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“Mas­tering the Art of French Coking” by Julia Child.
Col­legian | Carmel Kookogey

For Christmas this year, I asked for “Mas­tering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck, a cookbook pub­lished in 1961. I couldn’t wait to crack that famous teal-and-white cover and try my hand at a sauce chan­tilly or a coq au vin.

As I pulled back the box-lid on Christmas morning and started ooh-ing and ahh-ing as I thumbed through the pages, my dad asked, “Is that really the one you wanted?”

My parents were sur­prised that I would ask for Julia Child. Child was that French-cooking American woman from their childhood, the one they watched through the screen of old box tele­vision, who issued firm direc­tives about the impor­tance of courage in the kitchen in her dis­tinct, uppity voice, and named a family of raw chickens before cooking them.

She was stuffy and weird when com­pared with the Gwyneth Pal­trows, the Ina Gartens, and the Bobby Flays of modern food. On her tele­vision show The French Chef (1963 – 73), Child was known to throw out her own food if it did not turn out as desired, or cast the food as char­acters in a story she told while cooking, as in “Goldilocks and the Three Brioches.”

And it’s true, Child was no classy French woman in her demeanor, as anyone can tell you who has watched Meryl Streep play Child, squeaking with Stanley Tucci about butter in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia.” She was an American who once asserted “every woman should have a blow­torch” and who wanted to bring the French cuisine she loved to eat to the women back at home.

In a way, Child’s approach to cooking was the liberal-arts approach to edu­cation: You have to prove you’ve learned the rules before you can go and break them with artistic license. And she is strict about getting the rules right.

Child’s cookbook has become a classic and earned its recog­nition. She brought the ethos of French cooking to the American housewife, with tra­di­tional French emphasis on per­fecting basics, and finding not only the best but also the sim­plest ingre­dients.

“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” Child once said. She loved cre­ating rich yet simple food.

In mas­tering the art of French cooking herself, Child evokes in her readers a desire to do the same: to take some­thing as basic as a chicken and make it mouth­wa­tering in its own right, without needing to add exotic spices or shocking flavor com­bi­na­tions — not because rich flavors are the mark of a poor cook, but because under­statement is the mark of French cooking. It’s an art that has become espe­cially rel­evant in modern “more is more” culture, sug­gesting instead a spirit of restraint (except, of course, with butter).

I love that modern tech­nology has enabled me to attempt mastery of Indian, Asian, and Mediter­ranean cuisine, all in my own kitchen. I love that we have the option of filling our mouths with spices and flavors that earlier gen­er­a­tions of Amer­icans could not easily access. I love cooking with robust flavors. But there is some­thing to be said for Child’s emphasis on the basics.

“You don’t have to cook fancy or com­pli­cated mas­ter­pieces — just good food from fresh ingre­dients,” Child wrote.

Most of her recipes use only a handful of ingre­dients. Her instruc­tions are ruth­lessly detailed. The result, a beau­tiful poulet rôti à la Nor­mande, cooked in oodles of butter, that is as deli­cious as it is simple.