I read an article in the Wall Street Journal last month that got my blood boiling.
I’ve tried to let it go but it keeps coming back to my mind so I have decided to speak that mind. The author was spouting off about Julia Child’s complicated recipes and his dinners with her, specifically one dinner, when she marched into his house and dumped out his effort at one of her recipes so she could start again and make it properly herself.
I suppose everyone has their own memory of events, God only knows I often differ with Mom about things I remember from my childhood. But this story seems like rubbish to me. The thing is, Julia isn’t here to comment on said incident so we will never know her side of the story. I have some ideas on words she may have chosen to describe it (and him). Since I can’t ask Julia for her version of this so-called tipping out of the soup, I have no ability to refute the author’s memory. I would, however, like to represent her side by telling MY story about preparing a recipe of Julia’s for Julia.
You have heard from me before how I don’t often think things through before jumping in with both feet. When I first cooked for Julia Child, I didn’t think it through at all, and fortunately it all ended up fine. It always ended up fine, just some times more fine than others. Cooking Scalloped Potatoes Baked in Cream for Julia was one of my less-than-fine moments.
I had cooked the recipe before. It was so decadent, so over-the-top deliciously creamy and rich, it reminded me of Julia with every bite. I knew she loved it because of her description in The Way To Cook and her statement there reading “I, for one, would far rather swoon over a small spoonful of this ambrosia than a large ladleful of instant mashed made with skim milk!”
Why I thought that I should serve it to her at a dinner party I don’t know.
I’m going to say I must have been tired. I did have three young children to raise so I must have been tired, right? For whatever reason, I decided that serving Julia one of her own favorite recipes was going to be great and I never had a second thought about it.
I love this recipe because it serves a crowd (I always double it) and can be completely prepared hours ahead of time. The final baking takes about 20 minutes, making it a great side dish for a party. So the day of my dinner party, when I must have been very tired, I prepared the potatoes ahead and had them ready to go into the oven well before the guests arrived. The party was going great, all the food was ready on time and looked delicious. I served it up and sat down to eat. I was so proud of my potatoes and just knew everyone would love them as they always did and I could tell them that it was Julia’s recipe.
I took a bite of the potatoes expecting the ambrosia that Julia described. Instead, I got a bite of not-quite-cooked potato in a lovely creamy sauce. I instantly realized that I had not cooked the potatoes enough during the preliminary cooking. I had taken them out WAAAY too early. They were not cooked completely! They were crunchy. This was not good. No amount of explaining could rationalize why I had thought the potatoes were done when they weren’t. Didn’t I test them? It was such an amateur mistake. A mistake that Julia would never had made.
I looked around and no one said a word. People were eating and laughing and talking. No one had spit out the potatoes or exclaimed that they weren’t cooked. Maybe I was just being overly critical of my own food? I tried them again. Nope. Still not good. No one was raving over them like they had in past dinners, but also no one pointed out that they didn’t exactly taste good. Having learned a lot from Julia, I knew that she did not condone apologizing for the food you serve. So I didn’t. I didn’t say a word. And neither did anyone else. Including Julia.
She didn’t finish the potatoes on her plate but that was to be expected. As I got to know Julia better, I noticed that was her usual response when she didn’t care much for a dish, mine or someone else’s. She took a few cursory bites and didn’t finish it. She liked food so much, it seemed to rarely happen. She left the bottoms of the thick stalks of my unpeeled asparagus one time and I read somewhere after that she found it essential to peel asparagus stalks so they would be tender. She left the arrugula salad under her pork one time and I found out another day that she didn’t care for the spicy bitter flavor of arugula. What I never heard her say at any meal anywhere was that someone’s food was bad. Julia was one of the most gracious, complimentary and easy-going dinner guests ever to sit at my table and I’m sure most of her true friends would agree with that statement.
“You should never apologize at the table. People will think, ‘Yes, it’s really not so good.'” -Julia Child
Julia’s Scalloped Potatoes
Rewritten from The Way To Cook by Julia Child
1-1/2 to 2 cups heavy cream
1-1/2 to 2 cups half-and-half
1 large clove garlic, pureed (I use a garlic press)
salt and freshly ground white pepper
1 imported bay leaf
2 to 2-1/2 pounds “boiling” potatoes (6-7 cups sliced)
3 to 4 T grated swiss cheese
butter for baking dish
Pour 1-1/2 cups each of cream and half-and-half into a heavy-bottomed 3-quart saucepan with a lid. Stir in garlic, 1/2 tsp salt, 1/4 tsp white pepper and bay leaf. Slice the potatoes evenly 1/8″ thick and drop into the cream as sliced. When all are in, add ore cream if necessary to cover the potatoes by 1/2″.
Bring the potatoes to below the simmer for an hour or more until the potatoes are perfectly tender. Check frequently to be sure they are not bubbling or sticking or scorching in the bottom of the pan.
When tender, add salt and pepper if necessary and turn into a buttered baking dish. Spread the grated cheese on top.
At this point, the potatoes can be cooled, covered and refrigerated until ready to bake.
Final baking takes about 20 minutes at 425 degrees. Set the baking dish in the upper middle level of the preheated oven and bake uncovered until bubbling hot and lightly browned on top.