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 is  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.

3 Responses to “To hell with the vitamins”

  1. orinoco Says:

    If you’ve ever lived in Europe (I have,most of my 53 years) you would know that until about 15 yrs ago, European housewives were all about using whatever was on hand wisely. They didn’t have any worries about “vitamins” and nutrition–particularly to the postwar generation, it was about having Something To Eat, and making it as tasty and filling as possible given their limited resources. Even 35 years ago when I was married and came to live here permanently, most women shopped every day for fresh fruit or fish–as married women didn’t really form a large part of the workplace until the 1990s, they were able to do this. Butchers, fruit shops etc opened then at 8.30 and closed at 2. Ready meals and prepared foods were almost unknown, and not very good. What is now swanky “slow food” was normal cooking. You went out bright and early, did your shopping and came home to cook what you got. Refrigerators were much, much smaller than what was available in the US (and often still are), because most meals were cooked fresh each day. Some women were more creative than others; many (like my MIL) just had a roster of meals they prepared in rotation: fish on Friday, stew on Saturday, something special for Sunday, pulses midweek…and evening meals were light, often eggs in some form. I remember as a child in the 60s seeing the to-do on the Julia Child programme about the omelette, and then finding out to my relief how easy it actually is to make one. But then I live in Spain, not France, and in the 70’s and 80’s many families lived on eggs. The sound of summer was hearing your neighbours across the courtyard beating eggs to make dinner!

    Over the past 10 years or so, the ready meal market has really taken off as more and more young couples don’t even marry, let alone have SAHMs. Many young women tell me proudly that they can’t cook. You see silly things like frozen rice (!!) and pasta in foilpacks. Seriously, how long does it take to boil water? No shops open before 9.30 these days, and the small one-product shops (particularly butchers) are a dying breed.

  2. lessisenough Says:

    Yes, food habits have changed greatly. Julia Child and Avis DeVoto talk about the differences between America and Europe, shopping at supermarkets in the US vs. going to the green grocer or butcher or fishmonger in France and other European countries.

    After spending last year trying to keep two part-time jobs going while also in full-time graduate school program and commuting 45min-1hr each way by bus, I do have somewhat more understanding of the need for some of the convenience products that I previously thought were just silly. I still couldn’t bring myself to buy the little individual plastic tubs of peanut butter in the grocery store, but I should have, because that’s what I was paying 2 or 3x as much for in the cafeteria to put on my bagel.

    In the grocery store, I would look at them and think, sensibly, about how you could just buy a jar of peanut butter and put it in a little container and take it with you. But did I actually do this? No, I did not. And not so much because I couldn’t find the time, I’m sure I could have pulled 5 minutes from somewhere, but because I just couldn’t find the mental energy to care enough about it to make it happen.

    Eventually I managed to make a trip where I stopped at Trader Joe’s and bought a bunch of nonperishable items, including a jar of peanut butter, and kept that in my locker and put on my bagels as needed, and that took care of a bunch of problems. I was still eating an inordinate number of Clif bars, but at least I wasn’t paying $3 for one every day.

    I also have more undersatnding of some of the pre-cooked items now that I am in an office with only a microwave at my disposal. There’s a grocery store on the other end of our parking lot, and I actually really appreciate being able to buy a bag of frozen cooked brown rice and frozen vegetables that I can then microwave and eat with soy sauce or teriyaki sauce and have a not-so-bad dinner when I don’t plan properly and get stuck at work with no food.

    In terms of people proudly reporting not knowing how to cook, I don’t get that. I recently read Blackout by Sarah Hepola, and at one point she talks about how when she was in her early 20s, her mother tried to get her to learn to cook but she blew her off, she said she felt like it was something she didn’t need to know, like her mother was trying to “instruct her in stenography.” But then in her early 30s she decided being able to cook for herself would actually be useful. She says, “How had I determined that not learning a skill was a position of power?”

    Seems like more people should ask themselves that question.

  3. orinoco Says:

    Exactly! You nailed it–they seem to think that not being able to feed themselves, sew on a button or clean a floor makes them superior to us poor slobs who can. They usually have well-paid jobs, so yes, they can “afford” to spend on the expensive individual portions etc–but if they saved that money by purchasing a few of those small plastic seal-boxes to fill up and carry along, think how much more money they’d have for fun stuff!

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