Today let’s celebrate Julia Child, a culinary icon who introduced French cooking to millions of American households. I for one, salute this trailblazer, whose first cookbooks, “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking,” volumes one and two, were my countertop companions as a young bride. With her detailed step-by-step instructions, I successfully tackled soufflés, learned about stuffing zucchini and looked no further after finding the perfect onion soup recipe. Having a dinner party and worried about trying out a new recipe? You needn’t be if you’re using one of Julia’s fail-proof, step-by-step recipes. With the skills she learned in Paris and her self-deprecating sense of humor evident in her TV show “The French Chef,” Julia introduced French cooking to generations of Americans.
Born Julia McWilliams, her life story reads like a novel, and if you haven’t read her autobiography “My Life In France,” you’re missing out on a great tale. In Julia’s book, written with her husband’s grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, she talks about her early career working in India for the OSS – the precursor to the CIA; how she met her husband Paul, and their life together in France and other places around the world. Rather than write Christmas cards, their tradition instead was to send Valentine’s Day cards to their friends, including this playful one.
I would love to have met her and spent some time with her, as my friend Pietro Frassica did in the late 1970s. Pietro is a professor of Italian literature at Princeton University and was in Aix-en-Provence with friends when the opportunity arose through food writer Lorna Sass. Julia had invited Lorna to come visit at her home nearby in Grasse, but Lorna had no car. Enter Pietro and another friend who had rented a car and could provide the transportation.
They all spent several hours sitting outside in the beautiful Provençal countryside at Julia and Paul’s home, talking about food. Although she specialized in French food, Julia wanted to know more about Italian cuisine after hearing that Pietro was Italian and from Sicily in particular, where capers are grown. “She was fascinated to learn about how they are picked as buds and put in salt,” he said.
The seeds were also planted that day for a popular course that Pietro now teaches every other year at Princeton. “We talked about how food could be taught in the universities, which at the time, was unheard of. It was a way for me to start thinking seriously about teaching a course in the history of gastronomy.”
But the big question is: What did he eat at Julia’s that fateful summer day?
“She made a green salad with a vinaigrette,” he said. “It was very simple, nothing exceptional, but very appropriate for the warm weather.”
Pietro also recalled bumping into Julia during the 1970s, when he lived in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where Julia also was living at the time. Not far from Harvard Square was a delicatessen called “Cardullo” that carried Italian specialties. Julia would stop by frequently to pick up provisions, mingling with customers and sharing her knowledge about cooking.
How can you not love this American culinary hero, who would have turned 100 on Wednesday, August 15? If you have a few minutes, take a look at this hilarious clip of Julia on the David Letterman show back in the late 1980s. You’ll be laughing on the floor!
I hope you will celebrate Julia’s 100th birthday by preparing one of her recipes. This one is easy, delicious and appropriate for the season since peaches are at their peak.
Bon anniversaire Julia e bon appétit.
Pêches Cardinal (Compote of Fresh Peaches with Raspberry Purée)
(From “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking”, volume one
For 10 people
(adjust as necessary for fewer servings)
6 cups water
2 1/4 cups granulated sugar
2 Tb vanilla exract or a vanilla bean
a 12-inch saucepan
10 firm ripe, unblemished fresh peaches, about 2 1/2 inches in diameter (I used white peaches)
a slotted spoon
a cake rack
a serving dish 2 inches deep
1 quart fresh raspberries, and 1 1/4 cups granulated sugar
OR, 1 1/2 lbs. frozen raspberries, thawed and well drained, and
2/3 cup sugar
An electric blender (or electric beater)
optional: fresh mint leaves
Simmer the water, sugar and vanilla extract or bean in the saucepan and stir until the sugar has dissolved. Add the unpeeled peaches to the simmering syrup. Bring again to the simmer, then maintain at just below the simmer for eight minutes. Remove pan from heat and let peaches cool in syrup for 20 minutes. (Syrup may be used again for poaching other fruits.) Drain peaches on rack; peel while still warm, and arrange in serving dish. Chill.
Force the raspberries through a sieve and place the purée in the jar of an electric blender along with the sugar. Cover and blend at top speed for two to three minutes, or until purée is thick and sugar has dissolved completely. Chill. (Or beat purée and sugar for about 10 minutes with an electric beater.) (I put the raspberries and sugar in a saucepan and cooked them until the sugar melted, then pressed the mixture through a sieve to eliminate the seeds.)
When both purée and peaches are chilled, pour the purée over the peaches and return to refrigerator until serving time. Decorate with optional fresh mint leaves.