Gotham Diary:
Birthday Slacking

For a few years, we had the custom of celebrating the year’s three anniversaries at La Grenouille, and I hope to revert to it later this year, but it appears that we’ve taken a break through a full cycle. We missed Kathleen’s birthday in April and our anniversary in October. The arrival of Will had something to do with this; certainly Kathleen’s onerous workload in the Fall made the prospect of dressing up for a lavish dinner more burdensome than delightful. And now we are on the eve of my birthday, and, what do you know, I’m cooking myself. If everything goes as planned, we will be eight at table tomorrow night, from Fossil, the oldest, to Will, who of course just turned one.

Last Friday (New Year’s Eve), I prepared a lunch for four to welcome friends from Geneva, and I put a fair amount of thought and effort into it, such that I wasn’t in the mood, when I woke up this morning, to be taking pains in the kitchen. So I settled on the easy and royal route of beef tenderloin. I’ll roast the thing in the oven and serve it with a sauce of chanterelles in cream. We’ll start with a vegetable risotto — leeks, corn, and poivron. As long as I was at Agata & Valentina for the tenderloin, I picked up one of their opera cakes.

Oh, and asparagus — always asparagus. With one of the egg sauces that ends in “aise.”

The thing is, I watched Julie & Julia twice. In the kitchen. I’d worked my way through a series of pictures about anglophones in Italy — Up at the Villa, My House in Umbria, and Under the Tuscan Sun. That’s when I got my hands on As Always, Julia; so the next movie had to be Julie & Julia. I watch kitchen movies while I’m in the kitchen, pausing them when my work is done. I’m talking about movies that I’ve seen tens of times. I didn’t really mean to watch Julie & Julia twice, but when I went into the kitchen to fix dinner and hit the “play” button, what came up were the closing credits. I couldn’t think of anything else that I wanted to watch, so I just played it again.

Watching Nora Ephron’s movie once might inspire anybody to whip up an interesting meal or two, but watching it twice has the opposite effect. The ladies are almost always hard at work at something, and Julia, of course, is always well turned-out. Julie actually claims to make her aspic with a calf’s foot, a stunt that at my most wildly ambitious (twenty-odd years ago) I never attempted. Who knows what we’d have had for lunch last Friday if the double-single-feature had played out last week! Here’s what we did have: salmon mousse. A very old-fashioned salmon mousse, made from a recipe that I got from a friend who insists that she is not a cook — a recipe that calls for a blender. And a can of salmon. I bought a pound of arctic char and poached it, and dissolved the gelatin in a ladle of the bouillon, but I followed the recipe with regard to the mayonnaise — it called for Hellmann’s — instead of making my own. If I’d watched Julie & Julia first, I’d have been ashamed to cut so many corners. No calf’s foot? You call Knox gelatin cooking?

The chanterelle sauce is an outgrowth of one of my favorite dishes, a sauté of chicken with mushrooms. At some point last year, I had the idea of thickening the sauce with cream, and there was no going back. Bubbly thickened cream and sautéed mushrooms combine to produce the compleat savoriness of umami.

There are readers who will no doubt insist that any meal involving hollandaise or béarnaise sauce is not simple, but there are a few clever things that I’ve done so many times that I don’t have to think about them, so that fuss is not involved. Call it recklessness, rather: whisking eggs and butter over direct heat is asking for trouble. I go into a mad sort of trance, moving the little saucepan to and from the heat as if it were on a bungee cord and throwing in dice of frozen butter (that’s the trick of it) until there’s no more butter, and the sauce is perfect.

One of the treats of watching Julie & Julia twice while reading As Always, Julia is piling up instances of anachronism in the Julia parts. Almost every mention of Avis DeVoto in the movie is contradicted by letters, at least as regards when things happened. (This is not a problem; the alterations all make for a better movie.) And of course Avis DeVoto plays a much bigger role in the book! Julia Child’s epistolary style will be familiar to anyone who has actually read her cookbooks (and not just followed the recipes), but Avis DeVoto’s voice is quite different, racier somehow, and enthusiastic in a way that makes Child seem ladylike by comparison.

Your news about your transfer to the south is staggering. I didn’t even know that Paul was in public service. Is it State Department? Of course I share your regrets about leaving Paris — but I am certain that you can work out the details of the cooking research, and as you point out, there’s all that wonderful Provençale cooking. Frogs legs, Provençale — ah me. Until the old Lafayette Hotel in New York folded up, every New York trip took me straight to that ugly dining room to eat frogs’ legs dripping in garlic and butter, and their gratinéed potatoes which were the best in the world.

I’d much rather be reading Avis DeVoto than struggling with the book that she brought into being.