“I have brought this all on myself, all because of some silly whim, and frankly, I’m terrified. — Julia Child”
— Jodi Walker
I don’t own a big pot. Or rather, I didn’t own a big pot at the time I decided to cook my way through HBO Max’s Julia Child biopic series, Julia, which airs its finale this week. What I am in possession of is a deep emotional bond to the 2009 film Julie & Julia starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell, a writer who decides to cook her way through Child’s seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Because Julie & Julia is about two things that I love (food and blogging) and precisely one thing that I barely tolerate (cooking). So, when I discovered that Julia more or less amounted to Julie & Julia without the Julie parts, I—as the bearer of a J-alliterative-name, a Tumblr Certificate of Authenticity for Blogging Between the Years of 2011 and 2014, and a theoretically functional kitchen—knew what I had to do …
During the height of the COVID-19 quarantine, when people were pouring their pain into making banana bread, I was not doing that. I was blissfully unaware there was a yeast shortage, and instead of sharpening my culinary skills, I rearranged every square inch of my house—excluding the kitchen, for which I hold a deep disinterest. Why, then, would I think that I could successfully source, purchase, prepare, cook, and serve a meal of sweetbreads à la Julia in just a few weeks’ time? Well, frankly, I didn’t, but this wasn’t about that (she told herself willfully while not Googling what sweetbreads are despite knowing, deep down, that they are something gross). I’ve been curious, for quite some time, how it’s possible that I love food and flavor and eating so much, but am so disinterested in the timeless task of cooking. Why does it only ever feel like a chore to me when so many other people love it? Why do I derive no pleasure from it? Shouldn’t I desire to be a more capable cook? Shouldn’t I want that for myself?
In her 2020 article about cooking fatigue, The New Yorker’s food correspondent Helen Rosner wrote that, in the good times, what she loves most about cooking is that it’s a puzzle to be solved: “A strategic navigation of ingredients, expiration dates, uses and reuses, variety and sameness.” I relate to the sentiment because that’s how I feel about writing; it’s how I feel about interior decorating, or getting dressed for an event, or I swear to you, cross-stitching. It’s how I feel about sourcing Persian rugs on Facebook Marketplace, of which I acquired two during the course of this experiment because I needed to feel the sort of accomplishment that I simply cannot find while navigating ingredients, expiration dates, and whether my oven actually runs 100 degrees hotter than the dial says it does. Having to provide myself with three meals a day feels like a scam. Reading Ms. Rosner’s article, and seeing normally inspired home cooks flock to Twitter to ask, “Wait, how are people feeding themselves right now?” I felt a rush of communal understanding. Or in a less generous view: a sick kind of schadenfreude.
But I knew deep down that those people had just burned out on cooking, and their inspiration would eventually reignite—whereas I’d never even lit the fire to begin with. So when I turned on Julia to find Sarah Lancashire performing a pitch-perfect Julia Child, banging her way through becoming an culinary icon, warm and welcoming in her desire to show home cooks how to get inspired in the kitchen, I thought what so many hopeful American women have thought over the last 60 years: Maybe Julia can teach me.
I didn’t grow up in a PBS household. Everything I know about Julia Child, I’ve learned from the bounty of scripted and unscripted content surrounding her legacy. In just the past six months, our streaming services have been on the receiving end of a sunny documentary called Julia, a different new TV series also called Julia, and a slightly alarming but actually quite fun reality TV competition, The Julia Child Challenge, in which old clips of Julia rule over a kitchen full of contestants like the Great and Powerful Oz. Before that, there was “Julie & Julia” the blog and Julie & Julia the movie; and before that, there were Julia Child’s own bevy of books, and of course, the one show that rules over them all: The French Chef.
From some combination of these, I’ve learned that Julia Child had the voice of an excitable flute and the stature of a Themysciran Amazon. She was innately talented and instinctual as a chef, but also clumsy, willing to make mistakes, and wholly relatable to her TV audience. She was a champion of reproductive rights, and a person who, in the latter half of her life, continued to grow and evolve her perception of the changing world around her. Julia was, often, openly horny for her husband Paul, who, in turn, was even more horny for her. Together, they were horny for French food, a passion that developed when Paul was stationed in Paris after he and Julia met working for the Office of Strategic Services, a.k.a., the precursor to the CIA, where Julia—no lie—helped developed shark repellent for the government.
My beloved Julie & Julia spans the nine long years it took for Child to get Mastering the Art of French Cooking published, plus the 365 days Julie Powell spent cooking its 524 recipes. The most recent adaptation of Julia Child’s story covers the nine months Julia spent willing her PBS series The French Chef into existence, forever changing the way Americans experienced food. And in the turducken of parasocial experiments, I have tasked myself with drafting off all of that passion, experience, and growth by spending the next three weeks cooking the eight title recipes from Julia … a three-week journey in which I will nearly burn my eyebrows off, actually burn the ends of my hair off, scream real big one time, get wobbly-voiced on the phone with a butcher, and inexplicably break an entire oven. Because unlike Julie Powell, I don’t already love cooking, I’m pretty content with my life as it is, and I’m not married to Chris Messina (YET). But I am looking for a few answers, and wondering if I might find them at the bottom of my new big pot.
I don’t want you to think that just because I don’t technically enjoy cooking I’m completely unprepared for this mission. I do own a food processor, which I use thrice annually to make refried beans. I have knives; they are from a limited-time Anthropologie set and printed with fruits, but they are knives. My 120-year-old house does not, per se, have a dishwasher, which was something I didn’t fully take into account when I pitched the idea to cook a bunch of huge, weird dishes. There’s nothing to be done about that, but after taking stock of the rest of my kitchen situation, I acquire these things, in this order:
- A copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, now in its 61st year of publication, from a bookstore
- The aforementioned big pot, a.k.a. a dutch oven, from HomeGoods
- A pastry scraper, a pastry brush, and a set of mixing bowls from HomeGoods
- A pack of 20 microfiber towels from HomeGoods that, to this point in my life, may be the best investment I’ve ever made
- A big-ass sautéing pan, a tiny whisk, and a potato masher from HomeGoods
- A chambray apron with pockets that I found on my way to the checkout line at HomeGoods
Clearly, I do not know where one gets kitchen supplies if not from HomeGoods. (Suggestions are welcome, but please know that the Williams Sonoma website makes my ears start ringing.) When HomeGoods did not have a soufflé dish, I was like, “Well, I guess I’ll just have to bake this chocolate soufflé in my hands now.”
But deep down, I know that I’m spending so much time making trips to HomeGoods because I’m scared to start the actual cooking. Instead of starting with one of my assigned Julia meals, I start with a confidence booster, making the only meal I’ve ever perfected in my own kitchen: a kale Caesar salad. The “recipe” comes from combining my favorite Sweetgreen salad from yuppie-hood and another salad from my high school years spent frequenting the Waco, Texas, Cheddar’s. I will now share this recipe with you:
- Any amount of shredded kale you want
- Any amount of sliced romaine you want
- Any amount of any prepared protein you want
- A smattering of sturdy noodles (cooked) like cavatappi, farfalle, or penne
- Cherry tomatoes, halved diagonally
- THIS PART IS VERY IMPORTANT: combine one part Ken’s Creamy Caesar dressing with one part Ken’s Lite Caesar vinaigrette and a hefty squeeze of lemon
- THIS PART IS EVEN MORE IMPORTANT: Make parmesan crisps by preheating your oven to 350 degrees, buttering a piece of aluminum foil on a baking sheet, and forming a few shallow piles of shredded parmesan cheese on the foil. When I first tried to make parmesan crisps, I used wax paper because I thought it was the same as parchment paper and almost smoked myself out of house and home. They are not the same! After that, instead of trying parchment paper, or even just trying plain aluminum foil, I buttered the foil. And I shan’t be looking back now because these parmesan crisps are genuinely one of the most decadent things I’ve ever tasted, made from just three ingredients (parmesan, butter, foil)
- Crumble crisped parmesan rounds into salad, toss to combine
I make and consume this kale Caesar salad three times before building up enough mental fortitude to start my journey with Julia.
Episode 1: “Omelette”
“A good French omelette is a smooth, gently swelling, golden oval that is tender and creamy inside.” —Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Perhaps my initial fear was a little unfounded given that I’m starting exactly where Julia did: with a simple omelet. In Episode 1 of Julia, Julia Child heads to her local Boston proto-PBS affiliate to film an “I’ve Been Reading” segment about her cookbook, hosted by stuck-up Boston College professor Albert Duhamel. Julia throws eggs, butter, a copper mixing bowl, and a skillet in her bag just before leaving the house, and with the help of associate producer Alice Naman, commandeers a hot plate upon arrival. While calling Professor Duhamel “Duke” over and over, much to his chagrin, Julia proceeds to find an outlet, beat eggs in a bowl in her lap, and make a perfect French omelet live on air, forever changing the course of public television.
Technically, what Julia makes Duke is a rolled omelet (L’omelette Roulée), which involves grasping the pan and vigorously jerking it toward you over the heat at “one jerk per second” until the eggs roll into submission. Julia tells Duke he looks like “a three-egg man,” which coincidentally, is exactly how I myself identify at lunchtime. But when I make the three-egg omelet, it’s huge, and difficult to roll into Julia’s desired aesthetic. I start over, making a two-egg omelet despite knowing I’m a three-egg man. “You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan,” Julia writes in Mastering, and she’s not kidding. You’ve really gotta throw this thing in a circle to get it rolled.
I take a photo of the two-egg omelet, eat a bite, realize I completely over-salted it, and then eat the three-egg omelet instead. It’s delicious: lightly coagulated as promised, somehow tasting like a funnel cake. This is my first lesson that when something is simple, one small mistake can ruin it, and when something is complicated (non-baking category), you can basically stir it with a shoe because there will be plenty of opportunities to correct errors along the way.
Episode 2: “Coq Au Vin”
“Dare I say, it’s just about the most delicious coq I’ve ever put in my mouth, and that’s saying something.” —Julia
In every video I watched of an amateur chef making coq au vin, in every supplementary recipe I read, and even in Episode 2 of Julia, I am told that the best part of making coq au vin—chicken in red wine—is that you can drink the wine while preparing it. So when I bought all of my ingredients at 9 p.m., decided that was way too late to start cooking a four-hour dish, and settled in with a glass of Côtes du Rhône to read over Julia’s recipe 100 more times before I started cooking the next morning, I just thought: Aah, the simple pleasures of being an accomplished chef …
WRONG! This recipe calls for three cups of wine, which is a bottle of wine. So unless you buy two bottles of the same wine, you can’t really drink any, and even if you did, then you’re just drinking wine like it’s any other day! Of course, I discovered all of this after I read the first line of the recipe.
I took many (not very good) photos of my Julia dishes along the way, but I wish I had a photo of my own face when I read the phrase: “Sauté the bacon in butter.” That, to me, reads kind of like, “mix the aioli with mayonnaise,” or “wrap the chicken in another chicken.” But twice throughout this process, I had to repeat this course of action that goes against all of my (admittedly limited) cooking instincts:
- Slice bacon into small slivers
- Boil the bacon
- Drain the bacon
- Sauté the boiled bacon in butter
- Remove the bacon
- Add it randomly back in later
Julia’s challenge in Episode 2 is, after pitching the idea for a cooking show, figuring out how to teach America to make a four-hour dish in a 28-minute episode of television. With the help of Paul, Alice, her best friend Avis, and her iconic editor Judith Jones, they come up with the now-signature method of preparing the dish in various advanced stages to swap in throughout the show. For me, the most challenging parts of this dish include smelling hot wine before 10 a.m. and continually rocketing tiny pearl onions into my living room like stinky bullets as I attempt to peel 25 of them to go in this coq au vin. The recipe calls for preparing the onions and mushrooms separately, the first of which takes 50 minutes, the second of which takes 10 minutes, and both of which you’re advised to do during a 30-minute timeframe while the chicken is cooking separately. The math is not mathing, Julia. But once everything comes together and the wine reduces into a stewy sauce and then soaks in its own flavors for a few additional hours …
The coq au vin is good! I generally don’t love eating chicken off the bone with silverware, but this chicken is so tender it falls right off the moment you touch fork to drumstick. It’s also time consuming: Without the aid of Paul, Avis, Alice, and Judith, it took me all of four hours. Plus a bit of my hair, because when I lean over to blow the candles out after dinner, I briefly set some of my curls ablaze. As Julia says in her debut episode of The French Chef: “Que será, será.”
Episode 3: “Boeuf Bourguignon”
“I don’t know if I can do all this. When do I write it? When do I sleep?” —Julia [and Jodi]
Pro tip: Boeuf bourguignon and coq au vin are almost the exact same dish, with the exact same preparations and ingredients—just sub coq for boeuf and add a few carrots. But again, I didn’t realize that when I got started, because when it comes to understanding the total sum of a recipe’s parts, my brain simply turns to boiled and buttered bacon. So I run into a slight timing mishap wherein I have to leave the beouf bourguignon in the oven while I go to a Pilates class. There, gliding back and forth on a reformer, I spend the entire restorative hour fading between a meditative state and wondering if I can smell smoke from down the street because my house is burning down. I decide that if I hear sirens, I will leave class.
On the way home, having heard no sirens, I head into my neighborhood butcher, an establishment that I have been too intimidated to enter for two years for fear of sounding dumb about meat in front of another human. I’ve also always assumed that getting meat from an actual butcher would cost about $1,000, but in reality, 2.5 pounds of chuck cost me $34, which means my mind runs on $966 inflation when I consider doing things the right way. As my now-beloved butcher cuts the chuck into perfect 1.5- to 2-inch cubes, I self-consciously tell him that I know spring isn’t the most logical time to serve beouf bourguignon, and he reassures me by suggesting a lighter wine that he says “holds up to stews.”
And I’ll be honest: until that moment I didn’t actually know beouf bourguignon was a stew. It really is just loose pennies rolling around upstairs when I’m reading a recipe. I just follow the rules one at a time and hope for the best. And at the end of three oven hours and a few extra stewing hours, the beouf is by far my favorite dish to date. It’s savory and rich; the beef is tender and luscious, and compliments the red wine sauce better than the chicken. I felt like June Cleaver serving it to my friends with mashed potatoes over candlelight on a perfect spring night. But Jodi & Julia & June is another blog for another time, with a cuter apron.
Episode 4: “Petit Fours”
“Yumma, yumma, yumma.” —A review from my friend’s baby, who doesn’t know any better
I got cocky. The last two recipes were time-consuming, sure, but obviously they required no special skills, and jerking an omelet around is just about eggs and confidence. You know what I’m not confident in? My ability to turn a liquid into a solid with only my bare hands and a sliver of metal.
In French, petit fours means “small oven,” but technically you make these miniature-sized cakes in a normal-sized oven. However, things start off badly when I don’t find a recipe for petit fours in Mastering and come up empty on a Google search for “Julia Child’s petit fours.” Episode 4’s title refers not to a dish Julia makes on a camera, but to the little plate of cakes that she brings in to her staff one day with nary a mention of how she made them. It’s almost like the writers didn’t consider that some blogger out there would Julie & Julia their show. Odd.
I finally discover that on a Season 6 episode of The French Chef, Julia Child makes poured fondant for petit fours, the opaque, semi-hard-shell icing that gives the cakes their high sheen. The arduous process more or less amounts to boiling sugar and corn syrup, pouring it out onto a flat surface, and moving the sugar syrup around with a pastry scraper until it becomes a solid white mass that can be boiled back down to cover the cakes. It looks extremely difficult and a little dangerous; it takes Julia almost the entire episode to make. I’m scared.
But when I pour the sugar syrup out onto the baking sheet (gripped to my kitchen counter with a yoga mat because I don’t have a giant square of marble like Julia), let it rest for 10 minutes, and then start moving it around with the pastry scraper … it turns to “snow” just like it’s supposed to in a few minutes flat!
(This was a false encouragement, and I shouldn’t have trusted it.)
Julia suggests using genoise cake for petit fours in the fondant episode, but because her genoise recipe also isn’t in Mastering, I settle on a non-Julia genoise recipe for some reason. Upon reflection, my alarm bells should have started going off when that recipe told me to whisk egg white until they were “slightly warmer than body temperature.” I’M SORRY, should I DRAW MY BLOOD to compare???
Unfortunately, I can’t blame this failure on body temperature. You remember when I said I learned my lesson about wax paper vs. parchment paper with the parmesan crisps? Well, I didn’t. When the genoise cake recipe instructs to line the bottom of the cake pans with parchment paper, I Google “Can you use wax paper instead of parchment paper to line a cake pan?” because for some reason, I still have only wax paper haunting my kitchen cupboards. And, yes, I only looked at one Google result, but it was from the reputable newspaper THE BALTIMORE SUN, and it told me that reputable parchment paper brand REYNOLDS, “states that wax paper can be used in the oven as long as it never is exposed directly to heat. This means you can use it to line pans when you are baking cakes, brownies or muffins.”
Somebody is lyyyyyying. After separating egg whites and egg yolks to beat to stiff peaks separately, then folding them back together in egg-harmony to bake, the wax paper—which was never exposed directly to heat!—adhered so completely to the bottom of these cakes, they were unsalvageable. Ultimately, I turned to Julia’s butter spongecake recipe from Mastering like I should have done in the first place, which was good, but I have two lingering questions:
- Why would anyone ever not just use boxed cake? It’s so good, and so easy, and you don’t have to separate any eggs. And also …
- What is wax paper for?! When is it ever the solution? They should lock wax paper behind the plastic partition drug stores keep Sudafed in and make you pass a multiple choice test before you can buy it. And, hey—fuck parchment paper too! Is there ever a reason not to just use buttered foil? Have I invented something here? Should I file a patent?
After I cut my cakes in half and fill them with buttercream and lemon curd, freeze them, cut them into tiny cubes and freeze them again, I reheat my Julia fondant to the perfect consistency, dip a cake in, and attempt to get the fondant off with a fork—which proves impossible, so on instinct, I grab it before it falls and burn my fingers so badly that I can’t text for two days. Then, once again following my terrible instincts, I stuff my burning fingers into my mouth to remove the boiled sugar, searing off what I can only assume is a crucial sector of taste buds. I am straight-up Mrs. Doubtfire in this kitchen. I am performing actual pratfalls as my Julia fondant over-boils in the pan, forcing me to resort to a more modern poured fondant recipe I’d been trying to avoid because it involves white chocolate (a cursed ingredient). But in the end, I’m thrilled to tell you …
These little idiots tasted like every other cake. I basically hurl them across my yard at various neighbors the next day so I never have to see them again.
Episode 5: Crepes Suzette
“Avert your face and ignite the liqueur with a lighted match.” —Mastering the Art of French Cooking
The description paragraph for crêpes suzette contains a number of lines from Julia that make me actually laugh out loud, starting with: “Every chef has his own recipe for crêpes suzette.” Do we??? And continuing on to, “Obviously if you plan to perform in public with a chafing dish, it is a good idea to practice on your family until you become adept at folding and flaming.” Obviously. Always practice open flames on your friends and family first! But Julia is right that up until now, I’ve been able to keep all of my spills and thrills in private, whereas crêpes suzette must be completed moments before being served, meaning that, for the first time, I was forced to actually cook in front of the friends I’d invited over for brunch.
As it turns out, crepes are pretty simple to make once you get in the right rhythm of moving the batter around the entire skillet in a thin, even layer. Julia suggests flipping the fragile crepes over with your fingers, but that advice seems reserved for people who didn’t just sear their fingerprints off, so I used small tongs, which works perfectly. Where things get a little dicey is when you move beyond the crepes and into flambéing. I’m not sure who Suzette is, or what she was into, but it’s thanks to her that, after making a delicious ball of orange butter approximately the size of a cantaloupe that I melt down into a sauce pan, and after delicately saucing and folding 12 crepes into quarters around the edge of the pan of sizzling butter … I very nearly burn my eyebrows off and light my whole house on fire.
The recipe clearly instructed me to avert my face, but for some reason I paid it no mind when I stuck the lighter directly into the pan. I think that reason is because I also had to light the coq au vin on fire with brandy, and that produced sweet little blue flames that I listened to crackle for a few moments before gently shaking them out. When my lighter hit the liquor-soaked crepes, however, it produced a flame so large that it engulfed my entire stovetop, blew my hair back, put a layer of heat just under my skin that didn’t depart for hours, and took approximately 1000-jerks-per-second to extinguish …
But given that I didn’t actually burn my eyebrows off, and that the crepes were a rich, sweet, orange-zesty pile of flambéd deliciousness … this is actually something I would make again. Allowing, obviously, that I had practiced lighting enough food fires in front of my friends and family first.
Episode 6: “Breads”
“[Sweetbreads] are a favorite of mine, and we’ve come so far already together that I’m asking you to give them a chance. You may surprise yourself! And isn’t it nice to be surprised?” —Julia
In Episode 6, Julia is tired of teaching people how to make chicken and is tired of being famous. She’s also just tired. The French Chef was supposed to have a week off from recording, but after the film on their last episode is compromised, the team has to spend their week off back in the studio, where Julia informs her producers that she won’t be making chicken again for the rerecord. No, she’s going to make something especially exciting, and especially French.
She’s going to make sweetbreads. Which means that I, too, will be making sweetbreads.
Sweetbreads are neither sweet, nor bread. They are also neither neck organ nor abdominal organ—somehow, they are both. Deriving from either the thymus or pancreas of a calf, sweetbreads are considered a true French delicacy. They also aren’t very easy to find: I finally obtained 3 pounds of thymus after betraying my local butcher by going to another butcher with better prices, then being ghosted by said cheaper butcher, only to have to ask my friend—a doctor—to leave work in order to pick up frozen organ meat for me because the only remaining shop in the tri-city area carrying veal sweetbreads would close before I could get there.
Julia doesn’t specify which sweetbread dish is used in Episode 6, so I select the Mastering recipe for cervelles au beurre noir (calf’s brains in brown butter sauce), in which Julia says sweetbreads are a fine substitute for the calf’s brains. (As a reminder: Three weeks ago, I would not cook a chicken thigh.) Getting delicate, tender sweetbreads with the signature creamy consistency is allegedly all about the prep, and per Mastering and the 100 sweetbreads videos I ruined my YouTube algorithm with, the ideal sweetbread prep method is this:
- Soak the sweetbreads in cold water for 90 minutes, changing out the water every 20 minutes in order to loosen up the filament and membrane
- Remove as much filament and membrane from the sweetbread lobes as possible
- Soak the sweetbreads in cold water for another 90 minutes, adding a tablespoon of vinegar with each water change
- Peel off more loosened filament and membrane
- Blanch the sweetbreads in boiling water, then plunge into an ice bath, at which point they will fully look like brains
Out of respect for you, I won’t embed any photos of the membrane removal process, but every video I watched featured chefs preparing the sweetbreads with a sharp knife and frequent cuts to the membrane. The only method I find that works, however, is a combination of using my bare hands to peel the membrane, a pair of scissors to cut the filament off, and entering a kind of fugue state in order to pretend I’m not doing any of this at all. It is merely meat; it is merely a delicacy; it is merely what Julia has asked me to give a chance, and to also force a table full of friends to give a chance, because one simply cannot eat 3 pounds of organ meat alone.
But after they’re cut into pieces, dredged in flour, sautéed, and covered in brown butter, the sweetbreads taste kind of like a creamier, earthier chicken nugget. They’re good! But the real joy of this meal is that I get to place them atop pieces of toasted French baguette that I made because the “Breads” title of this episode also refers to Paul and Judith Jones perfecting Julia’s French bread recipe for Volume 2 of Mastering while she works on sweetbreads. They used something called an asbestos tile to get it right, but as it turns out, you can ditch the asbestos as long as the weather is a perfect 75 degrees and your porch has turned into an ideal proving drawer, allowing me to leave for long swaths of the eight-hour process, finally without any concern for my house burning down.
Isn’t it nice to be surprised sometimes?
Episode 7: “Foie Gras”
“How do you charm a man who does not find you in the least bit charming?”—Julia
The answer to Julia’s above question turns out to be pâté de foie gras, which she serves to her producer Russ Morash in Episode 2 when trying to convince him that her idea for a public access French cooking show is credible. And even though it sort of works on Russ, I must beg to differ: There have to be more persuasive methods than inhumane duck liver.
But re-creating the foie gras with dark chocolate sauce and bitter orange marmalade that Julia orders at the famous Manhattan French eatery Lutèce in Episode 7 is not awful—it is, however, offal (sorry, sorry I’m trying to delete). Most of the butchers who hadn’t already blocked my number after I asked them about sweetbreads for a week had frozen foie gras available, and one was even willing to band-saw a 2-pound liver in half for me. But even 1 pound of foie gras was way too much, so—having already charmed all the men I needed to charm for the week—I selected the teensiest tin of pâté de foie gras I could find.
The sweet and savory flavors pair well, and the foie gras pâté sears up nicely. If you squint, it could almost be sausage—though it’s not sausage, and it would not be my choice of appetizer.
In order to make it my choice of brunch, however, I did add waffles from my tiny waffle maker. Always add tiny waffles. (Never add tiny cakes.)
Episode 8: “Chocolate Soufflé”
“Butter, sugar, eggs, chocolate; that’s all it is, really. As a matter of fact … you’ve known how to make a chocolate soufflé all along. All you have to do is plunge in. And I’ll tell you another secret: That’s the key not only to the kitchen, but to life itself.” —Julia
Julia is feeling rather sentimental by Episode 8 because she’s decided to call it quits on The French Chef. She’s overworked, under quite a bit of pressure, and has been rocked by Betty Friedan, the author of The Femininine Mystique, telling her that under the guise of empowering women, she’s actually burdening them with even more impossible expectations of time-consuming meals. But I have only myself to blame for the pressure I feel to complete this final task: to make a dessert so delicate that its failure to rise is a frequent sitcom trope. I also blame HomeGoods a little, because it never did come through with that soufflé dish. But my friends come through with ramekins, plus I discover that Julia has tucked a little extra reassurance for me inside her chocolate soufflé recipe. Right there, written in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, are the words: “Surround dish with a collar of buttered aluminum foil.”
Buttered. Aluminum. Foil.
I can’t believe it—somewhere inside of me, in between the burned fingers and the frayed eyebrows, I have one single culinary instinct. Just like Julia. So, color me a different kind of stunned when, just as the ramekins are about to go into the oven I’ve been using all night to make dinner, we discover that, for some reason, the oven is no longer holding heat. As I laugh in a way that I can only assume was … concerning, my friends gather up the ramekins, put them on a baking sheet, and grill the soufflés.
And on this night, on this grill, the most finicky dessert known to French cooking bakes into a perfectly semisweet chocolate cloud. I don’t know how I would have felt if the oven had worked, the soufflés had risen, and I’d gotten the flawless final meal that I’d been stressing myself out about all week. But I know I felt a lot more grateful for this—for the recognition that certain things will always be out of my control, at which point turning to friends and asking for help is a very good option.
And grilled soufflé? Also a very good option. I ate two. They were perfect. Would grill again.
After the soufflé miracle, all the jerking of pans, and the 16 sticks of butter used, I’d like to tell you that my little “Jodi & Julia” project unlocked a heretofore unknown passion for cooking. I’d like to tell you that successfully baking baguettes has made me as passionate about French food as Julia Child’s famous first encounter with sole meunière made her, or that I had the same transcendent experience of accomplishment while de-membraning a thymus that Julie Powell had while deboning a duck on her 365th day of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’d like to tell you I got a book deal! But it’s not 2009 anymore, and after four weeks of mastering the art of TV cooking and obtaining specialty meats … I still don’t really enjoy the act of cooking.
But somehow, I feel better about that than ever before. Because, ultimately, Julie & Julia isn’t really a movie about women falling in love with French cooking, though that did happen. It’s a story about two different women, separated by two continents and half a century, both coming to understand that what they have to offer the world is of value, whether the world immediately realizes it or not.
“Knowing what you know now, would you do this again?” my friend asked me the day after I’d forced her to eat sweetbreads for dinner and, 12 hours later, foie gras for brunch. If she was asking the question aloud to herself, she didn’t answer. Neither did I for a few moments … because I really wasn’t sure. It’s a commonly accepted fact that some people have a mind for numbers and some people don’t; the last few weeks have taught me that some people have a mind for making food, and I am not one of those people—I’m just a person with a mind for eating it. But I still do simple math every single day, and I still cook (almost) every day. I don’t have to love it. Not being afraid to plunge in is enough.