Julia McWilliams was a woman who lived by her whims. After graduating from Smith in 1934 she moved to New York on a whim. When that didn’t pan out (dull job, heartbreak) she moved home to Pasadena, where she golfed, partied and wrote a fashion column for a third rate LA magazine, until the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, after which, on a whim, she applied for military service (turned down: too tall); she then moved to Washington D.C. to work for the OSS, where she labored unsung in the typing pool, until she followed a whim and applied to be transferred to India. Years later, after she met and fell in love with Paul Child in Ceylon (the result of obey that earlier whim) and still had no clue what to do with her life, she signed up for classes at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. On a whim, of course.
When I decided to write Julia Child Rules, on a whim I asked one of my oldest friends, Kathy, if she’d be willing to go to Paris with me for three weeks to live in Julia’s neighborhood and “cook like Julia.” Because I was obeying a whim, my plan began forming itself as the invitation left my lips. Actually, I think I might have said “cook Julia,” which sounds grisly, not to say insane. Because Kathy is a top-notch whim follower herself she said, without pause, absolutely. (Unlike me, she doesn’t feel ambivalent about whim-following, having never committed Annie Dillard’s famous quote to memory: A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time.)
On a whim we went online and booked an apartment on the rue de l’Exposition, less than a half mile from Julia’s.
Kathy can pretty much cook any Julia she wants without consulting a cookbook, but I wasn’t feeling that confident, and since I was taking my tablet thingy with me I thought, on a whim, I would download whatever Julia cookbooks were downloadable, et voila.
“Obey your whims” sounds like such a freeing, life-affirming lesson. Every Manic Pixie Dream Girl embraces whim-following are her life’s primary directive. Still, we in Karbohemia would feel remiss if we failed to point out that because a lot of times whims are not well thought out, things can go wrong.
Kathy and I left for Paris, eCookbooks in hand (on tablet, whatever) forgetting that one of the completely irritating aspects great charms of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is that any complicated recipe references other complicated recipes. Cooking something like Filets de Poisson Gratinés, à la Parisienne, which actually isn’t that complicated, nevertheless requires you to go back to some other page and reference the fish poaching method, and then to another one to find the Parisienne sauce.
It was maddening. Rather than easily flipping back and forth between the pages, as we would with a print cookbook, we were imprisoned by the need to swipe.
Swipe with our flourly pointer fingers! Swipe with our fingers that were fishy, buttery and sticky with cheese! Whoops, now we’re back at the Table of Contents! Swipe swipe! Now we’re — where are we? There are no page numbers! — somewhere at the end of the book, deep in the desserts, amid the babas (aux fruits, au rhum). Swipe swipe swipe, back the other way. The screen became so smeary that even after we made it back to the correct page, we could barely read it. Then, we couldn’t find our way back to the original recipe. There was supposed to be a way to make bookmarks but it didn’t work, or we couldn’t figure out how to do it. We had had too much wine. We were too impatient. We wound up writing down the steps on a piece of notebook paper.
The simple fact is that cookbooks, alone among their paginated brethren, need to be books. (On a whim, I’m going off on this tangent.)
No one needs to point out that ebooks are the future. The aforementioned tablet? Fully loaded with fifty-six different titles. And what better feeds the whim to read that book a friend mentioned on Facebook or at a party than the ability to download an ebook toute de suite?
But a cookbook is not something absorbed passively, like a novel. It has more in common with a frying pan than War and Peace. It also bears witness to its own use. Had I obeyed not my first whim (the downloading of Mastering), but my second, and tossed my old hard copy into my suitcase, it might have accrued some wine-stained pages, some pages stuck together with flour, homely pieces of evidence that attention — that rarest commodity — was paid.
On a different note: Julia’s birthday is Thursday, August 15. In celebration, I’ll be sending out my Summer Newsletter. Inside, you’ll find what’s new in Karbohemia, upcoming Dog & Pony Tour Dates, a giveaway contest for a signed copy of Julia Child Rules, and more! Heck, there might be pie or Tarte Tatin.
I’d be delighted if you’d join my mailing list.
sources: ancient cookbook, The Stylista/stylistabysc.blogspot.com