Discovering Julia Child

My mother has been on a bit of a Julia Child kick lately, apparently partly in response to a new movie which we haven’t seen. To us, she’s one of those names you’ve always heard of but really have no specific concept of. So when Joanna noticed a DVD collection of Julia Child episodes at the public library, we decided to experience the phenomenon for ourselves.

Six episodes later, we were quite impressed. I’m really not one for how-to TV shows, and expected to be at best mildly interested for historical value. But her show did an excellent job of being engaging and useful, with the right blend of showmanship and practical information. There was very little of the pomp and circumstance I normally associate with TV, simply a practical walkthrough of complicated yet basic recipes and methods. We watched shows on making sausage, making tripe, cooking lobster, roasting chicken, preparing Beef Bourguignon, and preparing whole fish, and learned a few very useful new things in every one (such as the trick of blanching whole pearl onions to make skinning them whole far easier).

I was immediately inspired to try Beef Bourguignon, which I did with some fresh venison and our own pearl onions. It was good, but for the work involved I’m not sure it was that much better than the basic braised venison I make with a red wine-juniper berry sauce that takes a few hours rather than a whole day.

We were also inspired to try sausage-making, which I’ll write about in another post. Also using fresh venison, this turned out fantastically with the inspiration from Julia and the detailed guidance of Michael Ruhlman’s book Charcuterie, which I dusted off from its neglected corner of our cookbook shelf.

Beyond the cooking tips, we found the show to be a fascinating look into the American food system in the 60’s. We noticed many things that Julia took for granted which are gone now, and other things which have developed.

For example, she made the now-quaint observation that chicken-butchering laws were different in each state, and the viewer should find out whether their state’s laws are sound or loose. This, of course, operates on the assumption that the chicken you buy at the grocery store COMES from your state, or is butchered in your state, which is rarely the case anymore.

She also assumed that viewers had access to an independant butcher who cut up whole animals as a matter of course, such that you could get unusual or interesting pieces or cuts just by asking. That is certainly not the case anymore in most of the country.

We also noticed that she was very laissez-faire regarding kitchen cleanliness, blithely handling all sorts of raw meat with her bare hands and going all over the kitchen touching everything without ever washing her hands or wiping anything down. In later-dated episodes she started using a towel to wipe her hands off after handling meat, and making mention that raw meat could be dangerous, but it was still a far cry from today’s baseline opinion of raw meat. The shows we watched probably couldn’t be aired today without a disclaimer about food safety, or at least without a serious sanitzer bath for the whole kitchen after every episode.

All in all, it was a fascinating look into an influential part of American food history, and we learned a lot. Hopefully we can find more episodes for long winter nights that cry out for interesting new cooking ideas.

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