A present from Julia


Raise a glass to Julia Child.

Today would have been the 100th birthday of the phenomenon the world came to know as the French Chef–and the food world is pulling out all the stops.

Bloggers, including yours truly, have been writing about Julia’s classic recipes all summer for the JC100 social media campaign organized by Knopf, publisher of her classic, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”  Newspapers, magazines, and web sites are offering remembrances and tributes.

I’ve been making omelets and reading a wonderful new biography, “Dearie, The Remarkable Life of Julia Child,” by Bob Spitz (Knopf, 2012).  The title alludes to the pet name she bestowed on virtually everyone she met.

Over the years, I’ve read a number of books on Julia.  I always learn something new about the amazing evangelist for French food who didn’t hit her stride until she was 50, then kept writing cookbooks and filming television series into her late 80s.  She died just two days short of her 92nd birthday in 2004.

None of the books have been so delightful as this one, which is filled with lively anecdotes and culinary gossip.  Spitz gives us the feisty, irresistible character who captivated the American imagination in television’s first cooking series, “The French Chef.” It’s a page-turner rather than a scholarly treatise and just the ticket for an entertaining summer read even though it does run to 576 pages.

Admittedly, this is a love letter to a woman Spitz first developed a crush on in 1992.  They traveled around Sicily together for several weeks that year while he was conducting interviews for magazine profiles of the celebrated cookbook author and television personality. Like most people who met Julia, he was won over by her warmth, wit, and down-to-earth personality.

Still, Spitz is a good journalist.  He paints a well-researched portrait of a real woman, with foibles, resentments and a deeply pragmatic nature that could come off as downright cold at times.

She was a genial giant at 6 foot 2 inches with an outgoing personality and generous disposition.  But she also watched out for her own interests, sometimes  at the expense of her friends and colleagues. She abandoned the editor who shepherded her first books when another publisher made a better offer.   After her husband and mentor slid deep into dementia and could no longer travel with her, she placed him in a nursing home and soon began seeing another man to raise her spirits. However, she visited and called Paul every day if she could, whether he recognized her or not.

As fascinating as the story of Julia is, equally compelling is the context of her life, which spanned two world wars and enormous cultural shifts.   When she began the decade-long project of compiling the first volume of  “Mastering” with her French colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Berthollle, most Americans were content with plain cooking and bland meals.  By the time she died, the nation was obsessed with what it ate.

While I was reading, I was struck by how often Julia used the simple rolled omelet to teach Americans about French food.

With a clear instinct for what works on television, Julia brought eggs, butter and an omelet pan with her when she and Simone Beck were invited to appear on the “Today” show in 1961, soon after the publication of  “Mastering.”  She made omelets, which she dubbed “the 30 second meal,” untold times to demonstrate the importance of cooking technique in the simplest possible terms.

I even found this clip on YouTube of Julia talking David Hartman through the cooking of an omelet on ABC’s Good Morning America in 1980.  It looked so foolproof, I decided if Hartman could do it, so could I.

The trick, Julia explained, is to use a non-stick pan measuring about 7-inches across the bottom and 2-inches deep. Keep the heat high, and jerk the pan toward you with a quick movement to get the eggs to roll upon themselves as they cook.  Oh yes, and plenty of butter.

I tried it and–voila–it worked! And my omelet was nicely browned on the outside but soft and custard-like on the inside.

So here, in her words, is a posthumous present from Julia to us on her birthday.  Be sure to watch the video, which takes the mystery out of the maneuver.  Besides, it will make you feel better if your omelet doesn’t come out perfectly the first time.

That, of course, was Julia’s true talent.  She got us to try cooking techniques we never would have considered without her cheerful encouragement.

Serves 1-2

2-3 eggs
Big pinch of salt
Pinch of pepper
1 tablespoon butter

Beat the eggs and seasonings in a small mixing bowl with a table fork for 20 to 30 seconds, until the whites and yolks are just blended.

Place butter in the pan and set it over very high heat.  As the butter melts, tilt the pan in all directions to film the sides.  When you see that the foam has almost subsided in the pan and the butter is on the point of coloring (indicating it is hot enough), pour in the eggs.  It is of utmost importance in this method that the eggs be the correct temperature.

Let the eggs settle in the pan for 2 or 3 seconds to form a film of coagulated egg in the bottom of the pan.  Then grasp the handle of the pan with both hands, thumbs on top, and immediately begin jerking the pan vigorously and roughly toward you at an even, 20-degree angle over the heat, one jerk per second.

It is the sharp pull of the pan toward you which throws the eggs against the far lip of the pan, then back over its bottom surface.  You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan. After several jerks, the eggs will begin to thicken.  Then increase the angle of the pan slightly, which will force the egg mass to roll over on itself with each jerk at the far lip of the pan.

As soon as the omelet has shaped up it, hold it in the angle of the pan to brown the bottom a pale golden color, but only a second or two, for the eggs must not overcook.   The center of the omelet should remain soft and creamy.  If the omelet has not formed neatly, push it with the back of your fork.

Turn the omelet onto the plate, rub the top with a bit of butter, and serve as soon as possible.

Excerpted from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” by Julia Child (Alfred A. Knopf, 1961).  Reprinted with permission of the publisher.

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