Tag Archives: Julia Child

Les Hamburgers

I hope you read that title with an appropriately thick French accent, as I’d intended. Lay ambehrgehr. It makes a difference. Because this isn’t about the all-American hamburger we all know and love, instead a Gallic take on our Yankee icon.  

It really had never crossed my radar in all the time I’ve spent in France that the French were big on hamburgers. At least I never saw evidence that replicated the way we love them in the U S of A.

Here’s the limit of my hamburger-related memories from France: I was on a study-abroad program in Dijon my junior year of college. There were just 6 of us, a small program, we were each housed in a family home. And one day each week we convened at our coordinator/den mother’s apartment for lunch, with random host family members joining us. One day a friend’s “French mom” arrived with a packet from the butcher. Some lovely ground beef, all richly red and mottled with the little flecks of white fat. She just plopped that mound onto her plate and dug right in. No pretense about “steak tartar” with its seasonings and accoutrements. It was a culinary learning moment.

So I’ll clarify here that indeed this story is about cooked hamburgers. Les hamburgers à la française.

What inspired this musing is having run into a friend back in July at the preview screening of Julie & Julia. Chatting before the movie started, she told me that the first Julia Child recipe she ever cooked was the hamburger recipe in Mastering The Art of French Cooking. The assignment in her home-ec class was to cook a recipe from a cookbook and that’s what she picked. I kindlyMastering3 asked if perhaps it was another book she was thinking about, secretly sure she was muddling her memory.

No, she assured me, it was Mastering. Volume One.


Didn’t quite compute. Pommes de terre dauphinois, sauce chasseur, veau Prince Orloff, bavarois au chocolat, sure. But hamburgers? In fact, there it is, bottom of page 300, the heading “Ground Beef–Hamburgers; Bifteck Haché.”

Julia explains, “Shock is the reaction of some Americans we have encountered who learn that real French people living in France eat hamburgers. They do eat them, and when sauced with any of the suggestions in the following recipes, the French hamburger is an excellent and relatively economical main course for an informal party.”

So I owed Karen an apology. And I got out the grinder attachment for my KitchenAid. Not because of that recent discomforting New York Times article about ground beef; this was a few weeks prior. Instead because Julia said so: “Be fussy about your meat; have all the fat and sinews removed, and have it ground before your very eyes or better, grind it yourself.”

You’ve got a copy of the book, right? [I’ll wait while you go check your shelves] No? Well you should, pick one up next time you’re out. Even if it’s just for the reading quality and the depth of knowledge that the inimitable  Madame Child shares with us. You don’t have to cook the stuffed leg of lamb or an elaborate cassoulet. Plenty of great go-to recipes for a casual meal, like endive and ham gratin or sole poached in white wine.

hamburger1I picked up some chuck at the store, dutifully trimmed and ground it. Then  following her steps for Bifteck Haché à la Lyonnaise (with onions and herbs), added the sautéed onion, thyme, egg and softened butter she calls for (being fresh out of bone marrow or beef suet).  While I did spend a lot more time on those 4 or 5 burgers than I would have buying a pound and a half of ground beef, the flavor really was a few steps above the norm. Not just the flavor, but the texture too, so toothsome, resistent, juicy. My only quibble with Julia’s method was the final coating of the patties in flour before cooking; I found it just encouraged sticking and burn potential, I preferred the unfloured version.

The real French-ness of this recipe shines next: making a little pan sauce to serve over the burgers, dispensing with the frivolous bun/lettuce/tomato finish we come to expect. I chose red wine to dissolve those tasty bits stuckhamburger2 to the pan, reducing quickly to a nice sauce. Simple in presentation, powerful in flavor.

I’m sold. There is a lot to be gained in fresh-grinding meat for burgers, and surely meatballs, sauces, other favorite uses for ground beef, whether your motives are gastronomic or health-related.


Filed under Cookbooks, cooking at home

My Dinner with Julia

Julia Child’s birthday was on August 15, the towering mentor to generations of food lovers in this country would have been 97 years old. Usually it’s an annual event that garners plenty of its own attention, with media tributes and themed dinners in countless homes across America.

But this year was a little different. THE movie — Julie & Julia — was released a week prior. An overflowing stockpot of discussion, reflection, praise, and controversy flowed in virtually every outlet from Twitter to Newsweek. And it began a few weeks earlier with the first wave of preview screenings (one of which I attended in Seattle). One of my food writer pals was a surprised participant in the hubbub when ABC News called following a blog post of hers to quote her on the food world’s perspectives on the film.

Man. It was all anyone (at least in my circles) could talk about for a few weeks. It took the launch of season three of Mad Men to change the subject (on to retro cocktails and cigarettes!!). And it unfortunately made Julia’s birthday this year seem something of an afterthought. I did toast her with a simple dinner of butter-sautéed sole fillets here at home.

I really didn’t want to join in the chorus of dissertation on the film, though I will say that I LOVED it and was very impressed with how the two vastly different lives and stories (based on My Life in France and Julie and Julia) were chronicled in such an engaging fashion.

I did, however, want to join those who used the opportunity to celebrate Julia’s impact on us by telling a personal tale or two about interacting with the larger-than-life culinary inspiration.

juliaandme2As it happens it was my birthday, the first day that I met Julia. Not only met her, but cooked for her. I was working at the Château du Feÿ in northern Burgundy and Julia was traveling through France, due to drop in for a day to visit her longtime friend, and my boss/mentor, Anne Willan.

I got wind of this a couple of weeks earlier and figured it would be about the best birthday present possible to be able to spend time with Julia while she was here. But how was I going to squirrel my way into this? (On a later occasion, Leslie Caron came to visit with Anne one afternoon. Ms. Caron was just moving into neighborhood, setting up an auberge in nearby Villeneuve-Sur-Yonne.  I offered to make them tea so Anne could devote her full attention to her guest; she slyly commented “I don’t recall you making me afternoon tea before!” Busted.)

Ends up I didn’t need to scheme much to be able to spend time with Julia during her visit. Anne juliamenuinvited five of us La Varenne graduates to put together the dinner that evening. And what a glorious evening it was. I did up some menus for the occasion, which Julia kindly signed for us all. My contribution was, thankfully, not a starring role of the meal, which would have made me too nervous. I drew from a dish I’d created for my “mystery basket” final exam for the Grand Diplôme I earned from the school: flan de courgettes. Blanched thin slices of cucumber lined individual ramekins that were then filled with a rich zucchini custard (I think I spiced it up with saffron and/or cumin).

Randall serving the Surprise to Julia

Randall serving the Surprise to Julia

My La Varenne pals rounded out the menu, as you see here, with delectable treats from blinis with caviar to braised wild boar done up hunter-style. The dessert was truly a show-stopper. Randall went all out with a huge, beautiful “Surprise Danubius” — a riff on Baked Alaska (or perhaps more correctly omelette norvegienne since we were in France!). There were a couple different cake flavors–poppy seed (hinting at time Randall spent cooking in Budapest) and chocolate–with at least 2 ice cream flavors, he recalls perhaps ginger and lavender. All lavishly coated in meringue and browned to a toasty finish. It was spectacular.

I really wish my tired old memory box could recall a slew of specific details about that evening. Alas. But the whole experience was a whirlwind of thrill that I’ll never forget. I did later have occasion to spend a few hours with Julia in her Cambridge home, doing an interview for a cover story in Simply Seafood magazine. That was amazing too. If it’s possible to have two once-in-a-lifetime experiences with the same person, I feel fortunate to have had just that with Madame Julia Child. Here’s to Julia!


Filed under delicious events, Food Personalities

A Preview of the Julia Movie

Oh, you know. The Julia Child movie that’s been in the works for a while now. The one starring Meryl Streep as Julia? Based on that Julie & Julia blog/book? I’m not an ET watcher, but a friend just passed along this link to a preview from the show. On that same page there’s this link to the official trailer of the film, due to open early August. Nora Ephron wrote the screenplay based on that Julie & Julia book, but also incorporated the wonderful My Life in France to reflect Julia’s early years in the country that would change her life. It’s an interesting plot line, following two different real-life stories in some sort of cinematic tandem.

The idea of anyone playing Julia Child–aside from in an over-the-top context, which her bigger-than-life personality invited–just sounded like a losing prospect from the beginning. If there’s any actress out there with enough skill and talent to pull it off, surely Meryl Streep is about as good as it’s going to get. Still, I was highly skeptical. Of course the world is full of one-of-a-kind individuals. And some have translated admirably well to film bio-pics: Ben Kingsley in Ghandi, Jamie Foxx in Ray.

But Julia Child?

I don’t know if it has to do with the fact that she is one famous person I actually spent time with on more than a few occasions, including interviewing her at her Cambridge home for a magazine article. But she just struck me as a personage who would be harder-than-average for an actor to capture.

And certainly the jury is still out. But these few minutes of preview I’ve just seen bode pretty well for how deeply Ms. Streep took on Julia’s personality and mannerisms. I’m not sure sure how much I love (the amazing) Stanley Tucci as her husband Paul, but maybe I’ll be surprised. Now we just have to wait another few months to see how it all plays out on the big screen!

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Julia Child, American Spy

That Julia, she was quite a woman. In many ways that we already knew: she was a trailblazer, a mentor and teacher, a proponent of eating well, a liver of life and entertainer to boot. And, as both my morning papers spelled out today, she had a hidden layer just being discovered: she was once part of an international spy ring.

Anyone who’s read about Julia’s background knows that she worked in the offices of the OSS (precursor to the CIA) in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the early 1940s. I wrote a feature article about Julia and her love of seafood while I was at Simply Seafood magazine. For the article, I had occasion to meet with Julia in her Cambridge, Mass., home, which was a thrill beyond belief. Not only did I get to stand in the famous kitchen that’s now recreated in the Smithsonian (and slurp a couple mid-morning Olympia oysters with her, a gift Jon Rowley sent me with), but I was also allowed to look through her files that included a lifetime of photos. And spend a couple amazing hours with the woman who has been such a giant in our culinary consciousness in this country.

I gave some background of Julia’s life in that article, including the snippet about her time in Ceylon. “When World War II broke out, Julia joined the Office of Strategic Services with romantic dreams of becoming a spy,” I wrote. “She was assigned as a file clerk and, after a short time in Washington, D.C., went on assignment to Ceylon.” So apparently she lived out more of her romantic dreams that we realized! And doubly so. It was in Ceylon that she met Paul Child, a man who not only had a big impact on her personal life, but who is really the reason that Julia–a confirmed indifferent cook–became the culinary icon that she was.

There are a number of books that delve into how Julia became Julia, but my favorite is My Life in France, which chronicles those experiences that transformed her into an advocate for cooking at home and for enjoying all the delicious things in life.

Julia really did have an amazing life. And I have a feeling that, current OSS news notwithstanding, we will never quite fully grasp what a rich, fascinating and well-lived life that it was. Here’s a toast to you, Julia, and how you manage to keep us inspired even after you’ve moved on to that great La Cornue stove in the sky. In fact, tomorrow, August 15, would have been her 96th birthday. Let’s all raise a glass in her honor!

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