To hell with the vitamins

Sunday, December 13, 2015

I’m reading the News & Observer on Wednesday. There’s an article in the Life section about two men who have books on entertaining in the South. One of the books isĀ  by Scott Barrett, who is, according to the article, “part of the Savannah, Georgia food scene, where he is known as a welcoming host whether he’s serving a casual meal or a black tie dinner.”

The article says:

Barrett likes to quote Julia Child saying, “You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.”

I do a double-take on that.

I look online to find the source of this quote and I see it all over the place, attributed to Julia Child, but I don’t see anything that gives a source.

The reason I am questioning this quote is because I spent a lot of time a few years ago with the 1950s/60s version of Julia Child and that Julia Child was not about cooking good food from fresh ingredients.

That Julia Child was about creating delicious, classic French dishes from whatever ingredients were available in the average American supermarket in the 1950s. That was the whole point of her book.

If you read As Always, Julia, you learn about things that you didn’t even know existed (canned onions???) as Julia consulted with Avis DeVoto to find out what was available in America and Avis sent American ingredients over to France so Julia could test them in her recipes to make sure everything would come out as expected, or if it didn’t, adjust the recipes so Americans wouldn’t be in for any surprises when they used the cookbook.

Over and over, Julia said that Mastering the Art of French Cooking was designed for “serious cooks” — people who cared about good food and were willing to spend the time required to make it. It was not about making things that were quick or easy.

I’m not going to be able to find the quote, but Julie Powell commented on this at one point, that the way Julia’s recipes worked, you would take an ingredient then do something to it, then do something else, then add a sauce. By the time you’re done with all that, it doesn’t much matter what kind of shape the ingredient was in to start with.

Which really was the whole point, because “fresh ingredients” were simply not available in America in the 1950s, and Julia’s goal was to work around that and still get something delicious.

In her biography of Julia Child in the Penguin Lives series, food historian Laura Shapiro writes on page 165:

Great cooking meant, as she often said, doing something to the food, not serving a few slices of humanely raised veal on a plate with three perfect radishes and calling it dinner. She didn’t even like humanely raised veal; she thought it was tasteless. This worshipful approach to ingredients, she told a San Francisco magazine, “takes us away from cuisine as an art form into something that I believe is much too simple, too tiresome.” Worse, the emphasis on organic, artisanal ingredients put California cuisine far beyond the reach of most Americans, who shopped in supermarkets and had never seen a pea shoot or a leaf of baby arugula in their lives. Julia’s entire career was predicated on supermarkets, and she couldn’t see the point of promoting a cuisine that was too rarefied to be supplied by Safeway or Stop & Shop.

I think people like to take whatever they think about food now and ascribe it to Julia Child. And then make a poster of it. Which doesn’t mean that she didn’t say it, but I’d be interested in the source, so if anyone has that, please send it along.

And I will leave you with a Julia Child quote I prefer, taken, again, from the Laura Shapiro biography:

I think one should get one’s vitamins in salads, and raw fruits, and what is cooked should be absolutely delicious and to hell with the vitamins.