Book Club + Julia.

I am, amongst other things, a sentimentalist, a writer, a reader, a traveler and a cook, so it makes perfect sense that I would absolutely love My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud’Homme, her step-grandson, considering that it:

  • is a memoir (which, by nature, must be a bit sentimental, though Julia Child* is not);
  • was written, and makes references to letters written to and by Julia Child;
  • was read by me;
  • is about Ms. Child’s life abroad — and in more places than just France, for the record; and
  • focuses on food.

It sounds like a pretty good match, right?

My Life in FranceI wanted to get my hands on a copy immediately when it was published in 2006; at the time, Keith and I were about to part with a massive down-payment on a house, and I had cut back on the purchasing of items, particularly and unfortunately hardcover books.  For my birthday that year, because he knew how much I wanted to read it, Keith gave it to me this as a part of my gift.  It was one of the best books I’d read in a long while — which is really saying something, considering how much I read**.  I remember thinking it was honest, and witty, and personal, and full of little anecdotes that made me want to laugh out loud.  There’s lost-in-translation stories about communicating with the French, Germans, Norwegians, and family; there’s detailed accounts of the endless hours spent researching recipes; there’s touching glimpses of Child’s love life; and of course, there’s the food.  Seriously: the food, which is reason alone to run out and buy the book.  Or at least borrow it from your local library.

And that is pretty much what I said when my book club decided they wanted to read it.

So we did, planning a Mastering the Art of French Cooking-themed dinner at Stephanie’s apartment in Jamaica Plain, where we discussed the book last Sunday night.  Or, we at least tried to, considering we were busy stuffing ourselves absolutely silly with a truly disgusting amount of food… the majority of which was made with massive amounts of butter.  Julia Child Dinner, 1(The morning after dinner, on the phone, I asked Stephanie how much butter she thought we had eaten.  “A pound,” she replied.  “Let’s not think about it.”)

Because we wanted to be a little organized — our book club is a little free-form, but around food we are not — we coordinated what dishes we would bring to Stephanie’s.  Amanda, Heather and Sarah each baked various gratins (potato, Brussels sprouts and zucchini, respectively); Melissa made her own puff pastry, which she filled with anchovies and cheese; Stephanie made Hollandaise and artichokes, as well as a bouillabaisse so delicious I stupidly almost asked for the recipe; and I ended up making (at Melissa’s suggestion) chocolate mousse.

Julia Child Dinner, chocolate mousseI love chocolate mousse, always have, and so was a bit irritated with myself for not being clever enough to think of making it on my own.  My friend Kelly is French, and one of his terribly chic sisters (also French) once served me homemade mousse at their parents’ table in the little stone village of Nissan-lez-Enserune.  Not once had it ever occurred to me that I — little ol’ curly-haired me — would ever be able to make something as luscious and lusty as chocolate mousse, but it turns out that this is precisely why we have Julia Child, to get us out of our chairs and into our kitchens to make luscious and lusty things like bouillabaisse and Hollandaise and puff pastry.  And thank goodness for that, because this mousse was dee-vine, as they say and if I do say so myself.

I can’t take any of the credit though.  It was all Julia.  I just was the girl holding the mixer.

Chocolate Mousse, from Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child
Makes about five cups, which is enough for six to eight portions

4 eggs, separated
¾ cup granulated sugar plus one tablespoon, separated
¼ cup orange liqueur
6 ounces semi-sweet chocolate
4 tablespoons strong coffee
6 ounces unsalted butter, softened
¼ cup finely chopped candied orange zest (recipe following)
Pinch of salt

A pan of not-quite-simmering water
A basin of ice water

  1. Beat the egg yolks and sugar together until mixture is thick, pale yellow and falls back upon itself, forming a slowly dissolving ribbon.  Beat in the orange liqueur, then set the mixing bowl over the not-quite-simmering water.  Continue beating for three to four minutes until the mixture is foamy and too hot for your finger.  Then set the mixing bowl in the basin of ice water and continue to beat for another three to four minutes until the mixture is cool and again forms the ribbon.  It will have the consistency of mayonnaise.  (It really will.  It’s a little freaky.)  Set aside.
  2. Place another clean mixing bowl over the basin of not-quite-simmering water, creating a double-boiler.  Inside, melt chocolate with coffee, then remove from heat and beat in the butter a bit at a time to make a smooth cream.  Beat the chocolate into the egg yolks and sugar, then beat in the orange zest.
  3. In yet another clean mixing bowl, beat the egg whites and salt until soft peaks form.  Sprinkle in the sugar and beat until stiff peaks form.  Stir one-fourth of the egg whites into the chocolate mixture, then gently fold in the rest.
  4. Turn into a serving dish, dessert cups or petits pots.  Refrigerate for at least two hours, or overnight.

Glazed Orange or Lemon Zest
Makes about half a cup

5 lemons of 3 bright-skinned oranges
1 cup granulated sugar
1 teaspoon vanilla extract

  1. Remove the colored part of the lemon or orange skin with a vegetable peeler.  Julienne into strip 1 ½ inches long and 1/16 inches wide.  Simmer in one quart water for ten to twelve minutes, or until just tender when bitten.  Drain and refresh in cold water.  Dry on paper towels.
  2. Boil sugar and 1/3 cup water in a small saucepan to the thread stage (230°).  Remove from heat.  Stir in the drained peel and vanilla.  Let the peel stand in the syrup for at least thirty empty.  Drain when ready to use.  Under refrigeration, the peel will keep in the syrup for several weeks.
* I cannot, for the life of me, bring myself to call Julia Child anything by Julia Child.  I don’t know why.
**But you know what they say about quality and quantity, and I have been known to indulge in more than one guilty literary pleasure.

Three Books, Two Days, One Lake.

This is what my summer has been like so far:  Maine, Maine, Maine, Maine.

See, we just got back from a weekend at Little Sebago Lake with Keith’s family; they’ve been renting the same house for the past thirty years, and I’ve been going up for the first week in August for the past nine years or so.  This year, Keith and I only stayed for a weekend, but that didn’t stop me from taking part in my favorite lakeside activity: reading.

Wanting to be prepared, I brought more books than articles of clothing — it wouldn’t be possible to get to each one during the stay, but I’m a really moody reader and knew I’d appreciate the variety, even if it meant I wouldn’t make my way through even half the stack.  Here’s what I read:

Those Who Save UsI am fascinated by World War II, and so will greedily consume any- and everything related to it — including, I’m not ashamed to say, Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds, which I’ll be watching later this summer.  Jenna Blum‘s debut novel Those Who Save Us both is and isn’t about the Second World War; it’s also about guilt, love and the relationship between mothers and daughters.

Since emigrating to Minnesota, Trudy’s mother Anna has never discussed her experiences in Germany during World War II with anyone, particularly her daughter.  Now a German history professor, Trudy begins interviewing other German Minnesotans about their lives during the 1930s and 40s.  What she records changes Trudy’s opinion of her mother irreversibly.

Those Who Save Us swaps its narrative back and forth between Trudy’s present-day existence and Anna’s past.  Normally, when I read a multiple-character stories I find myself drawn more to one individual than the other, but Blum writes both mother and daughter so compellingly that I’m unable to pick favorites.

It’s difficult to discuss much of the plot without giving everything away, but what I can elaborate upon is, albeit briefly, what Anna did to ensure she and young Trudy survived the harsh times of World War II Germany.  Unwillingly, Anna takes a lover: the Obersturmführer of Buchenwald.  To say their relationship is strained and tense is an understatement of absurd proportions — though the exact same words can be used to describe the dynamic between mother and daughter.  Happily, Blum allows her characters to earn their peace authentically; not once do their revelations — and, in time, the novel’s conclusion — seem forced.

The Best of EverythingI was talking on the phone with my friend Amee the other night; during our conversation I confessed that I’ve always wished I could stand on a street corner in New York during the late 1950s and early 60s, and just people-watch.

“Imagine,” I said dreamily, “women wore hats and gloves, and got their hair set…”

Women do all this and more in Rona Jaffe‘s groundbreaking first novel, The Best of Everything.  Published in 1958, the book is has influenced modern-day television shows as disparate as Sex and the City and Mad Men (a personal favorite).  Through the five fresh-faced secretaries featured in The Best of Everything, the reader gets an incredibly authentic view into a very distinct period of American life — especially considering Jaffe wrote the novel when she was in her mid-twenties and working as an associate editor at Fawcett Publications.

Under no circumstances would I call Jaffe’s work here literature, but I will enthusiastically refer to it as compelling and engrossing reading.  I will also say it was oddly prescient — the women in The Best of Everything find themselves embroiled in situations that my friends and I (and our friends’ friends, and theirs, and women everywhere) still encounter today: men issues, work issues, friend issues, parent issues.    Luckily, the creepiest part of the book — blatant, unabashed sexism — seems mostly outdated.

The Sweet Life in ParisOne day, hopefully in the not-too-distant future, I’ll have a little walk-up in Paris, except we’ll call it a pied-à-terre, where I’ll live with Keith and our two dogs named Virgil and Geraldine, and I’ll wear stripey bateau-neck tops with quarter-length sleeves and dart in and out of bakeries and market stalls with my basket of groceries, and each night Keith and I will walk the dogs along the Seine.

You know what they say about girls being able to dream.

In the meantime, David Lebovitz‘s anecdotal cookbooky memoir The Sweet Life in Paris: Delicious Adventures in the World’s Most Glorious — and Perplexing — City will have to tide me over.

If you’ve not read Lebovitz’s blog, start reading it now.  It’s funny, observant and full of fool-proof recipes — and his book is more of the same.  My only complaint, for lack of a better word, is that Lebovitz’s choice of chapter-concluding recipes don’t necessarily pertain to the tales he spends the previous pages telling, which isn’t a bad thing, of course.  I just wanted a bit more continuity.  Though with instructions on how to make a plum and raspberry clafoutis and pain d’epices au chocolat, I’m kind of a jerk for being so nitpicky.

Suite Française by Irène Némirovsky.

suite-francaiseIf you want a feel-good, happy-time novel, Irène Némirovsky’s Suite Française is not for you.  After all, the author’s story itself is so utterly tragic, and one so closely tied to the book that the reader can’t help but think of Némirovsky while turning the pages.  Here’s why:

The Ukrainian-born Némirovsky planned for Suite Française to be a five-part novel portraying life in France during the German occupation, which began in June of 1940.  With parts one and two (“Storm in June” and “Dolce,” respectively) complete, Némirovsky then loosely sketched her plans for part three (“Captivity”) and considered titles for parts four and five (“Battles” and “Peace”).  Before she was able to begin working on “Captivity,” however, Némirovsky was arrested for being “a stateless person of Jewish descent”; a month later, she died at Auschwitz.  Both the manuscript and Némirovsky’s notes survived, as did Némirovsky’s daughters Elisabeth and Denise.  Denise, the eldest, took her mother’s writing with her into hiding, thinking the notebook was merely a diary, and one too painful to read.  Fifty years would pass before the two sisters would discover their mother’s novel-in-progress, which would then be considered to be one of the first works of fiction written about World War II.

As if that’s not heartbreaking enough, then we have the remaining parts themselves, which tell the story not only of life during the Nazi takeover, but also of the invasion as well.  With “Storm in June,” Némirovsky introduces us to an epic cast of characters spanning a myriad of class distinctions; they join the masses fleeing Paris with the hopes of evading the advancing German forces. There is the bank manager who takes the precious promised space in his car from his two employees and gives it instead to his cosmetics-loving mistress and dog.  We have the beaux-arts collector who ranks his acquisitions higher than his countrymen, only to trot speedily down a tragically karmic route.  There’s the trusting priest who shepherds orphans out of trouble, only to have them turn on him, and his patriotic younger brother who abandons his family to join the army even though he has yet to come of age.

Via incredibly sparse language (some of which must be credited to translator Sandra Smith), Némirovsky’s characters endure the impossible turbulence of a terrified exodus — only to skate onto the uneven ice of occupation.  In “Dolce,” Suite Française slows its pace to reflect country life in the pastoral village of Bussy, where a German garrison is billeted.  Some characters overlap from “Storm in June,” such as a docile adopted farmer’s daughter married to a fugitive, but Némirovsky produces even more personalities: the incorruptible aristocrat whose son is incarcerated in a German prison; her emotionally-conflicted daughter-in-law; the officer assigned to their house; the affectionate cook who works in the kitchen.

That’s just in one house.  Némirovsky gives equal coverage to the other villagers, creating a story that I can only describe as miraculous.  Think about it — Némirovsky wrote Suite Française as it happened, meaning the events her characters endured were the same that Némirovsky herself endured, almost simultaneously.  In a sense, the novel is an example of in medias res; we are thrust into the middle of the action just as the author was.

The tragedy, of course, is that Némirovsky was unable to complete the novel, but there’s more to be mournful of than simply that.  My edition contains two appendices; one is devoted to Némirovsky’s notes on the story she would never finish, the other is reprints of letters to, from and about the author.  In her last letter, she writes to her husband and daughters, “My dearest love, my cherished children, I think we are leaving today.  Courage and hope.  You are in my heart, my loved ones.  May God help us all.” Through his correspondence, we learn that her anguished husband searches for Némirovsky until he too is deported to Auschwitz after securing hiding places for Denise and Elisabeth.

I’ll end this with the last two paragraphs from the beginning of Suite Française, which I urge all of you to read.

Still at some distance, great guns were firing; they drew nearer, and every window shuddered in reply.  In hot rooms with blacked-out windows, children were born, and their cries made the women forget the sound of sirens and war.  To the dying, the barrage of gunfire seemed far away, without any meaning whatsoever, just one more element in that vague, menacing whisper that washes over those  on the brink of death.  Children slept peaceful, held tight against their monthers’ sides, their lips making sucking noises, like little lambs.  Street sellers’ carts lay abandoned, full of fresh flowers.

The sun came up, fiery red, in a cloudless sky.  A shell was fired, now so close to Paris that from the top of every monument birds rose into the sky.  Great black birds, rarely seen at other times, stretched out their pink-tinged wings.  Beautiful fat pigeons cooed; swallows wheeled; sparrows hopped peacefully in the deserted streets.  Along the Seine each poplar tree held a cluster of little brown birds who sang as loudly as they could.  From deep beneath the ground came the muffled noise everyone had been waiting for, a sort of three-tone fanfare.  The air raid was over.

Dreams + Neuroses.

For a long while, Keith and I have wanted to live abroad. I must say, particularly now that my friends Beth and Bob have done it, therefore making such a move seem like a more achievable reality, I am beginning to get anxious. Now, I should say, firstly, that we don’t have any set plans; regardless, I’ve still got my concerns. I’m not quite hyperventilating yet about the normal things, such as visas and finding an apartment and language barriers and the like. No, I’m instead nervous about how much fatter I’m going to get. I mean, come on! Let’s go through some of the world’s nations and their food:

  • Argentina: carne asado, chinchulines, dulce de membrillo, empanadas, fideos, locro, mate, medialunas, morcilla, sandwiches de miga.
  • Belgium: chocolates and pralines, frieten, greven broecker, lambic, mosselen-friet, stoemp, vlaamse stoofkarbonaden, waffles, waterzooi, witbier.
  • England and the UK in general: Cadburys, Maltesers and etc., curries, fish and chips, haggis, Montgomery’s cheddar, pasties, porters, Spotted Dick, Stilton, Welsh rarebit, Yorkshire pudding.
  • France: bouillabaisse, cassoulet, crêpes, croissants, gougères, mille-feuilles, pâté, pot au feu, ratatouille, Tomme de Savoie.
  • Germany: bratwurst, blutwurst, weißwürste and all other wursts, gingerbread, pickert, radler, schnitzel, schnüsch, spätzle, soßklopse, stollen, wiener rouladen.
  • Hong Kong and China: char siu baau, congee, dim sum, dumplings, fish balls, milk tea, paper-wrapped chiffon cakes, peking duck, red bean pudding, shao mai.
  • Italy: burrata, bicerin, ciccioli, fegatelli di maiale, latte dolce fritto, mortadella, osso buco, panettone, Piave, tortelli di zucca.
  • Japan: bento boxes, donburi, kushikatsu, mochi, ochazuke, onigiri, sashimi and sushi, soba, somen and udon noodles, takoyaki, zōsui.
  • Korea: bibimbap, bulgogi, ddeock, galbijjim, hobbang, hotteok, jabchae, kimbap, naeng-myeon, pajeon.
  • Spain: albóndigas, ajoblanco, croquetas, gazpacho, jamón ibérico, Idiazábal, paella, tapas and pintxos, tortilla española, migas.
  • The Netherlands: CHEESE.

Let’s face it: I’m doomed.