Life-Changing Cookbooks: Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the Time of Grunge

Food Features Julia Child
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Life-Changing Cookbooks: <i>Mastering the Art of French Cooking</i> in the Time of Grunge

Refresh: To plunge hot food into cold water to cool it quickly and stop the cooking process, or to wash it off.

In 1991 I was a junior in high school battling anxiety and disordered eating. I spent the previous summer as an exchange student with a family in France, and for those five weeks I was an average teenager. I snacked on flaky pain au chocolat for breakfast and ate my first sugar-dusted beignet with a group of French teens as we loitered on the banks of the Mediterranean discussing politics, sex, music and plans for university. I gained weight while overseas but sauntered around in the sand sporting a high-cut, one-piece as if years’ worth of calorie counting, starving, and purging chocolate cakes devoured in tear-filled frenzies never happened.

When I returned home to the suburbs of Western New York, I felt as though a summer’s worth of growth and confidence had been plunged into cold water and halted. That fall Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” ruled MTV. Instead of wrapping myself in plaid flannel and learning to skateboard or hanging out drinking Genesee beer by the Erie Canal with classmates, I spent my after-school hours alone on the couch watching episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef on PBS. Her unapologetic confidence and solid figure cut a stark and welcome foil to the long-legged women in bodycon dresses that blitzed the airwaves in the early 1990s before Daria or Freaks and Geeks introduced the masses to geek chic.

A French class assignment led me to crack open my mother’s untouched volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The tome sat untouched on the kitchen bookshelf for years. Its neighbor, the perfectly-coiffed Betty Crocker got all the attention. Her pages were filled with colorful pictures of sweet snickerdoodles and tabletop spreads to feed a blissful crowd gathered around an orange and avocado green kitchen. In contrast, Child’s manual, with its fleur de lys cover and drawn illustrations resembled a dull textbook. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

FullSizeRender (2).jpg Photo by Kristin Amico

Child’s 1961 foreword states, “This is a book for the servantless American cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, time schedules … or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.” In the first page, she introduced me to the concepts of moderation and uninhibited exuberance for good food; a notion that eluded me for the first 17 years of my life, except perhaps, for those few weeks in France.

With that intro, I was hooked. I dove into the dessert chapter and opted to make mousse au chocolat for the class project. I spent days prepping and pouring over the instructions. I hauled my mother to the grocery store to gather all the ingredients, including the orange liqueur, a beverage that, at the time, seemed exotic, but is now a liquor cabinet staple for oft-prepared homemade margaritas.

Fold: to blend a fragile mixture, such as beaten egg whites, delicately into a heavier mixture, such as a soufflé base.

The day before my assignment was due I stayed up late into the night beating the egg yolks and sugar together into the perfect ribbon consistency Child described before adding the melted chocolate at just the right temperature. The hard part, which I previously practiced, was tempering the mixture over a hot water bath, then plunging the bowl into a cold bath to stop the cooking. Too much time at either temperature ruins the mixture and requires you to start from scratch. The next step, also tricky to perfect, requires beating the egg whites to stiff peaks — too little volume and the mousse turns out runny, a few seconds of overbeating and it’s a curdled failure.

Lastly, the mousse requires the cook to gently fold the airy egg whites into the thick mixture of yolks and chocolate. It’s a delicate procedure that demands a steady hand and a confidence in knowing when enough is enough. To achieve the perfect mousse, you need to master the midpoint. You also need to accept that making a mess in the process is inevitable. Page 604 is lovingly stained with chocolate fingerprints from that culinary adventure.

In the early hours of the morning I spooned the final product into my mother’s mustard-yellow Tupperware to chill overnight. The following day I packed disposable bowls and spoons, and boarded the bus with the culinary handiwork in my schoolbag. During the class reveal some read reports, while others showed off dioramas of Paris. I did the thing that was most familiar; I fed everyone. Bowls of mousse and freshly whipped vanilla cream were passed around the room and we feasted until the bell broke up the party. I believe there were even high-fives from those with whom I’d rarely speak to on any other school day.

And with that, I folded myself, for the time being, into average high school existence with the help of Child’s precision instructions. Today, the cookbook remains on my bookshelf as a reminder that a little mess and perseverance makes for sweet outcomes.

Kristin Amico is a Boston-based writer specializing in food, travel, and culture. She is currently spending a year living nomadically and eating her way across Europe and Asia.