The Spy with a Spatula
Julia Child and other food stories
OK, readers, you’re correct; the title is a bit misleading.
That Julia Child was purported to be a spy during World War II is untrue. Or is it? We’ll get back to this interesting tidbit later.
“I think every woman should have a blowtorch.” ~ Julia Child
A hand-painted sign over the entrance to an exquisite family-run Filipino bakery in Honolulu states: “Those who enjoy eating are making the most out of one of life’s necessities.”
In the 1980s, I worked with a tall, gangly young man named Don, who rarely joined the rest of the office gang when we went out for lunch. He wasn’t in the least unsociable and was quite pleasant to talk with. And, with two tours in Vietnam under his belt, he had experiences to draw upon in any conversation.
One day, I asked Don why he never dined with his colleagues. His answer floored me as it was due to an unfortunate condition I never knew existed.
Don had avoidant restrictive food intake disorder or ARFID, and he suspected exposure to Agent Orange had something to do with it.
“Actually, Ken, for several years, I have had no desire to eat,” he flatly pronounced. “I don’t like food anymore.”
“You don’t like ice cream?” I asked. “Everybody loves ice cream.”
“Nope – nothing,” was his reply.
There are so few sensual pleasures in life that not having an appetite, nor enjoying food, leaves little else.
Yes, there are one or two other earthly pleasures, but being a G-rated column, we’ll not venture further along that path; we’ll leave that to the tabloids.
This column will discuss food in all its variations, derivations and ethnicities. The spirit of Julia Child will also haunt this article for one fundamental reason – she made cooking fun and rewarding with her vibrant personality and unbridled sense of humor.
Her hilarious and sometimes outrageous quotes will season this series just right. So, expect many appearances by Julia in this series on food.
And the trait that most of us remember with a smile and chuckle was Julia’s distinctive voice, variously described as a warble, near- hysterical and undulating.
The New York Times once reported her entry into post-war France as “a gangly Californian with a preposterously fluty voice stomped into Paris on size 12 feet.”
Julia was tall at 6’ 2”, although her sister Dorothy had three inches on her. And, with a 6’4” brother, Julia’s mother often said, “Oh my, I have made over 18 feet of children.”
“Always remember: If you are alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always pick it up, who will know?” Julia Child
Eating, if we are to survive, is, as the Filipino sign states, one of life’s necessities, along with water, oxygen and our dear old sun.
Every living thing needs nourishment, which is sought at the very moment when life begins, and must be maintained until death.
Food consists of minerals, vitamins, carbohydrates, proteins and lipids in its most elemental form. Physiological imperatives require appetite and taste buds to keep us coming back for more and the magical qualities of saliva to get the whole digestion process going when the food enters the mouth.
Science Note: Science is only beginning to understand the complexities and interactions that constitute digestion in humans. It has been a long-held assumption that the stomach was the original brain.
Recent research suggests that saliva, 99% water, may have a much more significant role in digestion than previously believed.
The sensuosity of food resides in something we call taste and flavor, two entirely different things. Taste buds provide the sweet, sour, salty and bitter sensations. (I would add “umami” to this list, “savory” for those not fluent in Japanese.)
Flavor describes the overall experience of eating. Flavor arises from cooking techniques, food pairing and infinite combinations of potential ingredients.
We often desire specific side dishes to accompany the main entrée – baked potato with steak, chips with fish, and red wine with pasta dishes.
Flavor was the very thing that sent the then food-ambivalent Julia Child on the road to changing how Americans think about food.
During a meal of oysters and sole meuniere with her food-loving husband in a French restaurant in the 1950s, she said she was grateful for the flavor that “opened up the soul and spirit for me.”
Julia credits her husband, Paul Child, for her sudden passion for food. She grew up in a household with a cook and said she was never interested in food. “I just ate it,” she said
We have survived for many millions of years because we figured out what is safe to eat through trial and error. We can thank the 9,000 taste buds residing in a location that food and drink must pass over on the way to digestion.
Dogs, on the other hand, have only 1,700 taste buds. Our canine buddies are as happy with a hamburger as they would be with a bowl of Foie Gras and a side of Perigord truffle shavings on a French omelet.
Their dearth of taste buds may partly explain why they gobble down food with no apparent savoring in the process. And there’s an in stinctive need to scarf down vittles before other dogs acquire the food in the immediate vicinity. You may have observed your dog furtively glancing around while eating.
(I lived in one foster home where the food on the table was quite good, comfort food, if you will. But, the food was not in plentiful supply, causing us kids to shove the food in our mouths as quickly as possible so that we might get a second helping. We also glanced around, but not so furtively.)
Dogs, like humans, can distinguish between sweet, sour, salty and bitter. They have enough taste receptors that they can demonstrate a preference for certain foodstuffs over others:
Bongo loves carrots and sweet potatoes, and Daisy detests them.
“You don’t have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces – just good food from fresh ingredients.” Julia Child
In 1999, I spent a couple of weeks in a French village an hour or so from Paris by train. Vic Sur was typical of most small towns in France; you walked from shop to shop to get all the ingredients needed for a given meal and did this daily.
Does that sound too much of a hassle for you? Allow me to point out the upside to this system for procuring food.
My epiphanal moment in food, when hamburgers and pizza slid down my culinary totem pole, was when I tried my high-school French in one of Vic Sur’s delightful shops.
“Ou est le fromage,?” I asked the shop attendant. I was surprised when she understood my pitiful attempt at French, but she led me to the cheese department.
She helped me find several kinds of cheese that were foreign to me, pardon the unintended pun. I returned to the rented cottage with croissants, two baguettes, and the cheeses.
Having lived in an area with a large Amish population and many cheese shops, I thought I knew my cheeses.
But, after one bite of the French camembert, I pushed my chair back and exclaimed to all around the table, “Why have I not known that anything, let alone cheese, could be so utterly delightful?”
I soon learned from my well-traveled ex-wife from Venezuela that cheeses outside the U.S. are made with raw milk. The bacteria provide the exquisite flavor.
For several days afterward, I considered staying in France and asking for culinary asylum.
“If you are afraid of butter, use cream.” Julia Child
Michael Pollan warned us in his book, The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to avoid the middle aisles of grocery stores.
“That’s where they put the stuff that never goes bad. That’s the processed food that really gets you in trouble,” says Pollan.
He further advised us not to eat anything your grandmother wouldn’t recognize as food.
So, how did we get to this point of trading away nutrition and freshness for shelf life and chemically treated food? How did this food-induced epidemic of obesity, high blood pressure, and diabetes become an emblem of America’s approach to dining?
Well, that is where we will pick up in next week’s For Your Consideration.
I’ll leave you with this quip from the queen of cooking, Julia Child.
“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken. Bon appétit.”