By TRISTA CORNELIUS/Special to The Oregonian
My friend is taking a recipe-writing class, and her instructor presented an elaborate example. The class declared it terrible. “Guess where it was from?” my friend chided. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” I said, not at all surprised that Our Lady of the Ladle — as Time magazine dubbed Julia Child in 1966 — could serve as an example of poor “cookery bookery,” which is what she called her mad-genius work of translating traditional French recipes for an American audience.
I had just read “Julia Child Rules” by Karen Karbo and felt I knew all about the iconic Julia, including her bewilderingly approach to recipe writing. This fourth book in the Portland writer’s series about strong, independent women includes the story of pre-fame Julia, when she was a “single giantess, never passing up an opportunity to engage people, get a little smashed, and have a good time.” The book presents 10 lessons on loving life even when it’s not going your way.
Karbo is the perfect author to write yet another book about the adored Julia because Karbo is not a “foodie,” she’s grounded in the day-to-day reality of providing for a family, and most especially because she does not like to cook. The single recipe included in “Julia Child Rules” explains how to roast a hotdog and dunk it in mustard while dirtying the fewest dishes possible.
You won’t get any gushing food description here. In its place you’ll find humor (like Karbo trying to say “waxed paper” in French and ending up with buttered notebook paper), a little heartbreak (Julia’s beef bourguignon conjures uneasy childhood memories for Karbo), and a lot of wit and grit to inspire your own inner Julia.
Of the 10 lessons, “Live with Abandon” applies most urgently to us today. It has nothing to do with cooking, but it is something you can practice in your kitchen.
To live with abandon means living without hesitation and with full commitment to the task at hand. Compare this to today’s multi-tasking culture where we dabble and dash, rushing to get “it” all done. Julia, on the other hand, abandoned herself completely to her one passion. She spent delightfully rigorous 14-hour days following the avenues of French cooking until her death at age 92.
Why don’t we succumb so completely to our passions today, I asked Karbo. Her exasperated answer surprised me: “The Internet!” she said. “It’s amazing and wonderful and all of that, but one component of living with abandon is not being self-conscious. In our highly curated, highly connected social culture, we are always sort of living in a self-conscious space.”
Cooking, however, can free us from this anxiety (as long as we’re not Instagramming the process). In committing to a recipe, we practice a few moments of abandon. All else must wait while we chop, simmer, and stir. For this reason, it would be great if we did more cooking than we do; however, we face significant obstacles.
Whole foods aren’t cheap, for example. Karbo’s family is “trying to eat a lot of those darker greens, and I tell you, you sauté those, and five pounds doesn’t even feed two people.” Also, “food deserts are for sure a reality,” Karbo said. “I’ve been in places where the only apple you can get was harvested last year and wrapped in 17 feet of saran wrap and that’s as good as you can get.”
Most worrisome is our busy lives, especially for those of us straining every minute of the day to make ends meet.
“The more decisions we have to make every day, by the end of the day, we just can’t do it anymore,” Karbo said. “So, if you’ve worked your two jobs and you’re at the grocery store at night, you’re going to buy what’s convenient and affordable, you just can’t make anymore decisions.”
Julia Child lived in a slower era of handwritten letters and cars with 65 mph top speed. Who today has time to make a convoluted 72-step recipe? And yet, that’s just what we need — a challenging task that consumes our attention, providing a few moments of complete abandon and lasting satisfaction.
Trista Cornelius lives in NE Portland. Follow her writing, reading, and eating adventures at her blog, All But the Kitchen Sink.