On cooking, inspiration and Julia Child…

English: American cook, author, and television...
American cook, author, and television personality (August 15, 1912 – August 13, 2004). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

August 15, Julia Child’s 100th birthday and the internet has exploded with tributes. One particular blog post caught my attention… it mentioned the film “Julie & Julia” and though my opinion of the movie was less glowing than the one given (it was OK…half of the movie was excellent, the other half was tedious), I will agree that it was directly responsible for an upswing in the popularity of classic cooking and Julia Child. However, I was a fan long before the movie ever came out.

I’m often asked who inspired me to cook, and my short answer is always the same, “Both my mother and my grandmother encouraged me. As soon as I was old enough to stand on a step stool and hold a spoon, I was in the kitchen.”

And that is absolutely the truth.

The longer answer is more complex, and in honor of Ms. Child’s 100th birthday, we’re going there…

Yes, my grandmother would wrap a kitchen towel around my waist and stick me on a step stool, then hand me a mixing spoon. I really don’t recall eating all the cakes we must have baked. She wasn’t otherwise much of a cook by today’s standards. She had a few traditionalist Southern dishes, some remarkable baked goods and the rest was pretty basic stuff. She was, by and large, a reliably good home cook. OK, so I learned how to make my own taco shells from her. Yeah, there were a few things.

My mother, on the other hand was a star in the kitchen. In her hands, a simple meal of beans and cornbread became a gourmet treat. I watched her style change and grow as she started doing catering work; her down-home, good-ole Southern food morphed into some delicious mix of traditional Southern with a modern Mediterranean twist. Don’t knock it, it worked! Mom was also a baker, churning out butter-laden cookies and cakes and the richest, flakiest, most tender and delicate pie crust you could ever imagine (it’s the reason I’m so damn picky about pie.) But it took years for her to learn how to cook a pork chop without incinerating it. And for years, I hated pork chops.

I grew up in an age before the Food Network, when cooking shows were on public television and were relatively low-budget affairs. We also lived out in the boondocks, so even when cable came into play, we didn’t have it.

My cooking idols were people like Julia Child, Jeff Smith (the Frugal Gourmet) and Graham Kerr (the Galloping Gourmet). I developed a love of antique cookbooks, and by antique, I mean things no newer than World War II, and preferably pre-World War I. Eventually, I added Marcel Desaulniers to my list of admired chefs and many years later, with the discovery of the Food Network, I fell in love with Alton Brown.

Over the years, I’ve watched my own style change. I’ve created more than a few of my own recipes, participated in a charity cookbook project, won a few cooking and baking awards and been the culinary brains behind feeding a group of several hundred people. I can look back at my early recipes and some of them stand the test of time. They’re simple, classic and uncomplicated. Others bear distinct marks of a particular stage in my culinary development. I went through a love affair with saffron and had a definite thing for pine nuts at one point.

Of late, my food has undergone another transition. I’ve dispensed with the fancy stuff and instead embraced fresh, simple flavors. I like to let the flavor of the food stand out. Mind you, I still love tackling notoriously difficult things like macarons just because I can.

Tonight, we have company coming over; dinner will include green beans sautéed in bacon fat, roasted baby potatoes, probably with some onion, garlic and maybe even toasted pecans and cheese, and pepper-crusted pork chops accompanied by a tossed salad and hopefully a glass wine. It will be simple, but it will be good, and I’d like to think that Julia would be pleased.

“Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.” ~ Julia Child

And with that, bon apetit!