Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

Ted and Julia and your children and mine

Friday, September 4, 2009

Here in Massachusetts we’re understandably thinking a lot about Ted Kennedy. We’re reading and listening to accounts of his many accomplishments and his almost as many challenges. And we’re hearing about his upbringing, including those famous dinner table discussions where the fledgling Kennedys were urged to think seriously about public events and about their own future roles.

Meanwhile, we’re having a Julia moment. We’re in love all over again with Julia Child, getting out those old copies of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" or buying new ones. We’re hearing that voice again in our ears, channeled by Meryl Streep, urging us on as we braise and whip and learn to have our way with carnards and poulets.

And the thought came to me that these two zeitgeist moments are not unrelated. In fact,I think they have something profound to tell us. First of all, a case could be made for the similarity between Ted and Julia. Think about it: Each got a start that was not without its delays, its setbacks, its discouragements. Each worked hard on something they were passionate about. And each came to an enormous level of achievement and influence only after years of setbacks and persistence.

But there's another message in their stories: the family dinners.

When American fell under the spell of Julia the first time we had succumbed to the siren call of easy food. Ready-made, heat-and eat, and mixes to make what earlier generations knew how to whip up from scratch. We were ripe for new food adventures, but we were also getting out of the kitchen. And the dining room.

Imagine if Rose had had a 2009-type schedule. Rush home from work. Maybe take John and Eunice to tennis practice, Ted tp a playdate, Jean to the library, and Bobby’s got a soccer game. Maybe she’d leave food out (well, ok,, this is the Kennedys--the cook would leave food out) in the kitchen for when each one got home. Maybe no one would sit at the table but Joe, reading The Wall Street Journal, making a few phone calls with dinner, checking his Blackberry..

But Rose didn’t do that, either because that’s the way she wanted it or because that’s the way the world was then. According to national folklore she sat them all down, Joe at the other end, and they talked. All of them. About the world and its problems. About its opportunities, their own abilities, and the possibility of making the world better. And somehow along with dinner the Kennedy kids got the message that they could make a difference. And that they should.

And so, strangely, here we are in the long shadow of Ted’s public legacy, with Julia luring us back once again into the kitchen. We’re being tempted anew to think of feeding the ones around our table something that demands effort to prepare and time to enjoy. And we’re being given the chance to think about what can happen around a dinner table.

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Lessons from Julia's book

Monday, August 24, 2009

I’ve just returned home from the neighborhood farmers’ market with a bulging bag of what August does best--corn and tomatoes and melons. Also pea tendrils from a stall of Asian vegetables where I was discussing recipes with two Haitian women. And long lavender Chinese eggplants I need to find a recipe for.

It’s the bountiful season, no doubt, that’s put me in the mood to cook the fruits of my hunting and gathering. But according to this morning’s New York Times, we’re also all under the spell of Julia and The Book. (And if you haven’t yet seen the movie, have you got a treat waiting for you!

My copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” has a slightly ripped binding. It’s old (first edition, 14th printing) and spattered and has notes penciled in beside many of the recipes (“next time make the brown-braised onions FIRST”). I was a new bride and Julia taught me to cook. She also taught me to be ambitious and adventurous in the kitchen. Maybe even outside the kitchen. And maybe that was her most enduring lesson, the reason a new generation of cooks is making her book a best-seller today. Yes, we know what is healthy to eat, but maybe eating shouldn’t be only about what sustains our bodies.

People in other countries seem to know it better than we do here in America, the idea that eating just may be also about sustaining our souls with food that we take the time to prepare with careful attention and eat not standing up or driving, but sitting at a table with people to whom we also give careful attention.

Julia’s ‘60s ultimately gave way to the excessive ‘80s and we started paying more attention to amounts on our plates--enormous or minceur--and her lessons started slipping away from us. But Nora Ephron and Julie Powell have given us a chance to relearn them. A little butter isn’t a terrible thing. Good food rarely comes in a box with listed ingredients. Cooking is an art, but it can be mastered. And savoring good food in the company of friends and family is one of the great pleasures we are given in this life.

Bon appetit to you, Julia. And to Nora, Julie, Meryl, Amy. And to us.

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