Play the theme music from The French Chef and I am instantly transported back in time. In the mid 1960s, there were numerous occasions when afternoons spent in the kitchen with my grandmother's housekeeper Jessie, coincided with broadcasts of the groundbreaking cooking show. Against a wallpaper backdrop of bright red geraniums, Jessie prepared dinner while I perched on a chair, eyes glued to a small black and white television set tuned to Channel 13. Occasionally, Jessie would look up from the blue Formica countertop and shake her head.
Bounding out of the television screen, dressed in a sensible button down blouse and sporting a hair-do as pouffy as meringue was Julia Child. I watched in awe as the French Chef brandished pounds of butter, admonishing viewers, “with enough butter, anything is good.” Jessie was far less smitten, her capable hands dusty with flour as she rolled out a Crisco pie crust. Chastising the French chef for “too much fussin,’ Jessie pragmatically filled the Pyrex pie plate with a tower of apple slices while I dreamt of butter rich apple tarts.
Both women contributed to my culinary journey; Jessie by teaching me how to make chocolate pudding and pie filling from scratch in a Farberware double boiler, and Julia by demonstrating the art of Mousseline au Chocolat. It was however, the chocolate mousse that helped me snag the title of French Club president in high school. Merci, Julia.
Fast forward too-many-years-to-count and I am standing in Julia’s kitchen in Provence. La Pitchoune, (dubbed ‘La Peetch’) is the former home of Julia and Paul Child. Built on a small piece of property once owned by Simone ‘Simca’ Beck and her husband Jean Fischbacher, Julia and Simca often tested recipes in the kitchen of La Peche.
The house is nestled amidst elderly olive trees, with a single pomegranate tree flourishing in the front yard and a lone persimmon tree high above the rear of the house. The classic Provençal rooftop in variegated shades of dusty pink mimics ribbon candy. Just beyond the kitchen door, a portly ceramic pig attired in chef wear stands sentinel.
The kitchen is smaller than I imagined, comfortable and orderly. Jessie would have applauded this kitchen, the walls outfitted in yellow pegboard, black outlines indicating the proper place for no-nonsense, functional tools. I like to think that the weighty rolling pin suspended above the thick wooden countertop is one that Julia used. If that is not the case, don’t tell me. Timidly gathering together ingredients for two galettes- one apple, one pear, the floor to ceiling cabinet offers a variety of mixing bowls. Jessie’s voice admonishes me to “use a bigger bowl” but I disregard my mentor’s advice. Preparing a quick round of pâte brisée, I am soon engulfed in a rising tide of sweet French butter cubes and drifts of flour. Damn. I should have used a bigger bowl.
The knives in the kitchen are lethally sharp. My mantra is constant, “don’t cut your finger, don’t cut your finger…” I don’t. Slices of Crispin apples and ridiculously sweet pears sprawl across the butcher block table. Sheepishly, I select a larger vessel to hold the fruit while it is tossed with vanilla bean sugar and lemon zest. Scanning the yellow pegboard and unable to locate a pastry brush, I check the cabinets behind me.
One of the qualities I found most appealing about Julia was that she unashamedly made mistakes, often on live television. Combing through a vast drawer filled with additional paring knives, peelers and silverware, I unearth a pastry brush for egg washing the galettes and close the drawer. Only it doesn’t close.
There is something horribly wrong with the drawer, Julia Child’s drawer! Convinced that I am responsible, I calmy jiggle the heavy wood, less calmly stick my hand in the back of the drawer in hopes of cajoling the obstinate blockage and ultimately panic. It stubbornly refuses to budge and I envision myself imprisoned in a minimal security house of detention somewhere in the hills of Provence. I take comfort in the fact that at the very least, the bread and water should be good.
Beneath my sneakered feet, wayward apple peels grab my attention. Bending down to scoop them up, I can’t locate the trash can. Looking up into the underside of the open drawer, I find the trash can, its lid ajar, preventing the drawer from closing. Crisis blissfully averted.
Following an exquisite meal of Boeuf Daube a la Sara Martinez, (with inspiration from Julia and Patricia Wells,) we turn to dessert. The galettes are still warm, the fruit blistered along the edges. Half listening to the conversation, I am beginning to feel jet lag nipping at my heels. You could say I am a woman on the verge of a boeuf and butter breakdown. I can just imagine what Jessie would have to say about that.