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Mastering the Art

EscargotsI recently reacquainted myself with one of my favorite cookbooks, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”, by Julia Child, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. I added this book to my personal collection back in the late ‘80s when I was working at the Morrill Memorial Library as a page.  This particular edition of this classic was being withdrawn from the collection.  Even at my young age, I knew this was a deal I shouldn’t pass up, even if I wasn’t cooking for myself yet, as I was still in high school. At home, we ate the usual American fare, mostly meat and potatoes.  Occasionally, I’d have a taste of traditional dishes from Lithuania, as both sides of my family emigrated from the Baltics.  Why I decided to bring this selection home at that time was a bit of a mystery.

Despite having a rather unique cultural heritage, I never had an adventurous palate. Even when trying the Lithuanian dishes, my favorites were blynai or kugelis – both potato based recipes.  The only time I ever tried something really different was when I traveled to France for my junior year abroad in college.  I had the benefit of living with a woman whose father was a butcher and a bit of a home chef.  We would go to her parents’ house for dinner on Sundays where her mother and father would present me with a ‘mystery’ meal.  They never told me what they were serving until we finished dinner.  I had the opportunity to taste such French delicacies as Escargots à la Bourguignonne (snails with garlic and butter), Cuisse de Grenouille (frog legs), Lapin à la Moutarde (rabbit with Dijon mustard), Terrine de Foie Gras (goose liver) and much more.

After returning from France, my culinary habits didn’t stray too far from my American staples despite my experiences in France.  I would try different recipes for the basic proteins of beef, chicken, and pork but I always stuck to American based cookbooks like the “Joy of Cooking” or “The Fannie Farmer Cookbook” or even “The New York Times Cookbook.”  I started to venture out a little bit once The Food Network caught my attention but even then, I stuck to the basic American chefs like Alton Brown, Bobby Flay and Rachel Ray.  Occasionally, I would refer to their cookbooks such as, Alton’s “Good Eats: The Early Years,” “Bobby Flay’s Bar Americain Cookbook” or Rachel’s “30-Minute Meals.”  Once in a while, I’d branch out to try one of the Italian recipes in Giada De Laurentiis’ “Everyday Italian: 125 Simple and Delicious Recipes.” Things were perking up in the kitchen.

Then I got hooked on Bravo’s reality show, Top Chef.  Although I’m not a ‘foodie’ by any stretch of the imagination, I was mesmerized by this program and the amazing creativity and delicious looking meals the talented chefs were making in such a short period of time.  I started to scope out some of the cookbooks published in association with the show:  “Top Chef: The Cookbook”, “Top Chef: The Quickfire Cookbook,” and “How to Cook Like a Top Chef.”

Since I became so interested in the journey and recipes of these chefs, a colleague of mine recommended that I read “The United States of Arugula: How We Became a Gourmet Nation”, by David Kamp. I’m learning all about the chefs and journalists who were instrumental in introducing the general American public to gourmet cuisine, including James Beard, Julia Child and Craig Claiborne.  It was during this engrossing read that I remembered that I had the two volume set of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”; a classic cookbook that I barely opened since I brought it home so many years ago.  The books had been sitting on my bookshelf in the kitchen the whole time.  I just hadn’t ventured to open the pages…yet — I decided now was the time.

I began with some of the basics and classics like: Soupe à l’Oignon Gratinée, Vichyssoise, Coq au Vin, and Boeuf Bourguignon.  The dishes were delicious and it was fun to make something different.  I was recounting my new venture of cooking with a friend and she told me that I had to watch the movie, Julie & Julia, which is a tale about a young woman cooking all of the recipes in Julia Child’s classic cookbook during one year.  I wasn’t going to go to that extreme but the exercise did awaken in me a new love for cooking with ingredients that weren’t so common in my pantry.

My family never knows what might be on the table each evening.  Sometimes it’s an American staple like homemade macaroni and cheese from Rachel Ray’s cookbook or it could be quiche or even ratatouille.  The books and cooking shows brought a sense of fun back into the kitchen for me and family back to the table.

Diane Phillips is the Technical Services Librarian at the Morrill Memorial Library in Norwood, Massachusetts. Read Diane’s column in the September 15, 2016 issue of the Norwood Transcript and Bulletin.

Sam Simas

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