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So this is a book that is both an Acknowledged Classic and also really trendy right now, and I had never read it because um.

I kind of hate French food.

Don't get me wrong, there are things about French food I love desperately. When we were in France we spent huge chunks of time eating nothing but bread, cheese, and the occasional piece of fruit and those were some of the best meals of my life, because the French have demonstrably won at both bread and cheese. It's just that every time I go to a French restaurant I order something that looks interesting and it tastes lovely for the first three bites and then it is so rich that either I have to stop right there or it just starts tasting cloying, as though I am sitting there eating a stick of butter. (Oddly enough, when I was a child my mother cooked with no fat at all, on a rather misguided health kick, and so I was sufficiently fat-deprived for doctors to come into it at one point and I have had the experience of simply eating, and enjoying, an entire stick of butter. I knew I was getting enough fat in my diet when that stopped tasting awesome. I can remember what it tasted like, though, and slightly miss it. Maybe it resembles what people who aren't me like about French food?)

But this book was very interesting, though it continued to demonstrate that this is neither my natural idiom of cooking nor of eating and there is no use pretending that it is. The foods I feel most comfortable in a kitchen with are Indian and Chinese and some vernacular English; you want massaman curry, char siu bao or summer pudding and I can do that. You want a boeuf bourguignon and I start fumbling for my instruction manual and fretting. This is why I wanted to read this, because it is not remotely in my comfort zone.

And as a good cookbook should be it is designed to increase that comfort zone. It's really well laid out, very systematic-- each family of preparations has a master recipe, which then has usually about seventeen variations, some of which would taste entirely different, but which use the same basic methods. Get the first one down and you can make all of the others, probably without anyone noticing that you really just know one dish. The really intimidating things are also spelled out plainly, with diagrams, and the places you can cut corners are noted, as well as the places you shouldn't. The book has a way of blithely assuming that a determined person can deal with anything, which is both reassuring and slightly intimidating all on its own-- no, I do not think I am ever going to find a souffle something to approach without some element of trepidation, thank you, no matter how often I am told that with practice I can whip one out.

The technique notes are also good. I may never need to flute a mushroom cap, but it's interesting to know how it's done.

So there were entire huge sections of this which I am never, ever going to want to make (I mean, no one in the house eats veal), but there kept being things I would strongly consider: the aforementioned boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, pot-au-feu, pretty much the entire dessert section. And I do feel vague smugness at already being able to make mayonnaise and Hollandaise and poached eggs and creme anglaise, because it means the variations and changes on them are things I can note down for future use. This really is one of those books which can and does serve as an introduction and overview of an entire way of looking at food, and so inevitably there are some things I would like to swipe, even if I will never be able to figure out why in hell anybody would want to braise lettuce.

Deservedly classic. At some point I should read volume two.
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Today's book is an exemplar of the dangers of reading while ill. I am, in fact, quite sick, and unaccountably we do not have in the house a copy of Pat the Bunny (sheer oversight on my part), so for some reason I decided it was reasonable to sit down with this extremely giant cookbook by Julia Child. Possibly because it has a lot of illustrations. Note to self: lots of illustrations do not, in fact, make the book any shorter. Really. So this was my first misstep.

So, after several hours of reading, napping, feeling too ill to read, feeling too ill to nap, napping while, technically, reading and reading while, technically, napping, my housemates came home, and I felt the urge to discuss the things I do not understand about the book, a list much longer than I expect it usually would be under healthy circumstances but which centers around one item: aspic.

You see, The Way to Cook is not actually a French cookbook. It is supposedly American food. What this means in practice is that it contains three kinds of recipe: a) solid, beautiful French food of the sort that Julia is justly famous for; b) Great American Classics such as baked beans and chowder, in what appear to be perfectly workmanlike versions; and c) American Cocktail Food c. 1957. This book, published in 1989, may be the last gasp in this country of the now-make-a-bechamel-sauce-with-pimento school of culinary terror. There's not much of it, but it is there. And, since Julia is going back to her French roots as often as possible, that means that the combination of classical French and bad American equals man, there are a lot of aspic recipes in this book, aren't there. (Okay, there are five. That's a lot.)

The thing I do not understand about aspic can be summarized easily. What I do not understand is: why? Why make a perfectly reasonable chicken stew, for example, and then jelly it and serve it chilled? Why would you do that to yourself? To the food? To your friends?

So I was going on and on about this, in my feverish way, and ranting about the various aspic recipes and how each is more ludicrous than the next, and showing the housemates the handy colorful photos, and asking my eternal question. And Thrud said, well, you know, if you really don't know why, there is only one way to find out.

When the dust settled and we finished listing what ingredients we keep in the house at each other, I discovered that I had, somehow or other, promised to make poached eggs in port wine aspic for my family just as soon as I feel better, because, God help us, we have all the ingredients, and I can for my sins poach a reasonable egg.

This is why it is dangerous to read new books when you are very ill. I'll let you know how it all turns out.

Other than that it is a pretty good cookbook, well written, full of useful little tips and tricks and insanely useful on the subjects of pastry and sponge-cake and choux paste. If you can keep your head and veer from the bechamel side of things, and remember that in these enlightened days one should about quintuple the amount of hot sauce and that turmeric, cumin, cilantro, epazote etc. are real things that exist and can be added, it could stand you in a very good stead. Who knows. Maybe we will all like aspic.


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March 2017

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