Critiques, Cravings and Conundrums From the Madison Food and Dining Scene
Sep 13, 2009
07:15 PMSmall Dishes
A couple of weeks ago, Katie Vaughn, a writer at Madison Magazine, sent me an email with the tidbit that one of the chefs at Tornado was related to Judith Jones, Julia Child’s former editor. Actually, Judith Jones is a culinary icon in her own right, but frankly I was amused that Julia’s celebrity status is now such that even an association à la 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon is worth touting. Of course, this is all because of the current hit movie, “Julie and Julia.” I’ve been utterly astounded at friends of mine who have gone to see the movie and are now rushing out to buy Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a book that has been around since 1961. Obviously this is a national phenomenon since the book now tops various best-seller lists, a feat it never accomplished while Julia Childs was alive.
I wish I could claim I knew her but I cannot. The closest I got was not that many years ago when she came to Madison and she and Odessa Piper (the former chef/proprietor of L’Etoile) toured the Farmers’ Market. From afar I watched Odessa point out noteworthy legumes as Julia politely appeared interested. Many years latter when I was interviewing Odessa for an article, she recounted a funny story about that very day. It seems that Madame Kuony showed up dressed to the nines for the luncheon being given in Julia Child’s honor. The only problem was she had not been invited and wasn’t expected. I wish I had been there to see that!
Liane C. Kuony was born in Belgium and for many years ran a cooking school called The Postilion in Fond du Lac, and like Julia, was a passionate proponent for French cuisine. She also was quite a personality and I think someone really missed an opportunity by not putting the Madame on TV.
Anyone who knows me knows that I’m obsessed with food and like to cook. (Would I be writing this blog otherwise?) I frequently tell people that my interest in cooking began on Sundays in grade school when my dad would give me a dollar to take the roast out of the oven before it overcooked. My mother had an aversion to red meat, especially if it exhibited even the slighted pinkness. Left to her own devices, she would cook it until was the bleakest gray and unmercifully dry.
However, I didn’t seriously get interested in cooking until I spent my junior year in college abroad, literally eating my way across Europe. Coming home, I was motivated to learn how to cook and heard about a cooking show on PBS—quite honestly, a channel I rarely watched then. It was called The French Chef and featured an Amazon of a woman from Boston with what seemed like an affected accent. (By the way, Sentry Food Stores in Milwaukee was one of her early corporate funders.) For whatever reason, the show fascinated me and I began to make the recipes and bought my first cookbook, The French Chef Cookbook. I still remember the thing I first whipped up—“Sautéed Steak, Henri IV”—beef filets pan-fried in butter with a shallot and Madeira reduction sauce, topped with an artichoke bottom and béarnaise sauce.
What really endeared herself to me as a person was when I saw an early interview and someone asked her what she thought about airline food. With a look of I-can’t-believe-you-asked-me-that she replied that she always brought her own chicken sandwich and drank a couple of those small bottles of scotch they had on board and it worked quite nicely.
I talked a lot about Julia Childs and her show, especially with my sister who for Christmas that year gave me Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Unlike The French Chef Cookbook, this was no mere collection of recipes but a how-to-and-why epistle. The book was coauthored by Child’s “Ecole des Trois Gourmandes” partners, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. At the time, I didn’t grasp what a revolutionary work it was: three women—one of them an American no less—in the early 1960s publishing the definitive teaching book on French cooking!
My copy is not a first edition, but rather the 20th printing from 1971. It nonetheless is now battered and dogeared from almost 40 years of use. (By comparison, I have a copy of the Joy of Cooking from 1972 that looks almost brand new.)
I cannot claim that I have made every recipe in Mastering the Art of French Cooking like Julie but I have actually read it cover to cover, something I have done with few is any other cookbooks. I made a conscious effort to master the techniques and understand the ingredients that made French cuisine the greatest in the world. I recognized very early on that here was the knowledge I needed to be the cook that I aspired to be.
Obviously, over the years taste has changed. It's undeniable that in this country it is more sophisticated because of the influence of Julia Child. If you can remember, think about what it was like to dine out in the 1970s. If you cannot, count your blessings.
And over the years, Julia changed, too. She embraced technology like the food processor. She modified procedures like cooking vegetables less. She was always open to new ideas from other people and other cultures. Her later cookbooks reflect our evolution together. That is why today, my cooking bible is probably her The Way to Cook published in 1989. It contains many of the same recipes first published in Mastering the Art of French Cooking but they are updated for the 21st Century cook and palate. As with the original, the emphasis in this book is technique, how to do it right. That is not to say that I still don’t find myself going back to her original cookbook, relying on its wisdom as a reference.
I have over 300 cookbooks, watch the Food Network regularly, and subscribe to Gourmet and other food magazines. I love trying new recipes. But I often find myself questioning how something is done, thinking Julia would not have done it that way and I make sure I do.
I close with a few purveyors in town and their specialties that are the heart and soul of Julia’s La Belle France. Bon appétit!
Café Soleil: Croissant
Madison Sourdough: Brioche
Capital Chophouse: Soupe à l’oignon
Brasserie V: Moules et frites
Tornado Steak House: Coquilles St. Jacques
Sardine: Biftek frites