Thursday, August 27, 2009

WWJD or What Would Julia Do?

I'm not certain that WWJD ( What would Julia (Child) Do) would be as popular as the other acronym by the same name. Despite the fact that I claim Julia Child to be my personal saint in and out of the kitchen, I don't see France creating any sainted sculptures of her six foot frame with pearls around her neck by a fountain in Pairs; nor would we, in the US, start handing out plastic wristbands with WWJCD as reminders for patience with plucking, cleaning and preparing an entire chicken in less than twenty minutes. Probably not. As a poet, it's easy to over inflate the importance of another person, especially when they are dead and then played by Meryl Streep. Seriously, I could also include Meryl Steep to my personal muse list for who else can make Robert Redford swoon with a Danish accent, play a believable lesbian, sing ABBA in the Greek Isles and now take on the great cooking icon of Julia Child?

There are certain expected icons that you would expect a poet to hold with high regard such as John Keats, whose death mask still haunts me. Emily Dickinson, well, for obvious reasons, and of course my poet of highest regard, Jack Gilbert, the heartfelt recluse who seems to rise as some poetic phoenix genius with each book he publishes. But in regards to cooking, I have had few people affect me with the same sense of depth as Julia Child. Certainly, this is just as expected as me selecting Emily Dickinson; however, it wasn't until reading her book, My Life in France, did I have a new respect for her sense of humble curiosity and American determination to be more than just a housewife cook in post-war France. Yet she didn't start out wanting to be any sort of icon, all she wanted to do was feed her husband she loved so much while also learning to understand and appreciate the culture around her.

What struck me the most in the book came early on in a chapter titled, "Never Apologize." Again, growing up in the midwest, cooking and apologizing seem to go together as well as Campbell's mushroom soup and the word casserole. I cannot tell you how many houses I have been to when the person cooking placed a dish down and proceeded to tell everyone all that had gone wrong and then of course our response would usually began with, "It could be worse, we could not be eating... etc." But here's what Julia Child states in regard to this lack of cooking etiquette:

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When's ones hostess starts with self-deprecations such as, "Oh, I don't how to cook" is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you are right, this really is an awful meal! ...Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile---and learn from her mistakes. (pg. 77)

This was so enlightening for me to read. Finally, I had a reason to understand why a litany of apologies is so gauche after you have served another even if it is your husband who you know would truly would be happy if you just served him toast. But there is more to this paragraph that spoke to me. The end of this passage speaks to the responsibility of the cook to learn from their mistakes and not accept others to cover them with inflated comments to cover up the fact even if the food is truly vile. For me, this passage states the importance of three things, be accountable for your actions, don't apologize for being human, and above all smile. As if we can understand that if something is truly bad that we've made, we can keep it to ourselves and learn from it and above all, keep smiling. In other words, we need to not only find our inner Julia Child but also inner Sisyphus in the kitchen, Camus' version that is.

For me, I feel I was born apologizing. No, my first word wasn't sorry or forgive me, but "hot". I cannot deconstruct any greater meaning than I am sensitive to temperatures. But as for the apologizing, I am guilty of wanting to learn sorry first in every language I have learned to speak to ensure the fact that in case I blundered, I could gracefully and correctly apologize. Frankly, sorry seems to be something I have trained myself to believe I almost always am, so reading this passage about one of my favorite passions, cooking, as well as one of my not so favorite habits, apologizing, I somehow felt absolved. Reading Julia Child's honest and ego-less diary of her own transformation helped me to start to rid myself of my midwest guilt in cooking but also just for sometimes, just being born. But more importantly, Child states the need to move on and correctly learn whatever you've blundered for next time.

This approach to life, not to apologize, choose to laugh and keep smiling wasn't first introduced via Julia Child, but from my aunt Carol. My aunt Carol could have been European or Europeanly influenced for she wasn't afraid to wear fur, have a year round sun tan and would at most family gatherings laugh in her tall slim frame drowning out the heaviness of our grandparents' expectations. My aunt Carol also did something that I would like to think Julia Child did well, listen intently. Each visit to our house in the North aunt Carol would bring each of us three kids a book always wrapped in purple paper from the bookstore where she worked. Also with each visit, Carol would sit with each of us, individually, and ask us about our lives, our thoughts and always what we were reading.

I loved it when it was my turn on the couch. Perhaps if you are born with an innate sense of being sorry, therapy comes easily. But Carol didn't analyze us or evaluate us, no, she just listened. Sure, she had traveled to distant cities and seemed more stylish and younger with each visit. But I don't think I could tell you all where she has been because she didn't waltz into our home listing all the fabulousness of her life. No, Carol wanted to know what I thought about the The Island of Blue Dolphins, asked me about my thoughts on Holden Caulfield and what I got out of Steinbeck at age 13. Sure, again, I can glorify someone in memory, but really for me, Carol was one of the first women I knew who decided to choose joy in the face of adversity, and also prefered to listen to children and think we had something worthy of saying. Also, I saw Carol as someone who regardless of mistakes or blunders, could chose joy. Carol, despite divorce and adversity, still chooses joy. And finally, I don't recall ever hearing her apologize either.

Besides being my aunt who really listened, she is also a very good cook. There are numerous recipes I could choose from to show my gratitude, but this berry bread recipe seems to say it all. It is comfort Carol food. It's bread that seems to listen to you and your stomach's need to be fed. It's bread you want to eat while you have your morning coffee or make it for a friend who you want to sit and chat with, take it to a book club or just make it for your husband and watch him eat the entire loaf with a whole stick of butter in one sitting. Again, I am lucky that my husband is happy even if I make him toast, but here's a type of toast you can make and never find yourself apologizing over. Ever. Enjoy.

Carol usually makes this with strawberries, but any berry at the moment would do such as huckleberries, thimbleberries or blueberries.

Carol Murray's Berry Bread

1 stick butter, room temperature
1 cup sugar
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
2 eggs, separate yolks and whites
1 cup of berries, fresh
2 cups of flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon baking soda
1 teaspoon salt

1. Preheat oven to 325 degrees.
2. Grease a 9" by 12" bread loaf pan.
3. Mix butter and sugar and blend until creamed.
4. Add almond extract and egg yolks, one at a time, blend.
5. In a separate bowl, sift together flour, baking powder, baking soda and salt.
6. Add half flour mixture and half of strawberries to cream mixture and mix well.
7. Add the rest of flour and then strawberries and mix well again.
8. In a separate bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and then blend in berry cream mixture.
9. Place in bread loaf pan and bake for one hour.

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