Friday, August 28, 2009

The Non-Julia (and the Non-Rachel)

Over at Slate, Regina Schrambling breaks out the terrible truth: Julia Child may be a saintly woman, but she's not all that cookable. Schrambling talks about the canonical Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My copy of that one disappeared many years ago in a divorce; I do retain The Way to Cook and I look at it from time to time by way of reference but I'm not sure I've ever cooked a whole meal--or even a whole dish--out of it.

Which is all by way of excuse for me to plump again for the non-Julia: Elizabeth David, the woman who introduced Mediterranean cooking to England. Rummaging around my bookcase, I find three Elizabeth Davids: A Book of Mediterranean Food, and Summer Cooking,both from NYRB Classics, and Italian Food, from Penguin. With absolutely no disrespect to Julia--who is just as wonderful as everybody says she is--David is surely the antdote. She's restrained, she's low-key, she's direct and to the point. For example:
(Boiled Scampi)

Boil the unshelled scampi tails in salted water for 10 minutes. Serve them hot with melted butter, leaving each person to shell his own.
That's it? That's all? Well, no, not quite. Elizabeth adds:
This is perhaps the best way of appreciating the delicate flavour of the scampi.
Oh. Ah. Right. Got it. Actually, I don't do it quite that way any more. One, I don't use water; in my view, it's better with beer. On the other hand, I don't "boil for 10 minutes." I think this makes them too rubbery. Rather, I start them in cold stuff and bring them to a simmer and hold until they are just cooked through. Still, the fact is that Elizabeth has got to the point: find good ingredients, and stay out of their way. She's good to go back to, whenever you need to clear the head.

Or, we could go on to:
(Fried Scampi)

There are several ways of frying scampi:The tails can be taken raw out of their shells, dusted with flour and plainly fried in oil, or they can be dipped in egg and breadcrumbs or in frying batter. They can also be first boiled, and then friend in any of these ways.
And the last line kicker again:
They are best served plain, with no garnish but lemon.
That's the point isn't it? Look, this is not all that difficult. Just don't screw it up.

Okay, I am being selective. Not every recipe comes in just a few lines. She takes most of two pages to explain "Octopus, Squid, Cuttle" to the English audience, advising, that "Polipi" i.e., Octopus, "musrt be bashed a good deal before cooking--gads, I which I had known that the first time I tried to cope with one. She ends with the ambiguous advice that "Diogenes the Cynic, it is said, died from trying to eat a raw inkfish."

In simplicity and straightforwardness, I suppose David is closer to Rachel Ray. But she is really the no-Rachel just as she is the non-Julia. Straightfoward she may be, but she doesn't sound working-mother harried so much as uncluttered and focused on the task.

There are at least two biographies of David, neither of which I have read. But from the sound of things, her life wasn't as simple as her approach to dining. Wiki says that made a "marriage of convenience" with "a man whom she did not ultimately respect." It says that "she had many lovers" and that at "49, she suffered a cerebral hemorrhage, possibly related to her heavy drinking." It adds: "Although she recovered, it affected her sense of taste and her libido."

Sadly, I can't speak for her libido (come to think of it, which of us can ever speak for our libido?). But her taste seems to me impeccable. More than impeccable, she seems to have understood early that good food was worth attending to and worth taking seriously. And not that-all difficult.

Source: both recipes quoted are from the Italian Food with an introduction by--oh, look here, folks: Julia Child.

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