone, aphrodisiac foods and a poignant return to a much-loved restaurant. A strange mix, but one held together by Fisher’s unforgettable voice, now playful, now painterly, sometimes superior, and sometimes full of heartbreak for the crushed dreamers (including, at times, herself) that she observed in her travels. Whatever her mood, she never doubted the sensuality and the sacredness of eating.

Here is Fisher on tangerines peeled and left for a few hours on top of a radiator in a sparsely furnished apartment: “. . . I cannot tell you why they are so magical. Perhaps it is that little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl, that crackles so tinily, so ultimately, under the MFK Fisherteeth. Or the rush of cold pulp just after it. Or the perfume.” And here she is on the potato: “Baked slowly, with its skin rubbed first in a buttery hand, or boiled in its jacket . . . it is delicious. Salt and pepper are almost always necessary to its hot moist-dusty flavour. Alone or with a jug of rich cool milk or a chunk of fresh Gruyere, it fills the stomach and the soul with a satisfaction not too easy to attain.”

Word pictures like these pop out on every page, not only in Serve it Forth, but in the subsequent volumes: Consider the Oyster, published in 1941, which touches on everything from the oyster’s love life to the oyster loaf at Fisher’s mother’s boarding school; 1942’s How to Cook a Wolf, a wartime prescription for coping with ration cards and shortages; 1943’s The Gastronomical Me, an autobiography told in food memories; and 1949’s An Alphabet for Gourmets. These five books, collected in 1954 in a celebrated volume called The Art of Eating, are probably her best known, but her output was far greater; before her death in 1992, Fisher produced 28 books, including a much-praised translation of French epicure Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin’s The Physiology of Taste.

My favorite is The Gastronomical Me, which begins with Fisher’s girlhood in California, where her grandmother’s delicate digestion ruled the dinner table, and goes on to recall her culinary awakening in Dijon, the break-up of her marriage to Al Fisher, her love affair with the painter, Dillwyn Parrish, his slow death a few years later of Buerger’s disease and her subsequent travels—all juxtaposed against memories of the food she ate. (She would marry and divorce once more, and have two daughters, but these events are chronicled in other books.)

At the beginning of The Gastronomical Me, Fisher explained herself: “People ask me: Why do you write about food, and eating and drinking? Why don’t you write about the struggle for power and security, about love, the way others do?. . . The easiest answer is to say that, like most other humans, I am hungry. But there is more than that. It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it. . . . There is communion of more than our bodies when bread is broken and wine drunk.”

Nearly 75 years later, in an age whose very religion is fear of fat and carbs, and fear of food in general, those words take a new, more urgent dimension. Unlike so many of us, Fisher never took food for granted, and her message is as meaningful today as it was when she wrote it.



Korean Food’s Time Has Finally Arrived, and You Can Get to Know It with Gochujang

Back in the ’90s, I went to hear food writer Ruth Reichl speak. I don’t remember what she said about the hot trends of those days, but I do recall very clearly her lament about Korean food. She had written about the cuisine of the tiny East Asian nation a few times, but even a platform as powerful as The New York Times, where she was the restaurant reviewer, could not push the cuisine onto the nation’s foodie radar. It was a puzzle, she said, because Korean food has several characteristics that you’d think would endear it to the American palate—succulent beef dishes and a signature hot sauce among them.

That commentary has come back to me over the years, whenever an article about Korean food appeared—inevitably to little notice. Several years ago, when a Korean restaurant popped up in a small strip mall here in the ’burbs, I wondered if Korean food had finally arrived. But nope, the place closed a few months later. Cooking-with-Gochujang

Now, in 2015, it seems as if Korean food is finally hot—or at least warm. I’ve been noticing a small but steady number articles and mentions on TV cooking shows, as well as notices of upcoming cookbooks. One such cookbook is already here. Cooking with Gochujang: Asia’s Original Hot Sauce (The Countryman Press) offers a nifty introduction to that aforementioned hot sauce. Gochujang is different from the fiery Mexican salsas we love, from the stinging acid-inferno of Indonesian sriracha or the tangy heat of your favorite Buffalo sauce. It’s “a chili paste,” says author Naomi Imatome-Yun, “with a complex spicy, sweet and deep flavor.” Made from fermented chilies, soybeans, sticky rice powder and salt, it has the consistency of paste. A yummy paste. This book of just 60 recipes includes instructions for making gochujang itself, but Iamtome-Yun notes that even in Korea, bottled is the rule. (Kind of like ketchup—only the most adventurous cooks would dare to make it.) Most of the recipes here use gochujang as an ingredient, and while traditional Korean dishes like bibimbap (rice with veggies) and kimchi bokumbap (fried rice with spicy fermented cabbage) are included, Iamtome-Yun incorporates gochujang into other ethnic cuisines—think LA-Style Chicken Quesadillas, Seoulful Cheese Dip, pasta sauce and even peanut butter cookies.

This is how an ethnic cuisine makes its way into the American kitchen—one easy-to-use ingredient at agochujang_ time. Recall how teriyaki sauce, with its perfect balance of salt, sweet and brewed yumminess became the marinade ingredient a few decades ago. Back then, home cooks who would no more consider rolling their own yellowtail sushi than—I dunno, milking their own cows —were suddenly using teriyaki with abandon. And once we mastered teriyaki, we learned a bit about Japanese cuisine, and those home sushi kits started appearing. Will gochujang follow the same trajectory? Will Korean food finally be recognized by mainstream America? Hard to say. But if it does, books like this will help make it so.
 Originally published on

The Tyranny of Neat People and the Antidote, in a “Magical” Little Book on Tidying

For a while now, I’ve been ranting to myself about what I call the tyranny of neat people.

It happens whenever I stumble on one of those New Year’s articles about de-cluttering your home and transforming your life. You’ll feel better, work more productively and become a more perfect human being, they say, if only your house is tidy.

Here’s what I say: maybe the neat people have simply done a better job of public relations for their decidedly limited comfort zone. What if it’s the slobs of the world (including me) who are more flexible, more tolerant and more able to be happy and productive in any environment? I can function in your pristine sanctuary or my own mess; I don’t feel compelled to be tidying up all the time. Given a choice between spending my spare minutes reading and tidying, I’ll pick the book or The New York Times almost every time. I say “almost” because that’s the kind of gal I am—a slob, but flexible, able to adapt to the moment. Between deadlines, or if company’s coming or if the spirit moves me, I clean up. My space is never perfect, but hey, neither is life.

So I generally91RY2EnQHGL._SL1500_ avoid how-to’s that purport to tell me how to win friends and influence people by rearranging my closets. Recently though, I came across one that was different: The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing by Marie Kondo (Ten Speed Press). The title’s hyperbole nearly sent me running for a pile of half-read New Yorkers, but I found myself liking Kondo’s KonMari Method.

Most organizers have rules: they tell you to ditch anything you haven’t used in the past year or get rid of one item for each new one you buy. I agree that most of us suffer from the scourge of too much stuff, but numeric parameters seem so arbitrary and more than a little wasteful. Kondo, a Japanese cleaning consultant whose book has sold some 2 million copies, adds a brilliant criterion: eliminate things that don’t “spark joy.” That’s a concept I can live with. Under this rule, I keep the stack of dictionaries that reside on the ottoman in my living room, including the yellowing volume I got in Miss Rodgers’ third grade class. It lay unopened for decades, and if I’d followed the typical decluttering rule, I would never have had the chance to share it with my daughter in her third grade year. I look at it and think of Miss Rodgers. And my daughter.


Kondo does advocate clearing out far more stuff than I ever would. She has her clients reduce their belongings to the essentials; in fact, her recipe for reducing your library and hiding what’s left in the closet makes me feel like a character from Fahrenheit 451. And her habit of personifying possessions falls somewhere between endearing and daft; she thanks items she’s giving away and worries how the rest like to be stored. Sometimes she seems a little OCD; she unpacks her handbag every night and repacks it every morning—a ritual that had me muttering, “There’s NO WAY this woman has kids.”

But I do like Kondo’s sympathetic tone and graceful prose. Many of her ideas are interesting, like arranging clothing in a drawer so they stand side by side, rather than in piles; I might try that one of these days. Kondo advises against such a piecemeal approach; she says you should organize your entire house once, and you’ll never have to do it again. That’s too much for this slob.

But the idea of eliminating things that don’t spark joy—that’s a keeper. I’ve already used it to streamline some overstuffed shelves, and, to my surprise, it transformed the decision process. So now I have a new rant: tidying doesn’t have to be tyranny; it’s how you go about it.

 Originally published on

He Knows What It Means to Eat New Orleans: With Eat Dat, Michael Murphy Is Your Guide

Long before “locavore” was a word, before the Food Network made cooking a spectator sport, before Chez Panisse and California cuisine, before even Julia Child and James Beard—a good century or two before what we now think of as the seminal moments on our culinary timeline—there was New Orleans. It’s true that rich and diverse food cultures could be found from sea to shining sea, but New Orleans food was the eat dathaute cuisine of America. Jambalaya, brimming with andouille sausage; shrimp gumbo, thick with okra or file; crawfish étouffée, creamy, savory and utterly delicious; less fancy but no less satisfying muffaletta and po’boy sandwiches; oysters so rich (and green) they were named for Rockefeller; sweet, delectable pralines; boozy, buttery, flaming bananas Foster—these are but a few of the reasons that New Orleans was long the culinary destination of the nation.

Today, food has become our national obsession, and a visit to NOLA is just one of a multitude of boxes to be checked on a foodie bucket list. Really, though, New Orleans should still be near the top of that list.

As Michael Murphy reports in Eat Dat: New Orleans: A Guide to the Unique Food Culture of the Crescent City (The Countryman Press), the Big Easy is still—even after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina in 2005—one of the most vibrant food towns in the United States—or anywhere, for that matter. Murphy, a former publisher of William Morrow who moved to New Orleans in 2009, has written a guidebook to more than 250 of the city’s eateries. Yet, while it’s organized like a traditional guidebook, with chapters on the city’s neighborhoods and their notable restaurants, it reads like a cross between a work of culinary anthropology and the foodie-gossip column of your dreams.


Michael Murphy

Murphy recounts the history of various New Orleans culinary institutions and tells about the people behind them, both past and present. He sides with New Orleans culinary historian Lolis Eric Elie, who recalibrates the French contribution to the city’s Creole foodways and says that its African citizens should get as much if not more credit for its most famous dishes. Murphy chronicles the long-lived feud that fractured the Brennan family, renowned for such restaurants as Brennan’s and Commander’s Palace. Noted chefs Emeril Lagasse, Paul Prudhomme, the late Jamie Shannon, and Susan Spicer appear on the book’s pages, as do local legends Leah Chase and Willie Mae Seaton.

Murphy tallies the food community’s losses to Katrina—and its inspiring recoveries. And he tells of the city’s grudge against GQ magazine’s restaurant critic, Alan Richman, who visited the city a year into its recovery and gave its foodways a thorough dissing. (He compared it to Tijuana and wondered if, among other things, it was worth rebuilding. Naturally, the citizens of the Big Easy reacted with outrage.)

Murphy himself is New Orleans booster, but a clear-eyed critic of both his adopted city and its restaurants. And a darned amusing one. Of the famed Cafe du Monde and its menu of beignets and chicory coffee, he marvels,” In a city loaded with must do restaurants, bars, music clubs, historical buildings, and horse-drawn or airboat propelled tourist rides, somehow sitting under a green-and-white awning at a too-small, unclean table, served by waiters who seem more suited to wordlessly taking your ticket at the Superdome, eating a small square hunk of deep-fried dough smothered with powdered sugar has become the #1 must do experience in New Orleans.” (Of course I laughed out loud at this, but I am one who thinks it’s fine for tourists to do touristy things. I have a golden memory of my breakfast at Cafe du Monde some years ago. The sun was blazing so brightly that the air around us seemed to shimmer; the beignets were moments out of the fryer, tender-crisp and sweet; and a jazz trumpeter of modest talents was serenading us with all his heart and soul from the street. It was hardly the best food of my visit, but all together, the morning was just about perfect.)

If you are headed for New Orleans, Murphy’s guidebook has several useful features. An appendix offers best-of lists in 25 categories, selected not by Murphy, but by a panel of local food commentators that he convened for the book. And he concludes each restaurant entry with a pithy “Reason to Go” and “What to Get.” Just one example: Willie Mae’s Scotch House, a modest but well-loved eatery (it received a James Beard Foundation “America’s Classic” award a few months before being destroyed by Katrina, and was rebuilt by volunteers with donations from around the country) gets this summation: “Reason to Go: A fried chicken Holy Shrine. What to Get: In line early (before the 11:00 a.m. opening) The place only seats twenty-eight people.”

You’ll wish he could sit in one of those seats next to you. With his deep knowledge of New Orleans and irreverent wit, Murphy makes a delightful travel companion. You will read this book with pleasure, whether you are actually traveling to New Orleans or just dreaming of that perfect beignet, curled up in your armchair at home.

Originally published on

Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

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