To celebrate National Clean Out Your Fridge Day, we asked the staff to tell us what they’d have to hide from Julia Child (in spectral form, of course) if she were to drop by for a meal. Without an emergency trip to Whole Foods, what would our staff throw together to serve? Most importantly, what food related literature would they pass on to one of the greatest food writers of our time? —Camille Griep
Stephen Parrish writes:
I grew up, professionally speaking, in kitchens. My first job at the age of twelve included kitchen work: peeling potatoes, mixing martinis for doctors who never seemed to work more than 20 hours a week, and “Keep stirring that pot, boy, until I get back. Don’t let it burn!” Ten years later I was the banquet chef at a four-star hotel with two revolving dining rooms. And today? No one manipulates a can opener better than me (it’s all in the wrist), and I can give any toaster jockey a run for his money, too. Take your pick, buddy: whole wheat or rye!
To Hide: I honestly can’t think of anything I’d hide from Julia Child except maybe the margarine. Celebrity chefs are rabidly devoted to butter, and the mere suggestion of margarine, even if you can’t taste the difference in the finished meal, will make their lips quiver. Tell them their mothers are whores, but don’t mention margarine.
Since I live in Germany I’d serve a traditional German dish, sauerbraten with red cabbage and boiled potatoes. Of course the roast will have needed to marinade for a few days, but let’s pretend that’s always happening at my house. Some people keep beer on hand for unexpected company; I keep tender strips of beef soaking in red wine vinegar, diced onions, peppercorns, bay leaves, and a few secret ingredients.
I’d add some water and sugar, a pinch of this and that, cover the pot, and roast for several hours. Meanwhile I’d appease Child with a salad buffet: carrot salad, celery salad, cabbage salad, and mixed vegetable salad with joghurt dressing. Very German. Out would come the roast. I’d make gravy from the juice, add raisins, salt to taste, toss in a pinch of this and that, and smother the meat.
Remember what I said about can openers? I’m certified on corkscrews too. Pinot noir (Spätburgunder) grows in the hills visible from my window.
To Read: My all-time favorite book about food is Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential. It’s an informative and entertaining introduction to the nitty gritty of professional cooking. When I finished it I placed in on the shelf and tried to ignore its whimpering: Read me again. After two weeks I gave in. The second experience was even more delicious than the first. I also enjoyed The Sharper Your Knife, The Less You Cry, by Kathleen Flinn, her memoir of studying at the Cordon Bleu. And Waiting: The True Confessions of a Waitress, by Debra Ginsberg.
Flinn was kind enough to correspond with me. Ginsberg went further and blurbed my first novel. Bourdain must have misplaced my letters because I’ve never heard back from him. No matter. One day we’ll conduct annual staff get-togethers in Montignac, France. Bourdain will cook for us. He will be grateful for the privilege.
Wendy Russ writes:
I am the affectionately mocked outlier in a family of exceptional cooks who understand the nuances of timing and balance. Aunts, uncles, cousins, brothers. Everyone cooks. In my family, the attitude is you either have it or you don’t. Recently I called my mother to ask her how to cook a ham and she said, “You put it in the oven, then you cook the hell out of it.”
My grandmother, an impeccably coiffed, starched-apron Betty Crocker, made three hot meals every single day for my grandfather including homemade pies and cobblers from berries I picked by the side of the road and toted back to the house in gallon milk jugs. My mother owned two restaurants and once left me in charge (at age 14) while she ran to a nearby grocery for a missing ingredient. A man came in and ordered eggs over easy. In my entire life I’d never successfully flipped an egg without breaking it. Except, by some miracle, that one day. The next time that happened I would be in my late 30’s.
But, eventually I discovered a unique talent: Making something out of nothing. My husband, also a great cook, will declare there is absolutely nothing in the house to eat, no ingredients to make anything worthwhile. And yet, I see ghostly visions of ingredients floating out of the cabinets and refrigerator to assemble deliciously in my mind. The response to the food is almost always complimentary, not so much because it tastes good but because it seems like a miracle, the combinations at once weird and wonderful.
I cannot follow a recipe to an accurate conclusion, but I have foraging skills to rival any modern hunter-gatherer. I know the strays—the little green onion wilting in its package, the tiny bit of stuffing we were all too full to eat, the last orphan pork chop, the shriveled potatoes someone tried to throw out—will add up to something wonderful given a little time and a lot of love.
To Cook: So for Julia Child it would be simple fare, something like caramelized purple onions that are slightly wilted around the edges but perfectly tasty, stirred fried with thinly-sliced leftover pork from the night before. A pinch of rosemary sneaked from the neighbor’s yard. Rice and the last tiny bit of stir-fry veggies from the freezer, maybe with a tiny bit of garam masala to make it taste “fancy.” And cold, sweet Southern tea, a mix of English Breakfast and Earl Grey for a flowery kick. Not exotic, but filling.
To me, that is the true “joy of cooking,” filling hungry bellies, nourishing the spirit. Books that reflect this for me are Fried Green Tomatoes (by Fannie Flagg who claims she does not cook) where simplicity rules—basic fried chicken, flaky biscuits, to-die-for barbeque (it’s hog boiling time!)—and where the cooking is more about fellowship than it is about nutrition. And the Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, which truly embodies making something out of nothing, demonstrating how little we humans need to survive.
Camille Griep writes:
While this was already a complex assignment, it was not improved by leaving the fridge in the hands of my beloved while I took a 10-day trip to Los Angeles. After a week and a half of subsisting on LA cuisine (avocados and pilfered cigarettes) (just kidding, the avocado thing is totally a cliché), I looked forward to making a nice meal for Julia. But, zut alors!
On the middle shelf of the fridge, I found a dried out brick of goat cheese, which hadn’t been wrapped up properly. Next to it was a bowl of mold so completely overgrown that I could not discern the origins of the substance. In the latter instance I must fall on my own sword—such a biological specimen must have been abandoned long before I decamped for LAX. Luckily, there wasn’t much else in the fridge besides condiments and old lettuce.
To Cook: I can’t make anything out of my ancient Betty Crocker Cookbook (the one that tells me I am not a real woman because I cannot make pie), so I turned to the pantry where I seem to have just enough ingredients to frankenstein a nice vegetarian (because there is no meat save some salami and a very old package of prosciutto ends) chili with white and red kidney beans and tomato and shallot and garlic, with some cheese and sour cream. I could follow that up with a batch of whole-wheat chocolate chip cookies—not because we’re healthy people who buy wheat flour, simply people who can’t remember to buy regular flour.
I’m not sure Julia would be all that impressed with my most favorite culinary tome, Play With Your Food by Joost Effers. So instead, I’d point her to Jennifer 8. Lee’s The Fortune Cookie Chronicles, an exploration of why Chinese food in America looks so different from the food found in China. I’d explain that Chinese food is my very favorite type of takeout and that perhaps they’d like me to place an order . . .
Kent Oswald writes:
I watched enough of Julia Child on PBS (as well as the movie Julia and Julia more times than a grown man should) to know JC’s spectre is not showing up unannounced, or with the bad manners to surprise me with cooking for her. However, if she were to float in unannounced, I would rush to throw out all my unmatched dish and glassware and hope I have enough time and imagination to make up a lame excuse why we will eat out of the pot on the stove handing one spoon back and forth.
The only good news is that if she happened to show up today I am lucky enough to have just visited the farmers market with plans to saute some onions with the vegetables collected (carrots, butternut squash, broccoli, potatoes). That will be followed by the tossing in of canned chopped tomatoes, some tomato paste, a few spices, and a few vegetable bullion cubes and water-to-cover with plans for simmering for an hour or so.
It would be insane to start this until she arrived (hopefully with a couple bottles of wine). Even Great Julia’s Ghost has to be a great culinary inspiration so it would be better for me to wait until she could arrive and school me. However, I suppose I would if I had to start cooking (assuming, I suppose, the apparition might be hungry) and then hang my head in shame, even assuming her graciousness in sharing my mess.
As for books, I would be interested in her thoughts on two foodie texts I recently encountered, Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential and Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat, as well as the old standby, George Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.
Donna Roberts writes:
“The year began with lunch”.
So opened Peter Mayle’s famous Provence series that stretched over a decade. Our European adventure also began with lunch, but in Italy first, before extending to France and other exciting culinary venues. Today, Italian food is still our favorite, loved by everyone in the family including our furry kids . . . there’s a good reason they often have spaghetti sauce stained whiskers.
Years ago we watched a documentary featuring Julia Child’s kitchen and its placement in the Smithsonian Institute. Her fridge contained a packed hodgepodge of odd items, and she apologized for none of them. We hold a similar pride in our mixed bag of refrigerated goods, a varied stock of things for people who love to cook and, more importantly, eat. Sometimes our precocious little household beasts open the fridge to purloin a slice of prosciutto or a few bites of leftover fettucine, leaving behind a kitty toy as a tip for their kitchen staff. We might hide that fact from Julia if she came for dinner—pasta, of course. There’s always pasta in the pantry.
Part enchanted tales, part cookbooks, Jane Kolpen’s The Secrets of Pistoulet and its equally charming sequel, The Legend of the Villa Della Luna, are books that are experienced rather than just read.
Along with the delightful story of Mademoiselle J’s sojourn at the delicious farmhouse in France, The Secrets of Pistoulet offers the reader a tactile experience in the form of letters to remove from their envelopes and recipes to unfold from their pockets. The Legend of the Villa Della Luna moves the fairy tale, and the cuisine, to Italy.
The artwork is beautiful, the prose divine, but it is the special recipes—Potage of Patience and Tart of Sunshine, Minestrone of Memories & Reflection and Foccacia of Forgiveness & Release—with their doses of magic and allure that heal Mademoiselle J’s broken heart and remind the reader of the soul healing power of food made with love.
Vivian Wagner writes writes:
I would start by throwing out my Vanilla Instant Breakfast (honestly, I don’t know how that ended up in my pantry!), Campbell’s cream of onion soup (for quick and easy recipes!), Kraft macaroni & cheese (no excuse! I just kinda, um, like it).
What do I end up serving? My specialty lately has been shiitake potstickers, and I just happen to have all the ingredients! See, I’m not a total food heathen.
One of my favorite cookbooks is Ann Rogers’ The New Cookbook for Poor Poets and Others (Scribner’s, 1979). My mom gave it to me after I told her I was going to major in English in college. Turns out, it has good recipes for anyone living on a budget, from poets to, say, English professors. The book’s first rule: always have fresh bread. Its second: always use butter. And its third: always serve wine. Those rules, along with the book’s recipes for buttered poppyseed noodles and cold cucumber soup, have served me in good stead over the last thirty years.
Joy Ralph writes:
Julia Child, poor thing, is going to have a difficult time at my place, alas—spectral or no. Neither I nor my roommate cook; my roommate had designs on a culinary degree at one time but lacked the killer type-A personality. Thus an excellent roommate, but not cut out for the kitchen and asked, point-blank, to leave. To call it harboring a grudge might be extreme, but the last carton of eggs my roommate purchased sat un-cracked in the refrigerator for nine months before I declared them compost. My own excuse is simple inclination, or lack thereof. My eating habits can be codified by effort: after the groceries are put away, my initial choices for dining will inevitably be whatever is already prepared. When that category is exhausted, I will eat things requiring me to open a box. After that comes items requiring a microwave, items requiring boiling water, and finally items requiring turning on the oven. Anything requiring actual assembly of ingredients is so far down the list that another shopping trip ensues well before such dire straits are reached. If pressed I can follow a recipe but the results are adequate at best.
The exception to this hierarchy is coffee. I will boil water for coffee; I will grind beans for coffee. I will walk half a mile to the store and back to obtain half-and-half, because plain milk just isn’t quite right. If you open my cupboards you will find some dusty cans of soup and several different sets of paraphernalia devoted to the preparation of coffee. Also beans, in airtight containers. If Julia Child were to appear to me now, I would serve her a nice cup of 2015 Starbucks Christmas Blend, and a couple of Walkers Shortbread cookies from a tin in the pantry.
If, after such a paltry offering, Mrs Child is still willing to speak with me, I would show her the well-used and frighteningly complete cooking book I inherited from my mother, who cooked for my father and our family when I was growing up. She obtained her Teaching degree in Elementary Education and collected this volume along the way. It has seen enough use to have lost its back binding, and remains intact through the offices of a recycled elastic from (I believe) a pair of pantyhose.
This work is Meta Given’s Modern Encyclopedia of Cooking, edition of November 1953, original copyright February 1947. With index, it comes to 1702 pages, profusely illustrated with educational photographs as well as line drawings. This is the book I would want with me after the Apocalypse, and I would happily drag its 5-pound 8″x 6″x 3″ bulk with me faithfully. M. Given chose the title “Encyclopedia” deliberately, and it covers everything from basic nutrition to social aspects of food, with selection, preservation and menu planning on the way. Ripeness guides and storage suggestions. The section on Game covers butchery, ethics, and contains recipes and enthusiastic commentary on not only the standard venison or pheasant but also bear, muskrat, opossum, raccoon, and woodchuck. Vegetables are introduced by what to look for when buying and in some cases gathering, poultry by how to pluck and draw the carcass, meat by a discussion of grade and cooking methods. Being a product of its time, the social section has some biases, and the section on “Foreign Foods” is mildly appalling (minestrone, tamales and garlic bread all reside here) but the glossary is comprehensive and the relentless emphasis on absolute basics is the hallmark of an earlier era.
If, as such, it fails to entertain my guest, I’d quickly try to distract her with the complimentary issue of Cooks Illustrated I received somewhere along the line, and which is such a thing of beauty as an entity apart from content or purpose that I have never been able to bring myself to recycle it. But the odds are that by now my ghostly visitor has moved on to more hospitable climes.
Angela Kubenic writes:
My kitchen is unmarked territory, like most of Greenland, where in winter the inhabitants sled or snowmobile everywhere. Their maps are a frosted memory of every location, and landmarks hidden by ice have no importance. It is as natural to them as a pine forest is to me, as the position of the sun tells time, as time is the cousin of velocity. I don’t know, however, where anything is in this kitchen, and no one wants to help me learn. I’m lost in the Greenland of peculiar implements.
It is now the season when tomatoes are mourned. Collard greens, cornbread baked in a hot greasy skillet, ham hocks, chicken bog and dried field peas in sticky rice are the new world order. Red rice with bacon and sausage, biscuits. Oysters at an outdoor party, fire, gloves, knives stabbed into tables to hold your place.
Julia Child’s first French meal included oysters, which she described as “an opening up of the soul and spirit for me.” Indeed it is, and those who reject shellfish are deemed less trustworthy in these parts. I want to feel more French, to gain that elegance that comes from pleasing others in such a basic sense. I find several baked rice recipes on French cooking websites, which lend some credence to my chicken bog and field peas. Not French, but still influenced by it.
I use Wikipedia to find out more about Julia Child, who was never lost in any kitchen, thinking that knowing her better might help sort this out. I find out she handled and organized thousands of classified documents for Britain’s OSS during World War II. I figure she can keep a secret if I invite her into my food preparation area.
There are things I want to bake, so I search and find “French Bread Rolls to Die For,” a recipe that looks a lot like biscuits, except I use self-rising to save time, and lard. I imagine my grandmother’s hands patting out biscuits, and they remind me of Julia’s. Efficient, graceful, conjuring four or five dishes at a time. I believe I can make this meal.
In the buffet is a candle. I light it, and push the warmth of it toward my face with cupped hands stirring the air. No woman is alone in the kitchen. Memories of food are never fully lost. They dwell in our blood; they preserve our bones. Julia looks on with no disdain at my simple collection of Southern food items. She and my grandmother are friends. They like to talk about how people have always helped them in times of crisis, and now they help me, gently, with smiles. Tall, strong women, self-assured, nurturing, believing in me.
There is no book for this.
Con Chapman writes:
Editor’s note: Con was visted by A.J. Liebling instead of Julia Child. Hey, we don’t make the rules.
Jelly Roll Morton, the New Orleans piano player who claimed he invented jazz, once provided a plausible explanation as to why men who turn to artistic pursuits often choose hyper-masculine subjects. It is, he said, to avoid the “femininity stamp” that is applied to the artiste; if you’re writing or singing about sex (like Morton) or violence, whether legal (boxing and war) or criminal, you’re a he-man, not some limp-wristed belletrist.
It is for this reason that A.J. Liebling is a literary hero of mine. The New Yorker writer best known for his book “The Sweet Science” was one of the most graceful writers on the subject of boxing in the sport’s history, which dates back to the ancient Greeks. Not a practitioner of slam-bang, comic book-style prose, he psychoanalyzed fighters with a light touch and unobtrusively placed himself in the story without the overweening egotism of a Norman Mailer, who resorted to fisticuffs so readily that his masculine insecurities were as broadly exposed as a boxer’s midriff.
Liebling was both a gourmet and a gourmand, and wrote frequently on haute cuisine; for those unfamiliar with him, I would recommend Between Meals: An appetite for Paris as an appetizer. Unafraid to venture into territory typically associated with the feminine and the effete, he and I are brothers-under-the-skin, to do a sex change operation on a line from Rudyard Kipling: we’ve both written on boxing, and yet we’re both sufficiently comfortable with our sexuality to wax rhapsodic about the pleasures of French food.
Liebling came by his knowledge of la cuisine française by upbringing; his family vacationed in France more than once when he was a boy, and he was a student at the Sorbonne in his twenties. I, on the other hand, acquired mine the hard way; I was a plongeur (dishwasher) at La Gerbe de Blé (The Stalk of Wheat), the only four-star restaurant in Worcester, Mass., during the 1970s. Or ever.
The work of le plongeur is menial, but the profession has a long literary tradition extending backwards from me to George Orwell, as described in Down and Out in Paris and London. After several months of washing every soufflé pan as it came off the stove, still hot, I eventually graduated to escargot-stuffer, jamming the little Gastropoda into re-usable shells each night, but I maintained my membership in Plongeurs Local 298 in good standing.
Puritanism, according to H.L. Mencken’s definition, is “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Liebling is the ultimate anti-Puritan, and so I have a different problem: I am haunted by the fear that, when he drops in, he’ll be disgusted by the crap that I eat every day. The way I see it, it’s not my fault. I get up at 5 a.m. to catch a 6 o’clock train to work. I don’t get home until half a day later. In between, like most Americans, I’m busy and don’t have time for the long, relaxed dejeuner that the French consider essential to a life well-lived.
And so as I scrounge around our kitchen and pantry for something to fix the great man, I’m faced with hard choices. I have to feed him, but I also have to conceal the tracks of my alimentation quotidienne (humdrum everyday diet).
I open the refrigerator door, but it’s already too late; I hear le ding dong of our front doorbell and my wife, gracious hostess that she is, greets Liebling and ushers him in without sufficient further ado for me to take evasive action.
“Hello,” Liebling says, and then, noticing that I’m holding my hands behind my back, facetiously asks “Do you have a surprise for me?”
“Er, no,” I say, but he persists, saying “Let me see.”
“Good Lord—what is this?” he asks as he takes a Yoplait French Vanilla yogurt from my hand.
“It’s yogurt. I . . . eat a lot of it.”
Liebling removes the lid and, as you might expect, casts a disapproving eye at the gelatinous concoction that serves as my lifeblood.
“And why on earth do you do that?” he asks.
“It’s pH balance suits me perfectly.”
“So—is this a chemistry experiment, or a prescription medicine?”
“A little of both. I like it, and experiments on mice show that it reduces hair loss and increases sexual potency.”
“I think I’d rather be in the control group,” he says, then turns to my wife and asks “Where’s the garbage?”
“Under the sink,” she says, “but it doesn’t help to throw it away. He’ll just dig it out and eat it later.”
Liebling gives me a look that would thaw a box of Bird’s Eye frozen peas. “If the damned want to go to hell, there’s no point in shooting them,” he says as he hands it back to me, paraphrasing a line from Ambrose Beirce. “What’s for dîner?”
I wheel out the freezer drawer and find the cupboard pretty much bare, as is usually the case except on Sunday nights when we try to have a home-cooked dinner of Chinese take-out.
“Um, well, we have frozen eggplant lasagna, Kashi Southwest style frozen chicken entrée, a . . .”
“Wait a minute,” Liebling snaps. “You’re going to serve me frozen food?”
“That’s all we have,” I say, a bit abashed.
“I have some canned artichokes,” my wife offers helpfully, and while it’s clear he’s disappointed, he agrees to try the hot appetizer she makes when we have friends over who don’t go for my honey-roasted peanuts in the convenient five ounce grab ‘n go snack pack.
“So tell me,” Liebling asks my wife as he tucks into her signature hors d’oeuvre, “how did your husband degenerate into such a food slob.”
“It isn’t complicated,” she says. “When we were dating he used to cook me elaborate gourmet meals.”
“And?” Liebling asks, wondering what happened.
“Since we got married all he does is burn steaks on the grill.”