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Yet Another Blog About Julie & Julia

Friday, August 7, 2009
As much as I want to see movie, I confess that I'm getting really tired of hearing about it.


All the freakin' time.

Yes, Julia was wonderful -- and Julie caught my attention ages ago (I featured her blog in update #30, in May 2003). This was before the updates even had a separate section for blogs. I described it, at the time, as "a delightful, if occasionally scatological, journal of a culinary experiment."

Consequently, this blog is not about the movie. In fact, it's only tangentially about Julia, who I will use only to launch one of my usual digressions into culinary nostalgia.

The first time I met Julia Child was in the bookstore of The Culinary Institute of America. Her book, The Way to Cook, had just come out, and I was last in line to have it autographed. When I got to the table, she was looking a little tired. I wanted to say something to cheer her up, but the best I could come up with was, "I want to thank you for saving me from a lot of brown rice and seaweed back in the sixties."

She looked stricken -- by simultaneous seizures of stomach-clenching horror and unfeigned pity.

"You ate that?!"

"Occasionally," I confessed, "but that's what almost everyone I knew was cooking in those days." I explained that Mastering the Art of French Cooking had introduced me to French food, and -- somehow -- a return to standard hippie fare was no longer an option.

I had never tasted a croissant until I learned how to make them from her. I spent all of one long day rolling, chilling, folding, chilling, rolling -- seemingly forever -- just to get to the point where I could put them in the oven. When they came out, hippies miraculously appeared from all over town. The croissants (together with the season's supply of homemade wild strawberry preserves) vanished in less time than it took to type this sentence.

The experience taught me an important lesson: that good cooking has the power to transform people from self-denying puritans to totally-abandoned hedonists (a phenomenon Isak Dinesen described in "Babette's Feast," back in 1953).

It also made me look at my hippie friends a little differently.

I could understand why the croissants appealed to them (they would have to have been insane not to like them), but was a little puzzled as to why they ate what they ate the rest of the time.

To understand the culinary environment, a little background is necessary. Most hippies shared a notion, an implicit understanding, that their health (and, presumably, their precious youth) could only be preserved through a diet based on "pure" foods, the kind eaten by peasants -- preferably peasants from obscure and distant corners of the world. To achieve this goal, they adopted one after another cult-like food regimens. Macrobiotics posited an early version of the locavore movement, but somehow focused on brown rice -- no doubt because George Ohsawa, its founder, was Japanese. Followers of Paul Ehrlich were convinced that dairy-products should be avoided, since they were "mucus-producing" (whatever that meant).

Whatever dietary cult one followed, its food had to be "natural," so health-food stores thrived, whether or not the hippies did. Refined sugar was the culinary anti-christ back then. Once, having been invited to dinner at some friends' house, I brought a cake. My hosts loved it, asking, "how did you get it so sweet?" When I answered, "sugar," they recoiled, clutching their throats, as if I had said "strychnine."

In gastronomic self-flagellation, the hippie movement's mea culpas were a continuation of a long and (ig)noble American culinary tradition that began with Sylvester Graham -- gastronomic guru to the Transcendentalists of Concord, Massachusetts -- and was carried to absurd extremes by Harvey Kellogg (parodied in typically merciless fashion by T.C. Boyle's The Road to Wellville).

Americans have always been torn between their puritan urge to deny themselves any pleasure, the better to pursue the good life (granted, "the good life" has often been redefined, from spiritual to ethical to environmental to mere weight-loss and beautification) and their manifest destiny of complete and utter self-indulgence. We see-saw between these extremes, alternately dieting and gorging... and coming up with ways to explain away our weaknesses. One macrobiotic cook I met, smoked and drank lots of bourbon -- claiming that he "was from the south, where corn and tobacco were local crops."

In this, the hippies were profoundly American, though they would have vehemently denied it at the time.

While I was working my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking, most of my contemporaries (at least those who were adventurous in the kitchen) were cooking from The Moosewood Cookbook, Recipes for a Small Planet, and The Tassajara Bread Book. As for that last book, I didn't observe that it had that much influence. The only bread I remember people baking in the sixties was anadama (a heavy loaf containing corn meal, whole wheat flour and molasses).

Perhaps I remember anadama because it was so indigestible that it is still with me, four decades later.

The sixties, and their hippies, may have been extravagant in many things, but generally not at their tables. The culinary high points of the period were few and far between. It might be appropriate to end with a quote from Julie Powell herself -- something with which Julia Child would, I'm certain, agree ('though she would abhor the language):

I am... eating like a fucking vegan with a wheat allergy and a weaknesss for skinless boneless chicken breasts, and I would like to say to you all now that while I have always found vegetarians a bit silly, since I have been eating like one my contempt for them is boundless. Jesus, what a boring, sad life it is.

Wouldn't be so bad, if you'd just throw in some fucking bacon.

Or a steak.


Anonymous Rachel Laudan said...

A great post, Gary.

August 7, 2009 1:18 PM  
Blogger Gary Allen said...

Thanks, Rachel... not that any of this would have been news to you!

August 7, 2009 1:35 PM  
Anonymous Tom Grasso said...

Art's Deli on Ventura Blvd. in LA burned down a decade or more ago. They were all about giant meat holds barred. I loved the bacon on rye..piled about 4 inches with just bacon and a schmeer of dijon mustard.. They even had gigantic framed photos of their most popular sandwiches..corned beef..pastrami..etc..the place was packed all day and night..but that was before they invented cholesterol.

August 11, 2009 1:46 PM  
Anonymous Gary Allen said...

Or coronary arrest, Tom.

That four inches of bacon was WAY ahead of its time, though (if one considers the vast amount of internet bandwidth currently devoted to bacon consumption).

August 11, 2009 4:55 PM  

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