As published in The Atlantic, 08/13/2009
Mastering the Art of French Cooking fell on fertile soil in Cambridge in 1961. In the late 1950s and early ’60s, the academic community boasted (as we are wont to do) a significant number of accomplished amateur cooks. Fulbright Fellowships, a junior year abroad, the GI Bill of Rights, supportive parents, and obscure fellowships had created a Francophile enclave in Harvard Square. A bored French war bride, Genevieve McMillan (who later became one of the great collectors of African, Asian, and Oceanic Art now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), imported a chef and opened a restaurant, Henri Quatre, where conversation turned to vinaigrettes, soufflés, omelettes, pâtés de foie gras, and even truffles. This was in striking contrast to the post-WWII cuisine from which we were emerging: Spam grilled with canned pineapple, accompanied by colorful fruit-studded gelatin molds.
By the mid-sixties, Julia Child was the ranking guest at social events. Many under- and unemployed women Ph.Ds and a male professor or banker or two were creating dinners that took the better part of a week to prepare. The search for basil and dill could take days (I was growing my own). Even students were caught up in the frenzy.
In 1966 my husband and I were invited to dinner at the apartment of his research assistant, Andy, who had been one of six students at Harvard to have majored in ethnobotany. Collecting wild mushrooms was no small part of the curriculum. Andy was by then in medical school. One roommate, Jeffrey, was at law school; the third, Woody, was at the School of Education. Mostly they talked about food.
Certifiably brilliant and equally droll, they had obviously put a great deal of effort into meticulously recreating a dinner from “The” book. The setting was a modest graduate-student apartment, but the table was beautiful–and the food could hold its own with a first-rate French restaurant. It quickly became clear that these were serious cooks.
The dinner began with pâté in aspic flavored with jus de truffe. The aspic had started as a brown stock, which many, many hours later was clarified with egg whites and fresh herbs. Then it was geléed with the natural gelatin from cracked veal knuckles. My first thought was: When do they have time to attend classes?
My second thought as I looked at the glistening, flawlessly encased pâté was: This cannot be real. I had some 15 years’ experience eating in France; had been hanging out for years with a food-obsessed summer neighbor in Provincetown, the inspired cooking teacher and cookbook writer Michael Field (who was also a concert pianist and bon vivant); and I had worked for days to create this very aspic myself. There was no way these self-confident upstarts could carry it off. I took one bite, looked up, and proclaimed, “Canned.” Fortunately, the mind heals itself: for 43 years, I had repressed the guilt and humiliation of being so unkind. Only recently, when we were remembering Woody after his memorial service, did Andy remind me of my gaffe. He smiled broadly, but he had not forgotten.
The main course was Veau Prince Orloff. The recipe alone covers three pages of fine print and contains instructions for making soubise, a sauté of rice and onions; mushroom duxelles (“a handful at a time, squeeze the finely minced mushrooms in the corner of a towel to extract their juice”); and a thick veloutésauce. The veal was roasted then carefully sliced to keep its shape so that the soubise and mushroomduxelles could be smoothed between each slice and the roast reassembled. Then the roast was coated with the velouté and baked until it gleamed.
The presentation was breathtaking and the taste memorably unctuous…all of the component parts had become one whole. This too represented hours and hours of work, and enough butter and cream to constrict the arteries of everyone at the table. If I remember correctly, the roast was accompanied by braised endive, at that time a rare, expensive etiolated green grown in the absence of sunlight and only in Belgium.
The Cuisinart, which would have considerably cut the painstaking hand work of mincing, chopping, slicing, and pureeing, had not yet invaded the kitchen, and the Robot-Coupe, its predecessor, was used primarily in restaurants. This dinner was all manual labor.
Dessert continued apace: Chocolate Charlotte Malakoff (I’ve never been able to identify her), ladyfingers dipped one by one into diluted Cointreau, carefully drained, then placed in a mold that was filled with several cups of whipped cream into which had been stirred chocolate melted in espresso coffee and a bit more Cointreau. It was spectacular to behold as it emerged, the top covered with slivers of dark chocolate. Once more a never-forgotten experience representing more time–and the consumption of another industrial-size vat of cream.
Eager to stretch my legs after hours of lingering over every glorious taste, I wandered into the kitchen. There as far the as the eye could see were dirty dishes stacked on counter spaces, in piles, on the floor–more, many more, than even that all-consuming dinner could have required. My incredulous look elicited the secret of the accumulation: these young men did not believe in doing dishes. Instead they bought them at the Salvation Army for five cents each, and when the kitchen reached a bursting point and there was no room to begin the next go-around of Julia’s recipes, they threw them away.
Talk about a consciousness-expanding experience–it was wild, way beyond the wild mushrooms and research that Andy and my late husband, Norman Zinberg, were conducting on marijuana. I had wandered into a new world.
So more than 40 years ago, Julie Powell had her antecedents. And what became of them? Andy grew up to be Dr. Andrew T. Weil, the major force in integrative medicine and healthy-lifestyle guru to millions, a brilliant cook, for decades a vegetarian (eats fish), a self-sustaining gardener, and the author of many books that have had a profound impact on the way we live. His twelfth, Why Our Health Matters, arrived today.
Throughout his life Woody–Woodward Adams Wickham, Jr.–gardened and cooked with equal skill at his conservation-based home in Montana and at the homes of his multitudes of friends, including, frequently, Andy (whose philanthropic foundation he chaired). He spent seven years in Mexico and became–not surprisingly, being an anthropologist and later a professor at Puebla University–an expert on every aspect of Mexican farming and cooking. As the vice president of the MacArthur Foundation he oversaw the production of Hoop Dreams and many other independent films, and worked tirelessly for public broadcasting. Sadly, he died early this year, but his commitment to nature and the environment has been memorialized in the creation of an outdoor butterfly museum at the Botanical Museum in Chicago.
And Jeffrey, after Exeter, Harvard, Harvard Law School, MIT’s Center for Urban Planning, and a stint as an advisor to the charismatic Mayor Kevin White in Boston, found happiness as Jeffrey Steingarten, the longtime food critic of Vogue and the author of The Man Who Ate Everything and It Must’ve Been Something I Ate; his essay “Salad, the Silent Killer” has provided legions of salad haters a scholarly rationale for never having to touch a green leaf. Eating with him in New York restaurants, where he is instantly recognized, I learned the meaning of “food celebrity.” He can be seen frequently on Iron Chef,proclaiming much as he did while a student on how everything should be cooked. Now everyone listens. Jeffrey, alone, continues to cook and eat as Julia ordained and has written articles that often have eye-grabbing first sentences such as “Take forty pounds of lard.” True he is overweight, but he thrives.
Lest I leave the reader with the impression that as young men the roommates were obsessed only with elegant French food, I should add that Andy, as producer of Harvard Medical School’s Second-Year Student Revue, assumed Julia’s voice (almost as good as Meryl Streep’s) and lectured the audience on how to bake bread. With great clarity and careful enunciation he read slowly the ingredients from the wrapping of a loaf of Bond’s white bread, which turned out to be almost all chemicals.
The threesome also prepared a “post-nuclear-holocaust” dinner for the Lampoon, a putative humor-based club at Harvard of which Woody was president. The dinner consisted of the charred remains of chickens that were turned into flying missiles. Boys, after all, will be boys.
Image courtesy of The Atlantic