I took the French chef very seriously, particularly when she donned reading glasses. Detailing the recipe’s ingredients, this pause in action afforded viewers the opportunity to jot things down. So expansive was Julia’s tutorial on crêpes that the subject spanned two episodes. Julia demonstrated how to make the thin pancakes in what she called a ‘no stick-em’ pan suggesting, “you should train yourselves to use the tips of your fingers in very hot materials, because it will save an awful lot of time.”
I learned that the underside of a crêpe was the nicest, and the other side was the ‘non-public side.’ Ladling spoonfuls of liqueur over a chafing dish of crêpes suzette, Julia proceeded to set them on fire. Seated at the kitchen table, casually glancing up at the television from her latest Book of the Month Club selection was Jessie, my baking mentor.
Julia continued, “You can flame it in the kitchen and then bring it to the dining room, but it’s a little bit tricky because you might burn your eyelashes.” I gasped, waiting for Jessie’s reaction, but she was nonplussed. To Jessie, a woman well versed in cream puffs and éclairs, custards and meringues, crêpes were no different than the light pancakes she used to make blintzes. She shifted her attention away from the television and back to her book. My eyes remained fixated on the screen, watching until the flames died down and the credits rolled.
In contrast to today’s over-produced Food Network and Cooking Channel, The French Chef was bare-bones television. An impeccably clean kitchen towel was never too far from Julia’s reach as she bobbed between a General Electric stovetop and double oven, a Sunbeam mixer, a Waring blender, and a small army of hand-held whisks. The show was recorded live allowing ample opportunity for mishaps. Julia was unflappable and unapologetic; mopping up spills from overflowing pots, struggling with matches, unsuccessfully flipping pancakes, misplacing bowls of ingredients crucial to the outcome of the recipe. Julia sprinkled her programs generously with humor, omitting ego and arrogance. Her signature bouffant hairstyle was as mercurial as simple meringue on a humid day; in some episodes her hair held a soft peak, in others, her tresses had been teased and over-sprayed until stiff, often brushing dangerously close to flaming pans and chafing dishes. Far more than cooking, the half hour program was high drama and I loved it. The desserts were always splashed with too much melted butter, heavily doused in European liqueurs, until finally culminating in flames and Julia’s signature send-off.
For years from my perch next to Jessie, I followed Julia around her many television kitchens as they upgraded from black and white to glossy color. Her wardrobe became less stodgy, more fashion forward, and it became evident that she was wearing strategically applied make-up. I devoured her cookbooks, studying the illustrations in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, mesmerized by the photographs in her subsequent books and newspaper features. As glaringly obvious as the overhead lighting in her earliest television programming was the fact that mastering the classics gave you license to improvise.
In honor of what would have been Julia’s 106th birthday on August 15th, I reached for her 1981 softbound edition of Julia Child and More Company. Page 50 provides the recipe for Gateau Mont-Saint-Michel with a quick crêpes refresher course on page 133. Julia suggested apples for her layered dessert, but in the dog days of August, it seemed more appropriate to layer the crêpes with burnt almond cream and white peaches. With Julia’s voice in my head, I poured the thin batter over my very hot pan, rotating it until it had formed a less-than-perfect circle. Waiting a few minutes I zoomed in, using the tips of my fingers to turn the blistered pancake. It saved me an awful lot of time. Repeating the process until the batter was exhausted, I rinsed my hands under cool water before wiping them on my impeccably clean kitchen towel.