Bon Appetit, Julia!
by Helena Mann-Melnitchenko
Since she passed away last summer, Julia Child has been but a ghostly flickering on my television every Saturday afternoon, a stooped eminence, observing, questioning and encouraging Jacques Pépin.
This week, as the French celebrate July 14, Bastille Day, with parades, fireworks, dancing in the streets and, of course, food, shes with me more than ever.
We go a long way back, Julia and I. I first discovered her in 1962 through her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I was a young bride, just learning how to boil water when my husband, a lieutenant in the Air Force, was posted to France. My first taste of French food in a country inn with brick walls and dim lighting was a revelation. I ordered coq au vin and almost fainted when I took my first bite. I never knew chicken could taste so delectable. It hit my taste buds all at once with its deep, complex flavor. And the aroma: wine and herbs and something I couldnt put my finger on.
Next day I bought Julias book, determined to master French cuisine. Long before quiche Lorraine reached Washington, I was a pro.
Of course I have had some mishaps in the kitchen, as did Julia even on her television program. I remember her omelet that went all over the stove. And there was that incident with the goose. The naked bird flew off the counter and skated along the linoleum floor. Not skipping a beat, Julia bent down, grabbed it by the wings, plopped it right back on the counter and proceeded to stuff it. Thats what I liked most about her, her total lack of pretension. Mistakes happen.
For me, Veal Prince Orloff stands out as the great debacle. Its a complicated recipe and I had spent hours preparing it, feeling cross at the time it was taking and rushing to have everything just so for a dinner party. My mistake came at the very last minute. The recipe called for incorporating grated Swiss cheese into a velvety white sauce.
Rummaging through the refrigerator, I couldnt find the Swiss among our impressive hoard of cheeses. Surely another would do. Unfortunately, the cheese I picked was ripe and aromatic. After it melted into the sauce, the whole house smelled of feet. We were airing out our quaint French home for weeks.
I managed to salvage the dinner party by sending my husband to get six orders of coq au vin at the inn while I denuded the lilac bushes to make bouquets for every table in the house. The heady smell of lilacs barely camouflaged that of vile ripe cheese.
Culinary fashions come and go. Tuscan, Vietnamese and Thai cuisine have taken over. Yet French food abides in good restaurants and in my kitchen. As testament to Julias genius and my well-worn cookbook, my daughters rarely eat at French restaurants. They say they have been spoiled by Moms and Julias cooking.
Julia is gone as I again reach for my well thumbed and stained Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I have been making this fish soup for years, a bouillabaisse with a Bay slant: rockfish, perch, crab, mussels and clams in a savory broth. Dare I toss in a touch of Old Bay? Why not? Julia encouraged experimentation. Garlic, herbs and red pepper caress my nose while Edith Piaf sings La Vie en Rose. For dessert well have raspberry tart with berries from our own garden.
Bon Appétit, Julia!
Helena Mann-Melnitchenko, a retired French teacher, lived all over the world before making her home in Chesapeake Country.