THANKS SO MUCH TO EVERYONE FOR THEIR INTEREST, SUPPORT, AND COMMENTS, BUT THIS BLOG POST IS NOW SHUT DOWN FOR ADDITIONAL COMMENTS. MANY THANKS FOR READING AND I LOVE THE DIALOGUE, BUT WE ALL NEED TO MOVE ON. BEST VA
July 15th I had the real pleasure of seeing a sneak preview of “Julie and Julia”. Tony Conway, owner of Legendary Events in Atlanta hosted an amazing Girls Night Out. Following cocktails and dinner, a group of about 400 women filed into the theatre at Phipps Plaza. The movie doesn’t actually premiere until early August! The event itself was truly spectacular and a perfect example of why Tony Conway is regarded as one of the best in his business.
The movie was so charming that I left wanting to see it again. Based on true stories, “Julie & Julia” intertwines the lives of two women in a fascinating way. I am a huge Meryl Streep fan and she was amazing. She is such a chameleon and, of course, had Julia’s voice and mannerisms nailed.
But, it triggered something that’s been nagging me ever since.
First, the movie. In short, the plot is the story of a frustrated temporary secretary, Julie Powell, embarking on a year-long culinary quest to cook all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She chronicles her tribulations in a blog called “The Julie/Julia Project: Nobody here but us servantless American cooks”. The blog caught on and was eventually featured in a piece in the New York Times by food writer Amanda Hesser. Julie’s life was changed forever, her blog turned into a best-selling memoir, Nora Ephron wrote her screenplay, and now Amy Adams is playing her on the big screen.
The film, also covers the years Julia Child (Meryl Streep) and her husband Paul (Stanley Tucci) spent in Paris during the 1940′s and 1950′s. Their portion of the story was adapted from My Life in France, written by Julia Child with nephew Alex Prud’homme. Basically, this was the time when Julia became Julia, attended Le Cordon Bleu and met her collaborators Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. They began to teach cooking to American women in the Child’s kitchen, calling their informal school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. For the next decade, as the Childs moved around Europe and finally to their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the three researched, developed, and tested French recipes for the American kitchen. The result of this long collaboration was Mastering the Art of French Cooking edited by the imitable Judith Jones.
I promise this will eventually address the source of my irritation. Stick with me.
The first time I met Julia Child was at a book signing when I was in culinary school at L’Academie de Cuisine in DC. I stood there like a zombie in front of her, incapable of speech. A friend eventually jotted me out of my stupor and pushed me along.
After DC, I became an editorial stagiaire for Anne Willan at Ecole de Cuisine LaVarenne . I was supposed to be there for 3 months,but was there on and off for almost 3 years. Julia actually encouraged Anne to open the school. My first year I was working with none other than Amanda Hesser (see above), who at the time was also working on her first book, The Cook and the Gardener. During that time Julia would come to visit, staying weeks at a time. The staff at LaVarenne was predominantly young food knowledge hungry Americans. We had grown up seeing her on TV and she was one of the reasons we were there in France. We would vacillate wildly from “OH MY G*D, IT’S JULIA CHILD” to complete nonchalance. It was normal. She was always very pleasant. I don’t remember why, but once at the dinner table, in her famous warbling voice she declared, Eisenhower nothing more than a “big powder-puff”. Sure wish I could remember the context…. One winter at the Food Writer’s Symposium at the Greenbrier we shared a suite. I treated her like my grandmother, made sure she didn’t forget her cane and carried her books. (That was a hoot! I’ll write about that some other time.)
Promise. It’s coming.
After France I moved to New York to work for Martha. I ran into Julia at food events, and that was pretty much the extent of it.
Ok, here we go.
I also read the Julie/Julia Project blog and for a time, I followed Julie Powell. I was very intrigued by her nerve actually, of cooking the book. Pretty stiff stuff for an untrained cook. Good for her, I thought. What an undertaking. But one day she made a comment implying a recipe being wrong for roast chicken. I honestly don’t remember what it was, but it struck me as being so disrespectful, completely without deference to Julia Child, that I stopped. What the hell did she know about food? Had she even heard of poulet au Bresse? Didn’t go back. No malice. Just didn’t want to follow anymore.
That brings me back to the present. Wednesday night I watched the Julie and Julia movie.
“Had a lovely time, Tony, thanks so much for a lovely party.”
The next night I saw a link on Twitter from an older article from the New York Times. I clicked through and read. It was in my opinion, decent writing, good writing, but it wasn’t about food. It made me think it maybe needed to be in a blog. It was not appropriate on that stage, on that level. It was the damn New York Times!
To be clear, it was NOT written by Amanda Hesser.
And, then it all made sense. My underlying malaise.
People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts. The incredible proliferation and self-indulgent blabber of many food blogs has given people the freedom to hallucinate, “I can type and I eat, therefore I am a food journalist”!
Granted, Julie Powell did not present herself as a food expert. I am not saying she did, quite the contrary. It’s also not a case of sour grapes on my part. Bravo for her. Her food memoir was a best-seller. A rising tide floats all boats, and as a food writer, I wholeheartedly thank her.
I am not necessarily saying my writing is better. After all, who am I to question what is published in the New York Times? Of course, I recognize the irony that I am sharing this indeed in an aforementioned self-serving blog. But good grief, people who don’t know how to begin to roast a ding dang chicken without following a recipe can be our new, ahem, food experts? This makes me a bit sad and more than a bit aggravated.
The newspaper industry has starved itself to death. In the past two years 10 dailies have permanently stopped the presses. Indeed, the New York Times has been rumored to be circling the drain. The blogs and online content have taken over. The cookbook publishing industry took a hearty bite out of the poison apple, as well. The prerequisite to getting a cookbook published is brand and platform, not necessarily real food knowledge, editorial training, and a passionate commitment to test and develop recipes.
Face it; Julia Child would not be published today.
I had a meeting with a TV production company last year that possibly is interested in partnering on a TV cooking show. The producer told me the worst thing I had going for me is that I was trained and knew how to cook. Everyone who can wield a butter knife wants a TV cooking show. Seems the masses want entertainment, not education. Enough hair product and a sassy catchphrase seems to be sufficient.
Think about the food writers who spent their entire careers pursuing real food knowledge and good, sound, cooking fundamentals. Think about writers who wrote real literature that happened to be about food: Elizabeth David. MFK Fisher. Anne Willan. The real cooks and writers today, the real experts need to be heard, not just any food blogger armed with an iPhone.
On that note, I am sharing my recipe for Roast Chicken.
PS. IT WAS LATER POINTED OUT TO ME IT’S POULET DE BRESSE, NOT AU BRESSE. I LEFT IT AS IS SINCE SOME OF THE COMMENTS REFER TO IT. I STAND CORRECTED. MY FRENCH IS, WAS, AND ALWAYS WILL LIKELY BE, DISMAL.
Herb Roast Chicken with Pan Sauce
Serves 4 to 6
Meme washed her chickens inside and out before cooking them, removing every last bit of fat, overlooked feathers, and any bruises, blemishes, or blood spots. She said if you didn’t, it tasted too “chickeny.” That bird was sanitized—or so she thought. I would never argue with Meme, but according to the USDA, washing chicken is not necessary. If the bird is contaminated, dangerous bacteria are not going to be affected by cold tap water. Washing the chicken actually increases the chance of cross-contamination; water that has touched raw chicken and splashed into the sink can potentially contaminate other food.
This recipe relies on a classic French preparation: stuffing the bird with aromatics, roasting it to perfection, and using the pan juices plus added shallots, wine, and stock to make a light sauce. There’s not a lot to cloud the plate or palate or mask a mistake. I will often order chicken, seemingly the most boring dish on the menu, when trying a new restaurant. Simple roast chicken is the test of a good cook.
1 (4- to 5-pound) chicken
1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence
3 bay leaves, preferably fresh
Coarse salt and freshly ground black pepper
1 large lemon, quartered
3 tablespoons unsalted butter, at room temperature
1 large carrot, chopped
1 onion, preferably Vidalia, chopped
2 shallots, finely chopped
1/2 cup dry white wine
11/2 cups chicken stock or low-fat, reduced-sodium chicken broth
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, cut into bits (optional)
Preheat the oven to 425°F. To prepare the chicken, trim the excess fat from inside of the chicken cavity. Season the cavity with the herbes de Provence, bay leaves, salt, and pepper. Squeeze lemon juice into the cavity and then insert the used lemon quarters. Rub butter over the skin and season with salt and pepper. Tie the ends of the drumsticks together with kitchen twine. Set the chicken in a roasting pan, on a rack if you have one.
Roast the chicken for 15 minutes, then decrease the heat to 350°F. Roast for an additional 15 minutes, then add the carrot and onion to the pan. Continue roasting, basting occasionally, until the juices run clear when the thickest part of the thigh is pierced with a knife, an additional 30 to 45 minutes. Remove the chicken to a cutting board and tent loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm. Using a slotted spoon, remove the vegetables to a warm platter and tent loosely with aluminum foil to keep warm.
To make the sauce, remove all but several tablespoons of the fat from the roasting pan and place the pan over medium heat. Add the shallots and saute, stirring frequently, until softened, about 2 minutes. Add the wine and cook until it is reduced by half, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the chicken stock and increase the heat to high, scraping the skillet with a wooden spoon to loosen the browned bits.
Cook until the sauce is slightly reduced, about 5 minutes more. Carve the chicken and pour any accumulated chicken juices from the cutting board into the roasting pan. Decrease the heat to medium. Whisk in the butter. Taste and adjust for seasoning with salt and pepper. Serve the chicken with the sauce on the side.
From Bon Appétit, Y’all: Recipes and Stories from Three Generations of Southern Cooking by Virginia Willis, copyright © 2008. Published by Ten Speed Press.
VIRGINIA WILLIS CULINARY PRODUCTIONS, LLC © 2009