Happy Birthday Julia

Julia's Autograph
It never ceases to amaze me the profound impact that people we have never met, or only met in passing, can have on our lives. I'm not speaking of political office holders whose mandates impact our finances and every manner of our lives, but rather, the person whose message hits a deep resonance within our being and brings about some change in our lives. Many of us have read a book, heard a speaker or listened to a musical performance that has caused some epiphany within, an awakening that causes us to take a different path. Though it is unlikely that we will ever have the opportunity to meet the person who has had the impact, the reality of the effect remains. Some refer to such influences as their Muse. They provide us with inspiration.

I have always enjoyed eating and food. Some people eat to live, while others live to eat, a category into which I, without question, fall. It was my mother who instilled in me an interest in cooking, but it was another woman who inspired me to take my interest to a higher level. In the days before cable and satellite, before hundreds of channels (some in HDTV!), before the Food Network, the Cooking Channel or HGTV, there were only a few options, unlike today's veritable smorgasbord. Now you can get cooking 24/7, with Iron Chef to Mario Batali, from "Food Unwrapped" to Rachel Rae. I certainly enjoy watching some of these programs; indeed I was quite excited when a chance to meet Rachel face to face, perhaps dinner, almost came to fruition as a part of her 2005 book tour. But as entertaining as the new cooking shows may be, their stars are certainly not pioneers. In the old pre-cable days, you had only the major three networks, maybe a UHF channel or two and PBS. And there were precious few brave souls in those days that served as culinary pioneers, with short spots on local talk shows or full-blown productions on PBS. There was Graham Kerr, the "Galloping Gourmet", wine glass at the ready. Later there was Jeff Smith, "the frugal gourmet" and Justin Wilson with his Cajun "gare rohn tee". But first there was Julia. No last name needed.

Julia Child was born August 15, 1912, Julia Carolyn McWilliams. While her youth and young adult years are certainly interesting, the event that led to her influence in my life occurred well before my birth. In 1944 when as an employee of the OSS, she was posted to Sri Lanka (then Ceylon), where she met her future husband Paul Child. After their 1946 marriage, Paul, an employee of the U.S. Foreign Service was posted to Paris as an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency in 1948. While in Paris Julia attended Le Cordon Bleu and studied with notable French Chefs. In 1951 Child in collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle began work of a French Cookbook designed for Americans. Ten years later, Alford A. Knopf published Mastering the Art of French Cooking, still considered a seminal culinary work, whose 734 pages, clear instructions and illustrations led to critical acclaim and a rebirth of American interest in French cuisine. In 1962, Julia appeared on PBS affiliate WGBH's book review program and delighted viewers with her demonstration of preparing an omelet. By 1963, Julia's first television program, The French Chef had begun its ten-year run (not counting reruns).

I first met Julia Child (figuratively) in 1978. It was shortly after my marriage, and starting law school, and finances and time were both extremely tight. Julia became our weekly entertainment as we watched every episode of Julia Child and Company, which was followed in 1980 by its sequel, Julia Child and More Company. Each show presented a complete menu, with variations, for everything from Dinner for the Boss to a Breakfast Party. There were many recipes that were just beyond our budget, but an equal number that provided us with new horizons in the kitchen. We saved tuna cans, turned them into crumpet rings and mastered homemade English muffins. While we couldn't afford lobster, we could buy monkfish (the ugliest animal on earth) and enjoy the poor man's version. Julia taught us how to make our own pita bread, butterfly a leg of lamb and make a towering gateau Mont Saint Michel. There was leek and rabbit pie, cassoulet with goose and white beans, tarts, sliced pineapple "en boat", French onion soup gratinee, bananas foster and Pate en Croute. Julia not only taught how and what to cook, but taught me to trust my tastes and abilities so that I could expand and substitute, build upon and invent. I think, that to whatever degree I am accomplished in the kitchen, Julia gave me the foundations on which I later built.

In 1989, Julia Child's "The Way to Cook" was published by Alfred A. Knopf and it became (and remains) an absolute required volume in any cookbook collection. I was indeed fortunate that she appeared in Cleveland as a part of the book tour as a guest of the local chapter of a national chef's organization. I was able to meet this imposing woman and thank her. The crowd in the Old English Oak Room was large, and there was precious little time for a conversation, but I did manage to tell Julia, face to face, that her books and programs had enriched my life, to which she replied simply, "I'm so glad." I was, too.

Julia Child passed away On August 13, 2004 two days shy of her 92nd birthday. She left behind a legacy of 18 cookbooks, 11 television series, a Saturday Night Live sketch featuring Dan Akroyd with a "dickens of a cut", and a kitchen which is on display in the Smithsonian, unique for its high counters designed to accommodate her height. Also a part of her continuing legacy is an entire generation of culinary enthusiasts for whom Julia opened the door of learning and exploration. And so, anticipating what would be Julia Child's 94th Birthday it is entirely appropriate to acknowledge her contributions, thank her for sharing her love of food with so many, and on a more personal note, give her credit for the impact that she has had in my life.

While a birthday cake would certainly be appropriate, my choice for celebrating and remembering is a bit more basic. First I'll retrieve the crumpet rings we made 25 years ago by removing both ends of the tuna cans, I still remember her English Muffin recipe by heart, although I have made a few substitutions (and I think she would approve). And on August 15, instead of a bagel or bowl of cold granola, I'll arise a little early, and spoon batter into those tin forms and bake a batch of English Muffins in memory and celebration of my muse.

English Muffins, adapted from Julia Child's Julia and Company

6 crumpet rings, made from removing tops and bottoms from a tuna, or other similar 6 oz. can.
Griddle large enough to hold all six rings

1 tbsp. dry yeast, dissolved in ¼ cup warm water
2 tbsp. instant mashed potatoes reconstituted in ½ cup scalded milk
½ cup cold water
2 ½ cups all purpose flour
1 ½ tsp salt dissolved in 3 tbsp. water

½ cup raisins
1 tbsp. cinnamon\1tsp. cornmeal

Add the cold water to the potato mixture, combining completely.
In a larger bowl (you'll need space to allow for rising) combine the flour with the potato water mixture. When cool, add the yeast/water mixture, and stir to completely combine. The mixture will be heavier than pancake batter. Cover and allow to rise in a warm spot, until large bubbles appear, and the batter roughly doubles in volume. Stir the batter down. At this stage, the batter can be refrigerated overnight (covered), and the recipe completed in the morning.

Beat in the salt/water mixture, stir to combine. Add the raisin, stir to distribute evenly. Sprinkle the cinnamon over the batter and fold in, allowing it to form ribbons (not at all necessary to mix in completely).

Allow to rise again until the bubbles appear on the surface (45 mins). While waiting for the second rise, liberally butter the rings (or spray with unflavored cooking spray). Lightly oil the griddle, and dust with cornmeal. Place over medium heat. Heat is right when a drop of water "dances" on the griddle- if it is immediately reduced to steam it's too hot. Place rings on the griddle, and spoon approx. ½ cup batter into each ring (1/ 2 way up the ring). Muffins should cook slowly, so as not to burn the bottom. When bubbles break on the top, it's time to flip the muffin, about 8 minutes (at this point it's okay if it comes out of the ring). Allow other side to brown (3-4 mins). Cool the muffins slightly and split.
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Volume 2, Issue 15, Posted 11:11 AM, 07.15.06