Friday, August 28, 2009

for love of julia

Hi Guys-

Well, it’s happened, five years after her death and thirty eight years after it was first published, Julia Child’s quintessential French cookbook, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ has made it to the New York Times bestseller list.

To this day, it remains the only cookbook to explain how to create authentic French dishes in American kitchens with American ingredients. By teaching techniques of French cooking, Julia Child singlehandedly turned American housewives into gourmet cooks.

I used to race home from school to watch old reruns of Julia (as I called her) cooking everything from soufflé to lobster (yikes, that was awful, I must say). She was masterful and goofy, funny and wise, graceful and clumsy and I loved her and her cooking. I was hooked, something that many people who make their livings in kitchens will admit.

I remember meeting Julia for the first time. I was brand new to television and we were both at a national public television event. I was dying to meet her. As I stood in a hallway one day, lo and behold, Julia Child was walking toward me in all her height and eccentric splendor. She was with a young woman and as she strode past me, she said,’ Now remember, I want to meet that new young woman who doesn’t cook with butter.’

I wanted to scream, ‘That’s me!!!!’ But I didn’t. I walked up and introduced myself in a civilized way, completely starstruck. Julia was warm and cordial and asked if we could talk about her favorite ingredient. The young woman with her warned that she had about ten minutes to spare. Two hours later, (well after I stopped picturing Dan Akroyd’s famous portrayal of her…), Julia asked me if she should give up butter for her health. We both laughed as she realized that at 87 years of age, she was doing something right.

That meeting sticks with me because I remember being most impressed by her love of all food…of course, only good food. She had no time or patience for junk food of any kind. I often wonder what she would think of the swill we have peddled to us as food. Not much, I suspect.

And so now a movie has been made about her greatest recipes, based on a blog by a young woman whose life was going nowhere and decided to cook her way through Julia’s masterpiece cookbook. And now this same bible of cooking has finally become a bestseller.

It’s interesting to me that in a time when fewer and fewer people are cooking that Julia’s homage to great food has risen to such heights. And at a time when diabetes, obesity and heart disease are epidemics, people are buying a book that celebrates all the foods we now know do not serve our health.

Is it to own a bit of history? A bit of Julia? Is it because Meryl Streep so beautifully channeled our godmother of cooking? Does this new status for ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ mean a return to cooking from scratch?

And what about the ingredients so essential to Julia’s way of cooking. Butter, lard, organ meats, cured meats, all manner of heart clogging foods are falling out of fashion. They are, aren’t they? We want healthier fare, don’t we?

We can’t afford to cook the way Julia did. We don’t live in the innocent 1950’s when food was authentic and not manufactured, when butter wasn’t laced with growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids, when beef was grass-fed and thereby lower in saturated fat. We no longer live in the world where the cook of the house shops daily for the freshest ingredients and cooks from scratch. We live in a world of fast food, junk food, deep-fried oreos and 600-calorie coffee drinks. We live in world that is literally groaning under our collective mass and is slowly dying from the way we produce and manufacture food.

Julia learned her love of food and cooking when food was simply food and we cooked it and ate it. In our modern world, food is entertainment…we watch chefs working against the clock cooking food that we can’t even identify and where the new style of high cuisine is sous-vide, a method by which food is vacuum packed and then cooked at low temperatures for a long time in boil bags after which some searing or other ‘finish’ cooking used to complete the dish. Really, back to boil bags? And we worship the chefs using this new method, from Thomas Keller to Charlie Trotter.

When did we lose touch with all that Julia stood for: actually learning to cook and mastering that art? Whether you agree with her choice of ingredients or not…and I mostly don’t (and she would disagree with me that healthy food is necessary. She believed that all food, in moderation, was the key), we all have to respect what she stood for and the gift she gave us. She taught us that the kitchen wasn’t a scary place reserved for white coats and French accents. She taught us that anyone could cook.

It’s time to head back to the kitchen, dust off your copy of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking;’ adapt the recipes to create healthy meals and pay homage to our great Julia by mastering your own art of cooking.

Buon Appetit!


Tuesday, August 18, 2009

what will it take?

hi guys!

Sorry to be off radar...I have been crazy busy and just the thought of blogging made my head hurt...but I am we go!

I try not to judge. People are where they are in their evolution. I consider that all the time and carefully measure my words and actions to accommodate that fact. But sometimes I wonder what people are thinking.

I just returned from teaching on a cruise ship. I know what you’re thinking. What was that cruise line smoking when they invited me, the queen of bad news for junk food eaters, onto one of those floating binge palaces to teach healthy cooking? I thought the same thing.

My first class was on the first day we were at sea. I convinced myself that the first attendance would be light, first morning and all; people struggling to find their way around the ship. But I walked onstage to a packed room, filled the brim with people ready to be entertained and educated about healthy cooking. Class was totally fun. The people asked thoughtful, concerned questions about health. Who knew?

But before we get all warm and fuzzy about change; hang on. After class, I had free time. So my husband and I took up seats on the ninth deck overlooking the sea…and it turns out, the buffet dining room. Yikes!

Granted, there is everything a person could possibly want to eat displayed in a most enticing manner. From lamb chops to chocolate mousse and everything in between: pasta, pizza (at least 4 varieties), bread, pastries, cold cuts, eggs, omelettes, bacon, sausage, French toast and waffles, the lines for food were endless…unless you were interested in the salad bar. The crisp, fresh greens sat abandoned next to little bowls of glistening chickpeas and kidney beans, nuts and seeds, unless they were smothered in ranch dressing.

It got me to thinking. This obsession with excess goes far beyond our desire to eat our ‘money’s worth.’ It goes beyond the desire to ‘treat ourselves’ and beyond the attitude of ‘I’m on vacation; I’m entitled to all of this…and more.’ It was clear that people were making their choices; the cruise line didn’t have a gun to their heads forcing them into the fried food line.

What entitles people to abuse the one body given them in this life? And what makes people want to do that to themselves? I watched one gentleman, a perfectly nice guy (you could tell, just from his eyes that he was a sweetie), huff and puff his way across the deck to a chair, one hand holding 8, count them…8 large sugar cookies, while the other hand balanced an ice cream-filled waffle cone. His breath short, his gait labored, I watched him struggle to his seat. Flopping down, he dove into his food, but not with relish, more with a pained look on his face, like every bite added to his discomfort just as each bite added to his substantial girth.

I got to wondering as I watched this pattern repeated time after time, person after person, almost in a pained obligation to excess. As bloated bodies waddled from food station to food station, their plates groaning under the sheer volume of stuff on them, I couldn’t figure out what continued to drive them. At what point did they lose hope? After they lost control? Is it after the first 15 pounds lands on their butts and bellies? The first 20? When do you say to yourself, ‘this is what I am meant to be’ and just let go?

At what point in life do you decide that the mere seconds of sensory gratification on your tongue is worth your health and quality of life? I can’t believe that people don’t know any better, that they have no idea that what they are eating (overeating) is creating so many of their problems, from aches and pains to diabetes and heart disease.

Look, I know that a cruise may not have been the best place for me to observe people and their eating habits. I know that the reputation on a cruise is that people eat as much and as often as they can. And I know that most people go on cruises for that reason; the glaciers, national parks, beaches and landmarks take a definite back seat to what’s for breakfast, lunch and dinner.

Look, everyone loves to eat (almost everyone anyway…) and food is meant to be yummy, sexy and satisfying. I love food, good food, tasty food as much as the next guy. But when that love of eating exceeds all natural limits and robs you of your health and vitality, it’s time to wake up and examine what you are doing. With the average American consuming 4400 calories a day (twice what they need to maintain their weight), it begs the question of how much is enough?

And don’t even think of giving me the argument that healthy food is elitist and expensive. Sure, I can’t compete with a 99-cent burger and fries combo, but what is your health worth? You can either invest in healthy eating now…or you can pay the price later…with your health and your healthcare premiums. I am tired of paying for people’s bypass surgeries that could have been avoided had they just eaten a healthier diet. And I ain’t even talking about being vegan. I am just talking about eating real food and not as much.

I was watching Bill Maher the other night and he was talking about how healthy people are demonized and ridiculed, like we’re no fun, the bad news at this party of excess that marketing has created. In his more than sarcastic and eloquent way, he said that Americans think it’s their right to eat poorly and excessively and be fat.

How sad for us if that is true.