John Leth­lean: Ju­lia the great. Match­ing whisky with beer.

The Weekend Australian - Life - - FOOD & DRINK - JOHN LETH­LEAN leth­lean@theaus­tralian.com.au

Ihave never seen the movie Julie & Ju­lia, the one about the blog­ger and the su­per­star cook, al­though I’m told that while the char­ac­ter of Julie was an ob­nox­ious one, Meryl Streep was ex­pertly cast as Ju­lia. Ju­lia Child, that is. I’m not Amer­i­can. And when Ju­lia Child pub­lished her mas­ter­work, Mas­ter­ing the Art of French

Cook­ing, I was in nap­pies. So apart from the spectre of her rep­u­ta­tion, which is pow­er­ful, I was a lit­tle ig­no­rant of the spe­cific con­tri­bu­tion Child had made to food in the US and, by ex­ten­sion, the rest of the English-speak­ing world. My mis­take.

And I now have some per­spec­tive. I have just fin­ished Child’s au­to­bi­o­graph­i­cal My Life in France, pub­lished fol­low­ing her death in 2004 at a very re­spectable 92. The book ap­par­ently pro­vided in­spi­ra­tion for Julie & Ju­lia, and it’s not hard to see why, al­though there is spec­u­la­tion as to what Child her­self, late in her long in­nings, ac­tu­ally thought of Julie Pow­ell’s blog, which led to the movie.

Re­gard­less, the book’s a gen­tle, de­light­ful read for any nos­tal­gic Fran­cophile, touch­ing on many aspects of the na­tion that have qui­etly slipped away. Post­war Paris, seen through Child’s stoic eyes (for it was not all biere and boules), was a mag­i­cal place of char­ac­ters, food, wine and culi­nary dis­cov­ery.

The raw ma­te­rial for the book is un­de­ni­able. Child led a fas­ci­nat­ing, colour­ful, en­er­getic life, and truly broke ground by fronting what was prob­a­bly the first tele­vi­sion se­ries on cook­ing, The French

Cook. Lots of books rem­i­nisce about a by­gone Paris. What you can­not help but take from read­ing My

Life in France, how­ever, is pro­found re­spect for the achieve­ment that was Mas­ter­ing the Art of French

Cook­ing, on which Child col­lab­o­rated, to a greater or lesser ex­tent, with two French friends while liv­ing in France, the US and Nor­way.

Much of the book is about The Book. In an age of al­most in­stant food ti­tles from celebrity chefs — the an­nual from him, an­other friends/sim­ple/fast/fam­ily book from her — the 12-year ges­ta­tion of this bril­liantly re­searched and tested mas­ter­piece must seem con­found­ing.

The sim­ple premise was this: in­tro­duc­ing en­thu­si­as­tic Amer­i­can home cooks to the foun­da­tions, tech­niques and in­gre­di­ents of real French food.

Re­mem­ber, it was the late 1940s when this pro­ject be­gan in Paris — a time of snail mail and type­writ­ers, and no such thing as mar­ket re­search. Would any­one in the US buy a com­pre­hen­sive man­ual on French food when it was even­tu­ally pub­lished in 1961? No­body knew.

As Child her­self writes of that pe­riod when the pro­ject was launched, in the 2001 an­niver­sary edi­tion of Mas­ter­ing: “No­body I knew, ei­ther Amer­i­can or French, seemed at all in­ter­ested in la cui­sine fran­caise. My Amer­i­can col­leagues had a lit­tle femmes de menage who did the house­keep­ing, shop­ping, and cook­ing, and I was con­sid­ered more than a lit­tle odd be­cause I did all the cook­ing and mar­ket­ing — such fun — as well as all the serv­ing when we have com­pany.”

For­tu­nately, that didn’t stop Child and her friend and main col­lab­o­ra­tor Si­mone Beck from plough­ing on. Her in­stincts, and those of her ul­ti­mate edi­tors and pub­lish­ers, were spot on. And, as much for its fas­tid­i­ous re­search and plain-lan­guage ex­pla­na­tions as for its mo­ment in his­tory — a time when in­ter­est in food was ris­ing and ser­vants were be­com­ing an un­af­ford­able anachro­nism — MTAFC, as Child her­self re­ferred to it, sold its socks off.

Flick­ing through that an­niver­sary edi­tion, you can see how the orig­i­nal man­u­script took more than a decade. It’s all the more com­mend­able for the fact that, prior to ar­riv­ing in France in 1948 with her hus­band Paul, Child had barely cooked.

The prod­uct of a well-to-do Cal­i­for­nian fam­ily, there had been cooks and maids chez Child. It was their mu­tual sense of ad­ven­ture that took the cou­ple to Paris and her bound­less ap­petite for French food and life that took Child down a path of dis­cov­ery that led to the book.

She was a mo­ti­vated re­searcher and stu­dent, and a Cor­don Bleu qual­i­fi­ca­tion was only a small piece of the Child culi­nary jig­saw.

Also, flick­ing through, I am re­minded that be­tween the cov­ers of My Life in France is much dis­cus­sion of Child’s and Beck’s beurre blanc method.

I gave it a whizz. For me, it was more a beurre jaune: cheap, yel­low Aus­tralian but­ter prob­a­bly doesn’t cut it for a sauce like this, and my tech­nique will need a lit­tle prac­tice, but with steamed as­para­gus, it was de­light­ful.

Even more sat­is­fy­ing was souffle de­moule, mous­se­line — an un­moulded cheese souffle usu­ally called a “twice-baked souffle” th­ese days be­cause it goes back un­der the grill bot­tom-side-up with a bit of cream, for colour. Bril­liant. Ju­lia can stay in the kitchen. So, I’m a lit­tle late for the Queen of Amer­i­can Cook­ing, as she ul­ti­mately be­came known. My loss. I sus­pect that with­out her, many Aus­tralian he­roes of my gen­er­a­tion — Stephanie Alexan­der, Tony Bil­son, Neil Perry and Peter Doyle, to men­tion only a few — might never have picked up a whisk.

Ju­lia, we owe you.

Ju­lia Child in ac­tion in the kitchen, and her ground­break­ing book

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