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.

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com

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Hot Comfort: An Adoption Story

Is Chinese baby formula dairy or soy based? The question occurred to me so suddenly and with such force that I had to check myself to make sure that I hadn’t blurted it aloud. But no. The other parents-to-be sitting in the meeting room in the offices of Spence-Chapin, the venerable New York City adoption agency, were listening undisturbed to our social worker, who was explaining yet another item in the mountain of paperwork we had to complete before we would be put on a waiting list that would eventually result in a trip to China to meet our longed-for daughters. I tried to listen, too, and to take notes, but I couldn’t help picturing an innocent babe, placed into my arms fresh from the orphanage, the only home she’d ever known. Would she like the formula that I’d bring from America for her? Would she recoil at its unfamiliar scent? Oh, God, what if she hated it? What if, in our first hours and days together, when she’d be assaulted by newness at every turn, I couldn’t offer her the comfort of a familiar mouthful of food?

I pictured my baby wailing and hungry and wondered what on earth I would do if that picture became a reality. Resuming my note-taking, I tried to focus on the form under discussion. But the questions stayed with me, and at the end of the session I approached the social worker.

“Is Chinese formula dairy or soy-based?” I asked. “Which should we bring? Will our babies take to American formula?”

“The Chinese formula is dairy based, and most of the babies drink the American just fine,” she answered. “But if your child doesn’t, you can buy formula there and mix it with the formula you bring with you. Then you can gradually reduce the amount of the Chinese. That way she’ll get used to it. By the time you come home, she’ll probably be completely happy with the American brand.”

Oh.

So much for that mom-to-be anxiety attack. But it got me to thinking: If an infant has been taking a particular kind of nourishment for her whole, albeit short, life, what happens when you change that form of nourishment suddenly? To put it in another way, do babies have comfort food?

So much has been made of that term in recent years. Meat loaf and mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese have been rhapsodized and eulogized so often, you’d think they were ambrosia. Of course, what’s comfort to one palate is exotic—or appalling—to another. My Argentinean friend speaks lovingly of the blood sausage and tripe, but he gags at the mere mention of root beer, my childhood favorite. For some souls out there on this small planet, comfort food is the roasted, carefully browned rat that I saw for sale at a street market outside Bangkok. (A case of chacun a son goût if ever there was one.) But while the foodstuff might vary, the idea is the same no matter where you go—comfort food is the food of home. It’s what we ate in our earliest experience of the restorative powers of the table, before, well, whatever came afterward.

I thought about this as I drove home from the agency with my folders of paperwork: Do babies develop food preferences? Can they form taste memories even as their first teeth are coming in? In short, can they have comfort food?

A few months later in China, my child answered my question—and it had nothing to do with baby formula. It happened on the third night after I got Jessica. We were settled into our hotel in the capital city of the province where she was born, waiting for all the official paperwork necessary to finalize her adoption. On that evening, my sister (who had accompanied me to China) and I went down to a late supper in the hotel dining room, with baby Jessica in her stroller. We were dining late because my newly acquired eight-month-old had had a late nap. When she woke up, I had fumbled my way through a diaper change and her dinner—a bottle of formula mixed with rice cereal, some puréed peas and mashed bananas—which, despite my lack of finesse, she seemed to enjoy. The peas necessitated a thorough sponge bath, and when that was done, we dressed her again and set off for our own meal. It was after nine. By that time, we didn’t feel like anything complicated, so we just ordered big bowls of noodle soup.

The dining room was tranquil and nearly empty, and the three of us sat companionably waiting for the food, Jessica content with a full tummy, or so I thought. But when the waitress came to our table with two steaming bowls, my tiny baby let out a series of large, loud screams.

Our few fellow diners turned to stare. In the three days I had known this child, such a thing had never happened. Was she suddenly sick? In pain? Just cranky? After a few moments of new-mommy terror, I realized the obvious. She wanted the soup. A one-page “bio” of my baby that had come from her orphanage had mentioned that her diet included soup, but the information had been sketchy, and I was a strict and nervous follower of my baby books. These advised introducing single foods, not blends; the better to identify the cause in case Baby had an allergic reaction. So Jessica had been drinking formula mixed with rice cereal and eating simple baby-food purées and mashed bananas.

My heart was overflowing. This tiny being, so trusting and innocent in the face of everything new—new mommy, new auntie; a new crib after so many months spent in the orphanage issue; the new surroundings of the hotel, with its shiny brass fixtures and mirrored halls; rides in elevators with doors that opened and closed; rides on buses with their smells of diesel fuel; a new stroller with belts and buckles; forays in that stroller over bumpy sidewalks to vast green parks and bustling department stores; new clothes and new diapers; new toys—almost everything she had encountered over the past three days was cosmically different from what she had experienced for the first months of her life. Yet, she had greeted each new phenomenon with smiles and coos. And now she smelled soup and saw the big bowls, and she knew what it was, and she wanted it.

I blew on it to cool it and spooned a bit into her mouth. Instantly, she was calm. We shared the rest of the bowl. How powerful, I thought, was the appeal of something delicious, even for so tiny a person.

When we came home to Connecticut, I made a big pot of my mother’s chicken noodle soup—my own comfort food, but not so very different from the noodle soup we’d shared in China. My daughter dove in, eating the noodles with her fingers.

And now I know: Babies surely do have comfort food. For mine, it was soup. And not age or language or nationality—nothing—could stop her from trying to taste it.

Copyright Karen Berman 2012. Permission is required to reproduce part or all of this essay.

Here’s to the Ladies Who Latke

I was making my lists for our family holiday gathering a few days ago, and as I went over the menu—old-fashioned brisket and potato latkes—it occurred to me (a writer of cookbooks) that the two women whose cooking most influenced my Chanukah repertoire probably never consulted a cookbook in their lives.

In my grandmothers’ day, cooking from cookbooks, or even written recipes, was hardly a universal practice. Girls learned to cook by helping in the kitchen and by the time they had kitchens of their own, they had mastered the art. Of course, there were books to consult if a cook was so inclined; recipe collections had been around for at least a millennium and a half. But cookbooks didn’t figure in my grandmothers’ world. How could they? There was no money, at least not in their early years, and anyway, neither one could read much English; one could barely read at all. My grandmothers kept their recipes in their heads. Their hands and eyes were their only measuring tools.
Fannie, my mother’s mother, and Sarah, my father’s mother, had both sailed from Eastern Europe in the first years of the 20th century. They did not know each other until my parents met and married, but their young lives followed oddly similar trajectories. Both were barely into their teens when they crossed the Atlantic in steerage class, two among millions of immigrants who landed at Ellis Island hoping to better their lives. Years later, Fannie recalled being seasick for most of her journey. Sarah remembered how she and her younger sister, traveling alone, were detained at Ellis Island, waiting, terrified, for an older brother who was already settled in America to come and get them. Fannie could read Yiddish; she had had some schooling in her hometown of Lemburg, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.
Sarah, born in a shtetl in Poland, lost her mother when she was three, and never had any schooling. Both were sent to live with their older sisters in America, Fannie to Brooklyn, and Sarah to Scranton, Pennsylvania. Both elder sisters quickly pronounced them too old for school and conscripted them to help with the housework. But both of my grandmothers rebelled. Fannie enrolled in night school and learned to read a bit of English; she found work as a seamstress in a Lower East Side factory. Sarah, deeply offended by her sister’s refusal to let her go to school, jumped at a neighbor’s offer of domestic work and became a wage earner.In time, both married and had children, but the American streets that they traveled were hardly paved with gold.
At the height of the Depression, Fannie’s husband died, leaving her with six children, the youngest of whom—my mother—was just six months old. With no pension in those pre-Social Security days, she survived on public assistance, plus the after-school wages of the elder children and her own genius for household management. Around the same time, Sarah’s husband suffered a heart attack. Medical wisdom at the time held that heart patients needed rest. So my grandfather retired from the silk mills of Paterson, New Jersey, where they lived by then, and Sarah became the breadwinner. Rising at dawn each day, she left her cold-water flat spotlessly clean and readied her two children for school before going off to her factory job.
As years passed, my grandmothers’ lives became easier. By the time I was on the scene, both took pleasure in setting bountiful tables for family. They were both gifted cooks and more important, loving grandmothers. That was what I knew of them. That, and the magical holiday gatherings, full of aunts, uncles and cousins all having a lively, noisy time—and eating latkes.
I look up from my Chanukah list-making, at my kitchen bookshelves overflowing with cookbooks. In the next room, more shelves are stocked with all sorts of books. How much of my life has been spent reading and writing—cookbooks and other books, for work and for pleasure. How much I owe to the two ladies whose courage and strength laid the foundation for the many extraordinary opportunities I’ve had. I close my eyes and I see Fannie reading her Yiddish newspaper intently, chuckling at the advice column one minute and the next poring over the lists of Holocaust survivors, always hoping to find the name of a missing loved one. I see Sarah, determined in her eighties to make up for her lack of schooling, working with a young volunteer, struggling to learn how to write her name. Now, a lifetime later, their lives seem to me to be nothing less than heroic.
I never got Sarah’s recipe for latkes. I know that she added baking powder to the basic potato batter; the leavening made her latkes rise just a bit, and rendered them dense, chewy and delicious. Fannie’s latkes were different: light, crisp and luscious. I have her recipe; my mother transcribed it and made it her own. Now it’s my recipe, and my sister’s. And it occurs to me, as I continue making my lists, that as many cookbooks as I may own or acquire, I’ll never need one for potato latkes.
Bubby Fannie’s Potato Latkes
2 large potatoes
1 medium onion
1 egg
Matzoh meal
Salt, if desired, to taste
Oil for frying
Sour cream, for serving
Applesauce, for serving
Grate the potato and onion into a mixing bowl. (Fannie insisted on a hand grater, maintaining that a blender will not give the proper consistency. But she did not have a food processor. I do, and I use mine for this recipe. You can use the shredding blade.)
Add the egg and beat with a fork. Add the matzoh meal and salt, if you’re using it. The batter should be thick, not watery, so you should add as much as is needed, judging by the texture of the batter as you go along. Mix all of the ingredients together. (That would be about 1½ tablespoons matzoh meal and about ½ teaspoon salt.)
Heat the oil in a large frying pan over medium heat. Spoon the batter in heaping tablespoons into the pan and fry. (Don’t crowd the pan too much; work in batches as necessary.) When the edges start to brown, turn with a spatula and fry on the other side. When the latkes are golden brown, remove from the oil with the spatula and place on paper towels to drain the excess oil. Repeat with remaining batter. Serve hot with sour cream and applesauce.
This post originally appeared on BookTrib.com.