My evening of cooking badly
Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cookery is one of the most, if not the most, significant cookery books of the 20th century. Often styled as “the book that taught America to cook”, it is now something that has passed through the hands of generations of ordinary home cooks in America and well beyond (I remember my mum cooking recipes from it). Child’s influence is such that she was the entire subject of one popular blog written by Julie Powell and later published as the book Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously. The film adaptation of both Powell’s book and Child’s life, released in 2009 was the final film from Nora Ephron (writer of When Harry Met Sally and director of Sleepless in Seattle) and is the subject of this week’s movie month efforts.
Like her real life counterpart, the movie Powell, here played by Amy Adams, spends her time cooking through the entirety of Child’s (Meryl Streep) book. However, the structure (and length) of the movie dictates that it can’t really show every meal Powell makes, only showing them when there is some drama attached. This conspires to give the impression that Powell is constantly in a flap, on the edge of a breakdown, reduced to tears in her kitchen, or just plain letting the food burn. Watching this, and thinking about some of what she makes on screen, my main reaction was “Well, how hard can it be? I’m sure I can manage that”. So, I went out and bought myself a copy of Julia Child’s book and set to making one of the recipes to see for myself.
In the movie Powell characterises Child as a sort of culinary fairy godmother, making sure dinner, and life, turns out just fine. There is one dish in particular that she repeatedly references in conjuction with this idea, boeuf bourguignon.
The blatant superiority of Child’s version of this perennial French stew classic is a repeated motif throughout the film. In the parallel narrative in which Child is trying to get her recipe book accepted by a publisher, we see her future editor Judith Jones cooking this recipe and its inherent “yumminess” is what convinces her that the book deserves to be published.
The promise of a visit from Jones is what prompts the scene in which Powell has her own attempt at what she consistently for some reason pronounces “boof bourguignon”.
In the clip there, Adams as Powell says that Child suggests the casserole needs to be cooked for two and a half hours (I mentioned last week about how film editing can make any slow cooked dinner appear to be prepared instantly), but in Mastering the Art of French Cooking the actual recipe says to simmer it for a whopping “3 to 4 hours”. As a result of this (and the absence of her potential special guest), the sequence ends with Powell leaving her bouef bourguignon to simmer while she accidentally falls asleep and lets it burn to a crisp. This, then, seemed like the perfect opportunity to try and prepare a dish from the movie (and to do it without screwing up). I’d managed the last couple of weeks quickly and easily, so, feeling confident in my kitchen abilities, I optimistically decided to try and get this one done well in advance (normally I end up cooking on a Tuesday night for Wednesday morning’s blog).
Unlike some of the truly historical recipes I’ve tackled in the past, Child’s writing (barely over half a century old) is pretty easy to follow and laid out neatly step by step. Some tastes may have changed (the movie dwells on the book’s not insubstantial section on aspics), but much of what Child discusses is pretty familiar.
“As is the case with most famous dishes, there are more ways than one to arrive at a good bouef bourguignon” Child tells her attentive readers, “Carefully done, and perfectly flavoured, it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man”. Her process, as the clips above show, is pretty simple. The important thing at first, Child writes, is to dry the beef as it will not brown if damp. That’s why you see both Jones and Powell in the movie diligently patting their beef chunks down with kitchen towel. Faithfully I too followed suit.
Beyond this, her process is pretty familiar. The meat is browned, then carrots and onions are sautéed and then you just have to add garlic, herbs, beef stock, tomato paste and, as the above clips make very clear, a generous glug of wine. When it comes to wine, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is definitely of an era when you’d expect someone cooking to know their wines properly and with a comfort with wine terminology that I don’t really share. She recommends wine pairings with every recipe – people were a lot drunker back then – suggesting a “fairly full-bodied, young red wine, such as Beaujolais, Côtes de Rhône, a St. Émilion claret, or Burgundy” both with and in the beef stew. Searching through our small selection of wines, the closest I could come was one with the distinctly un-1960s name “omg2011”. Well, it was young, red and French at least.
Having put all that in the oven I was feeling confident that I could relax (and write last week’s blog!). Our oven doesn’t actually have any temperatures written on the dial any more (they were gone before we even moved in) so it’s usually kind of guesswork what temperature exactly you’re using, but then I’m only vaguely reliable at converting temperatures (bad workman blaming his tools there, you can probably see where this is going). Child says to cook the bouef bourguignon at 325˚F, so I went with sort of middling-low on the oven.
While going back and forth to write last week’s entry, I moved on to the onions and mushrooms, an element that the film doesn’t really bother with showing. These Child tells you to make separately using other recipes in her book that are essentially variants on sautéeing in butter. If anything is the secret to Child’s success, and a good reason why her recipes taste that much better than stuff that a lot of people cook today, it’s her love of butter rather than any lower fat oils. Julie & Julia is probably the most butter loving film since Last Tango in Paris and if there’s one message it repeatedly hammers home it’s that “everything’s better with butter”. In fact, perhaps the stand out scene comes in the final moments. Blog challenge completed, Powell visits the Smithsonian Museum, which, rather brilliantly, has Child’s whole kitchen completely preserved, and leaves a stick of butter in tribute to her idol before the scene fades to the real kitchen fifty years earlier where Child receives notification of her book’s publication. It’s a cinematically neat and emotionally appealing moment. If only the rest of the movie were quite that good.
Thus far I was pretty happy that following Julia Child’s instructions was nice and simple and I’d have no trouble avoiding a movie Julie Powell style breakdown. In fact, I was so confident in the outcome that I was happy to let the casserole slowly cook until the 3 hours were up. If you’ve seen the movie, or even read up to this point, you probably know where this is going. Yes, if Julie & Julia taught us anything (apart from the butter thing) it’s that abandoning a bouef bourguignon to finish itself leads to this. Yes, in a moment that is far from my finest hour in the kitchen and yet a strangely accurate tribute to the movie that inspired it, I was left with nothing but some black lumps encrusted to the bottom of the pan. I didn’t have a full on Julie Powell/Amy Adams meltdown, but it was a pretty big let down, especially as, after hours of cooking, it wasn’t like we had anything else going spare.
It was fairly unsalvageable, but fortunately preparing the mushrooms, onions, as well as the potato and peas that Child suggests the stew be served with, meant we ended up eating a random assortment of vegetables with a few bits of blackened, caramelised meat. It was not the best dinner I’ve made since the blog began, but it made me determined to get it right the following week.
The next week I went through all the steps again only this time I was sure to turn the oven lower, cook the casserole for less time and (most importantly) pay closer attention to check on how it was doing. By the end of my second attempt I’d managed a version of Child’s legendary bouef bourguignon, but, to be honest, it’s hard to say whether it was worth the effort. It was a perfectly serviceable dinner, but it’s hard to say it had the “yum” inducing perfection conjured up on film. Perhaps I was too timid to let it cook long enough the second time, not wanting another burnt lump on my hands, but the meat never reached that meltingly soft quality I wanted of it. I guess if I’ve learnt anything from this week it’s not to watch movies with a: “that doesn’t look too tricky, I could do that” attitude.
The substitute dinner was perfectly nice, in the end, and at least it didn’t have tough lumps of meat like the final bouef bourguignon. Either stewing steak was more tender in the old days, or it needed cooking lower for longer.
Really, the main casualty was the omg wine (courtesy of nakedwines). What a waste of a nice wine.
Next week’s movie month meal will be from Once Upon a Time in Mexico.