About Julia's Kitchen, Julie's Dreams and the Power of Cooking
Julia Child's kitchen is a fine arts atelier: I just saw it at the Smithsonian Museum of American History earlier this month. The details, from recipe books to exposed pots and pans, were the portrait of an era when people had their own ideas about what a kitchen should be. Nobody had to pretend that their kitchen was in Scandinavia to feel "belonging". I loved every inch of it, from the tool wall to the crowded countertop, the mix of colors, and the purposeful practicality of the organization.
Life, as we knew it, before Mari Kondo, looked fruitful and chaotically inspiring. I thought about how joyful that kitchen is: the cat pictures on the wall and the dainty kettle, all making sure to display normality and functionality. The most powerful woman in the kitchen in the 50s brought food to life in the middle of a universe of canned and frozen meals. I know, and everybody knows, Julia was a privileged white woman, married to a civil servant and highly sophisticated diplomat. Yet she defied the notion that only a man could become a prestigious chef after graduating from Le Cordon Bleu.
Her choice, for me, was powerful. She never called herself a chef, but the fearless nature of her cooking style made me think about all the power of those who control the kitchen. I wrote all of this before watching the documentary Julia, by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, which confirmed what I suspected all the way: Julia was a charismatic woman who believed her convictions, eager to share what she learned about French Cooking. Sharing tips on how to live a meaningful life, between the lines of every cooking show she delivered to NPR, with passion and enthusiasm. This documentary is a much-needed light into her story. The narrative style is very earthy _ a mix of food porn imagery and Shakespearean poetry.
Julia's kitchen also made me think of Julie Powell, who died recently at 49 years old. Julie, like Julia, also had a plan: driven by the desire to empower people like her, who were basically clueless in the kitchen, to cook Julia's French recipes as a challenge. I read that Julia, the original, was not amused by Julie's blog, her book, or the movie. According to her agent, she thought of it as a "stunt". Whatever she thought of Julie's kitchen mishaps, didn’t discredit Julie Powell as the quintessential food blogger known for being filter-less, bringing spontaneity to another level.
Both made me think about how cooking is powerful. In my opinion, this power is about love, sharing, and controlling.
When was the last time you recall your family gathering around a memorable dish made by your grandma? Mine was many decades away, in the late 70. I still remember my impression: When the fish platter was brought to the table, that old woman was the most powerful of all family members. Her eyes were sparkling, overflowing with joy when everybody complimented her that she was the best cook ever and that nobody would be able to replicate her recipes. When I started cooking, at the age of 26, I knew I was looking for a healthier lifestyle, but I was mainly pursuing more independence and power. That same power my grandmother, later my mother, and many other family cooks had.
The first thing I started cooking for a crowd came from intuition. I never read a recipe, but knew it by heart: simple vegetable yakisoba. I used to observe how the Japanese chef of a food truck by the beach used to prepare a delicious mix of crunchy vegetables and pillowy noodles. I found out that that was what I wanted to cook for my friends, and it took me a little while to figure out I could buy all the needed ingredients, including fresh vegetables, at the Japanese mini grocery store close to my home. I learned a few other details and the ultimate importance of the sesame oil, just a few drops, at the very end of the dish. I bought a cheap wok, which I will carry around. I felt that I was mostly more powerful when I was in the kitchen than in the newsroom. Little I knew how this perception would change my career path later in life.
During the Covid pandemic, we could see that people who never ventured did what we all need to during testing times. Some of them developed a stable relationship with the stove, others just had a fling, and some want to forget all about it, and are making enough money to dine out all the time. Perhaps all we need is a bit of balance: having the option of mastering 3 or 4 dishes to have or to share with friends will make you sweetly powerful. You can use that amazing talent to attract foodie friends, invite your family, or bring something to share with your family. You will have control of all the processes, and the possibility of showing your quest for independence in the kitchen. Here are some tips for making this possible:
Cook what you want to eat: something you're familiar with and love to savor.
Read the recipe twice before shopping and gathering the ingredients
Make sure you have all the needed ingredients so you won't have to stop in the middle for something you forgot.
Rehearse the a couple of times the chosen dishes to make sure you are mastering the art of having fun while cooking
Invite a good friend to try it out but always disclose that it's an experiment and that you can improve the result based on candid feedback.
Over-self-criticism will freeze you. Friends are usually happy when you cook for them, so enjoy and relax.
Your food should be, above all, safe; always follow the basics, assuring that all food is cooked to the right internal temperature If you're using any animal protein. Even if you're serving friendly vegetables, make sure that they are all cooked.
Above all, enjoy. As Julia always said: Toujours bon appetit!