Happy Birthday, Julia Child!
Last Thursday, August 15, I joined my friends and colleagues at the National Museum of American History (NMAH) to celebrate what would have been Julia’s 101st birthday. It was a wonderful night filled with a screening of Julie and Julia and delicious food inspired by Julia’s potato-leek soup, chocolate almond cake, and her favorite snack: goldfish crackers. I also had the opportunity to catch up with the brilliant team responsible for Julia’s Cambridge Kitchen and new exhibition Food: Transforming the American Table on view at NMAH.
The film, Julie and Julia, and Julia Child, have a great deal of sentimental value for me. I remember seeing the movie in 2009 as an undergrad—through some miracle, but normally Disney and chick-flick family agreed to see it together. Prior to the film, I really did not know very much about Julia, other than what my Grandma Betty shared with me about her television show—in particular the famed incident in which Julia dropped the omelet she was flipping. Of course, after the film I was obsessed with her, and was especially jealous of the people who got to visit her kitchen in Washington. Little did I know that where my career would take me.
In so many ways, Julia was larger than life—and not just because of her 6’ 2” stature and booming voice. She prepared elegant French-inspired meals on her television shows while wearing pearls, yet also enjoyed goldfish crackers and SNL sketches in which she was portrayed by Dan Akyroyd. Julia Child was the woman who taught Americans to eat and cook again at a time when our culinary habits were arguably at their worst.
During World War II, Americans focused their energy on winning the war and making due with less. Housewives, who had traditionally been responsible for preparing meals, often filled vacancies in factories and offices as their husbands, brothers, and sons fought overseas. The leisurely evening meal became extinct. By the 1950s, innovations in packaging technology and busier lifestyles had left many Americans eating prepackaged television dinners. Enter Julia Child.
Prior to becoming an overseas government worker during World War II, Julia McWilliams had little cooking experience. While in Ceylon, she met Paul Child, an artist and poet who was quite the food gourmet. He introduced her to a whole new outlook on food, and life. They married and eventually moved to France, where Paul was an exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency. Julia meanwhile took cooking classes at Le Cordon Bleu. While in France, she befriended Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, her collaborators for the first book she published, Mastering the Art of American Cuisine.
In the midst of The Cold War and McCarthyism, Paul Child found himself the subject of a rather unpleasant investigation. He retired from government service and the couple moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts in the 1960s. Julia filmed cooking shows from their apartment, and America fell in love with her. She went on to revolutionize the American table. I am leaving out a lot of details here about Julia’s life (and her marriage to Paul, which was adorable). I encourage you to check out the resources below to learn more about this amazing woman.
Julia’s books and television shows transformed an entire generation of eaters, and paved the way for the celebrity chef culture that we live in today with Emeril Lagasse, Food Network, and food blogs. You may have never even heard of Julia Child, but I can almost guarantee she has influenced your life by the eating choices you make, and the ingredients available in your grocery store. Thank you, Julia Child!
For further reading:
Child, Julia. Mastering the Art of French Cooking. USA: Alfred A. Knopf, 1961.
Child, Julia, and Dorie Greenspan. Baking with Julia. USA: William Morrow Cookbooks, 1996.
and all of Julia’s books and shows!
I had no idea where to start choosing a few of Julia’s recipes to try. I decided to go with an eggplant quiche (Julia developed many variations), and her famous fudgy brownies. Hope you enjoy as much as I did!
Julia Child’s Eggplant Quiche
1/2 lb. firm eggplant
1/2 tsp. salt
2 tbsp. minced shallots, or green part of scallions
1 clove garlic, finely minced
1/3 c. grated Parmesan and Swiss, combined
Pinch of pepper
1/2 c. heavy cream
1 8 or 9 inch pie shell
1 1/2 tbsp. butter, cut in 1/4 inch bits
1 tbsp. fresh chopped parsley
1/4 tsp. thyme or herb mixture
Salt to taste, if needed
Peel eggplant and cut in 3/4 inch dice. In bowl, toss eggplant with salt and let stand 20 to 30 minutes. Drain and pat dry with towel.
In large skillet, heat 1/8 inch layer of olive oil. When very hot, but not smoking, add the eggplant. Toss and turn frequently for 4-8 minutes until tender, but not mushy, just lightly browned. Toss in the shallots or scallions and garlic, shaking pan over heat for a minute to cook them. Turn eggplant mixture into a large sieve set over a bowl to drain off excess oil.
Carefully mix the eggplant with the parsley, herbs and 1/2 the cheese. Pour over pastry shell. In small bowl, beat together the eggs, pepper, nutmeg and cream. Salt mixture if the cooked eggplant doesn’t already have enough salt.
Pour this mixture over the eggplant in the pastry shell. Sprinkle with remaining cheese and dot with butter. Bake in a preheated oven until golden, about 30 minutes.
May sure to save room for dessert!
Julia Child’s Best-Ever Brownies
1 1/4 cups sifted all-purpose flour
1 teaspoon salt
8 ounces unsalted butter
4 ounces unsweetened chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 ounces bittersweet chocolate, coarsely chopped
2 cups sugar
1 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
4 large eggs, room temperature
Directions: Center a rack in the oven and preheat the oven to 350°. Sift the flour and salt together; set aside.
Melt the butter and chocolate together in a medium saucepan over low heat, stirring frequently and keeping a watchful eye on the pot to make certain the chocolate doesn’t scorch.
Add 1 cup sugar to the mixture and stir for half a minute, then remove the pan from the heat and stir in the vanilla.
Pour the mixture into a large bowl.
Put the remaining 1 cup sugar and the eggs into a bowl and mix or whisk by hand just to combine.
Gradually pour half of the sugar and eggs into the chocolate mixture, stirring gently but constantly with a rubber spatula so that the eggs don’t set from the heat.
Fit the whisk attachment to the mixer and whip the remaining sugar and eggs until they are thick, pale, and doubled in volume, about 3 minutes. Using the rubber spatula, delicately fold the whipped eggs into the chocolate mixture. When the eggs are almost completely incorporated, gently fold in the dry ingredients. Pour and scrape the batter in to an unbuttered 8×11 inch pan.
Bake the brownies for 22-26 minutes. When ready, the brownies will ooey-gooey inside, but fully baked at the top. Cool the brownies in the pan on a rack.
*Julia recommends vanilla bean ice cream as a topping. I completely agree, but also suggest a raspberry-port sauce: To make, take two parts whole frozen raspberries and one part port wine. Simmer on low heat for 10 minutes.