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Feel-good films. July 17, 2014

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Our friend Ben and I were talking just last night about favorite films, and OFB pointed out that many of my favorites were films that made me feel good. I agreed; I love films that cheer me up, that make me feel good, that give me hope, that make me laugh. So OFB challenged me to come up with my “Top Ten Feel-Good Films” list. I accepted the challenge, even though I was sure that I’d forget some of my favorites, and that there were so many more than ten that the list would necessarily be incomplete. But given those limitations, here are the ones that sprang to mind:

Bride and Prejudice. The Bollywood version of “Pride and Prejudice.” I love many adaptations of Jane Austen’s novels, including Gwyneth Paltrow’s “Emma,” Ciaran Hinds’s magnificent performance in “Persuasion,” and Alicia Silverstone’s adorable “Clueless,” but the high energy, hijinks, and general color, lightheartedness, and mayhem of “Bride and Prejudice”—not to mention the gorgeous Naveen Andrews as Balraj (Mr. Bingley)—takes it over the top.

Young Sherlock Holmes. I love all things Sherlock, but for the ultimate feel-good Holmes film, I’ll take “Young Sherlock Holmes” any day. Alan Cox as Watson would be enough to make the film a classic, but the marvelous Anthony Higgins as Moriarty and the hysterical, campy Egyptian stuff really make it priceless. After seeing it, just thinking of the line “My name is Lester Cragwitch!” will make you roar with laughter.

Flashdance. This isn’t the most cheerful of films, but its ultimate message is so uplifting: Go for your dreams and never give up. The heroine, played sensitively by a very young Jennifer Beals, faces a lot of hardship and heartbreak on the way to reaching her dreams, but she succeeds (and her friends don’t) because her inherent optimism, kindness, generosity and drive attract allies that won’t let her down, no matter what. And there’s tons of energy in the music and dancing.

Blow Dry. Like “Flashdance,” “Blow Dry” takes us through the full range of emotions, especially since Natasha Richardson plays a woman dying before her time and we all know what happened to her. But this film is so full of humor as well as sorrow, so full of great actors (like Alan Rickman), so full of hysterical moments (Bill Nighy is priceless, as is his film partner, Louie, and the mayor of the small town in Yorkshire where the hair competition is held). Ultimately, it’s about the triumph of love, but it reaches its end with plenty of humor along the way. Best line: “He looks like bloody Sid Vicious!” Wait ’til you see who it is.

The Full Monty. This riotous film is also overflowing with humor, but the underlying message is uplifting, about the power that comes from sticking together. A bunch of very unlikely, unemployed men from the former booming steel town of Sheffield, England, decide to improve their fortunes—and love lives—by staging a Chippendales-style act of their own. After many misadventures, including being thrown into jail, losing their homes, losing a son through custody issues, a botched suicide attempt, grocery-store burglary, and so on, the guys get it together. And the attack of the garden gnomes during a job interview still makes me laugh so hard I cry.

Julie and Julia. Who doesn’t love Julia Child? Who doesn’t love Dan Aykroyd’s parody of Julia Child? Who wouldn’t love Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci as Julia and Paul Child? Not me. Seeing any of the above onscreen makes me feel good, especially the onion scene. Seeing Julia’s modern-day follower, Julie Powell, trying to make lobster thermidore while her totally adorable husband dances around singing “Lobsta killah, lobsta killah” is the greatest thing ever.

Smoke Signals. Based on Sherman Alexie’s novels of life on the Rez, this film brims over with laugh-out-loud humor and dry wit. The ultimate coming-of-age story and road trip rolled into one, it’s filled with great characters like Lester Fallsapart and the great Gary Farmer as Arnold Joseph, father of one of the protagonists, who ironically really does fall apart. But the true hero of the movie is Thomas Builds-the-Fire, a happy-go-lucky visionary who helps Arnold’s son Victor reconcile his relationship with his father, and with life, over the course of the road trip. As the Rez’s DJ says, “It’s a good day to be Indigenous.”

The Commitments. This movie about some kids in Dublin who form a soul band, “The Commitments,” is hilarious. Many of the best lines are provided by the Elvis-worshipping father of the protagonist, played just brilliantly by Colm Meaney, who has a portrait of Elvis hanging just under his portrait of the Pope. The adorable (and bizarrely named) Outspan Foster, played by Irish musician Glen Hansard, will win your heart, and Maria Doyle (now Maria Doyle Kennedy of “The Tudors” fame) is marvelous. Not to mention that the music is great.

Princess Caraboo. The movie that presumably introduced Phoebe Cates to her husband, Kevin Kline, is simply marvelous all-round. Catesby plays a servant girl in Regency England (the Jane Austen era) who runs away and pretends to be an exotic princess, named Caraboo. She is taken up as a novelty by high society and eventually even meets the Prince Regent himself before being unmasked by an investigative reporter, Gutch. But the film has a happy ending, as Gutch has fallen in love with the girl and arranges for her to make a fresh start in America rather than being hanged, and then joins her. Kline as Frixos, the Greek butler of the house that takes her in, is simply priceless, and a strong supporting cast, including Jim Broadbent, John Lithgow, John Sessions as the Prince Regent, and the marvelous Stephen Rea as the reporter, make this a total feel-good hit. Wait for Kevin Kline’s “Unfortunately.”

Last Holiday. Queen Latifah at her finest, playing Georgia Bird, a gifted cook who worships Emeril and longs to open a restaurant but instead is working in the cookware department of a department store run by a greedy, horrific monster who embodies every moronic, “hot” management trend, much like Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss. When Ms. Bird is misdiagnosed with a terminal illness and told she only has two weeks to live, she decides to chuck it in and spend those two weeks at a super-elite hotel and spa in Switzerland, enjoying the delicious dishes prepared by their outrageously eccentric chef, played marvelously by Gerard Depardieu. When her horrid uber-boss shows up at the same resort, hilarity follows on a grand scale, and Georgia eventually triumphs. Don’t ever forget Depardieu’s secret to happiness: butter. (But he forgot salt.)

Independence Day. What red-blooded Earthling wouldn’t love this movie, where, as star Will Smith says, we “whup ET’s ass”?! Jeff Goldblum is simply priceless as the nerdy genius who saves the day, but it’s his onscreen father, played to perfection by Judd Hirsch, who steals all the scenes. At Hawk’s Haven, we watch “Independence Day” every Fourth of July. But I could probably watch it every week.

Honorable mention:

Scrooge. The musical version of “A Christmas Carol,” starring Albert Finney, is hilarious, and the music is fantastic. David Collings as Bob Cratchit, Karen Scargill as his adorable daughter Kathy, and one of Scrooge’s debtors, Tom Jenkins (Anton Rogers), a soup seller, are so great, and we’re treated to guest appearances by Sir Alec Guinness as Marley’s Ghost, Dame Edith Evans as the Ghost of Christmas Past, and Sir Kenneth More as the Ghost of Christmas Present. But it’s really David Collings who steals the show as Cratchit. My other fave is “Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,” which also has really memorable music. The reason these fall in the “Honorable Mention” category is simply because they’re seasonal.

Conan the Barbarian. Ah, gotta love the two Conan movies, “Conan the Barbarian” and its sequel, “Conan the Destroyer.” These films introduced Arnold Schwarzenegger to the world beyond weightlifting and made him a household name, mainly because they were filled with great Arnold one-liners that came to define his subsequent film roles, such as another favorite feel-good film, “The Running Man.” (“See you at the 25th prison reunion.”) It was “The Running Man” that first gave us Ah-nold’s deathless line, “I’ll be back.” But it was the Conan films that gave him the opening to inject humor and laughs into what could have been just another pair of tedious muscle/fantasy films that took themselves way too seriously.

Bend It Like Beckham. I suppose I’d appreciate any film that allowed an ordinary girl to triumph over the bizarre-looking, anorexic Keira Knightley. The parents of both the heroine and her best friend (played by Ms. Knightley) are marvelous. And like all Jane Austen romances—of which I think this was a modernization—there are plenty of twists and turns before the star-crossed lovers are finally united with a kiss.

The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. A gentle, delightful film about a bunch of British seniors who are, for a variety of reasons, forced to retire to India to spend their “golden years” in an affordable hotel. Plunged into an exotic culture and less-than-ideal accommodations, they discover who they truly are and even find late-life love and new careers. Meanwhile, the adorable proprietor of the Best Exotic Marigold Hotel faces romantic and financial crises of his own, but amid considerable hilarity, all turns out for the best. Super ensemble performances, with standout turns from Dame Judi Dench, Bill Nighy, Dame Maggie Smith, Tom Wilkinson, and Dev Patel (as the proprietor). Impossible not to feel good by the end of this!

Cinema Paradiso. Some sad things happen in this Italian tale of a small town cinema’s rise and fall, but there’s such delightful interplay between a little boy, the man who operates the film equipment, and the village priest that it more than compensates. Lots of laughs and smiles along the way. And, in the end, two delightful surprises for the boy, now grown to become a famous director. Beautifully acted, great music, and totally heartwarming.

The Gods Must Be Crazy. This hysterical film pits a timeless, gentle, primitive culture against modern society, all because a pilot tossed an empty Coke bottle out of his plane. The Kalahari people on whose land the bottle falls at first believe it to be a gift from the Gods, but realize when it stirs up envy and enmity among the people for the first time ever that it is “the evil thing.” One man volunteers to take it away, and in the process has many misadventures as he meets more “advanced” cultures. At the same time, a hapless ranger has ludicrous, hilarious disaster after disaster, especially after he meets the woman of his dreams. Fortunately, all turns out well for the tribesman and the star-crossed lovers.

Sister Act. Okay, okay, I know it’s hokey, but it still cheers me up. Whoopi Goldberg may not be convincing as a casino act, but she’s simply great as a pseudo-nun in the Witness Protection Program. Dame Maggie Smith does a great job as her Mother Superior, and Whoopi’s fellow nuns are priceless, as she turns a hopeless choir into an irresistible act. I dare you not to sing along!

Okay, enough from me for now. That’s 18 movies that make me happy. Which films make you happy?

‘Til nex,t time,


Julia Child: Larger Than Life. August 24, 2012

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Silence Dogood here. I just got my copy of Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, a children’s book by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade Books, New York, 2012). I’d read such great reviews of the book that I, a diehard Julia fan, simply had to have it. Unlike so many things in life, Bon Appetit! lived up to its reviews. I adored it. It made me laugh. It made me cry. I’m so happy to add it to my Julia book collection.

If you want to introduce your kids to the wonderful world of Julia Child, this is the place to start (possibly followed by the Dan Aykroyd parody on “Saturday Night Live”). If you want to revisit Julia with fresh eyes, this is the place to start. Ms. Hartland covers so much ground in such a condensed format that children and adults alike will feel like they really know Julia after they’ve finished the book! Then anyone who wants to dig deeper can read Julia’s and Alex Prud’homme’s memoir, My Life in France, and of course watch the film “Julie and Julia.” 

But even if, like me, you’ve read pretty much everything by and about Julia and seen all of her shows, Bon Appetit! is still worth reading, worth collecting. It’s a book you’ll want to revisit whenever you need cheering up. It will remind you, as Julia famously said, that life itself is the ultimate binge. Kudos, Jessie Hartland!

               ‘Til next time,


Letters to Julia. November 16, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. If, like me, you just can’t get enough of Julia Child, you’ll be happy to hear that there’s yet another Julia Child book now hot off the presses: As Always, Julia (edited by Joan Reardon, Houghton Mifflin* Harcourt, 2010). It’s a selection of letters exchanged between Julia Child and her American mentor, Avis DeVoto, between 1952 and 1961, the period in which Julia labored over the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Unlike Julia’s French mentors, Chef Max Bugnard and Julia’s friend and colleague Simone (Simca) Beck**, Avis was more of a Boston socialite than a cook. But her connections to major publishing houses proved invaluable to Julia, finally bringing Mastering into print and launching her career, and Avis was also a key part of Julia’s team when she added television to her repertoire.

You might think that a 416-page exchange of letters wouldn’t be exciting reading, but when one of the correspondents is the irrepressible Julia Child, you’d be mistaken. I just bought the book in the airport bookstore yesterday (and doesn’t it say something about Julia’s enduring popularity that it was in an airport bookstore in the first place!), so I’ve only gotten through 60 pages so far. But I’ve really been enjoying it, not just for Julia but for the picture of 1950s life that the letters unconsciously reveal.

For example, Avis tells Julia that the National Book Awards were established because everyone in publishing felt the Pulitzer Prize had gone so far downhill as to be meaningless—after all, the previous year it had been awarded to Rachel Carson for The Sea Around Us! Another irony is that, at the time of the correspondence, Avis’s husband Bernard DeVoto was considered a major literary figure, while of course Julia was still nothing more than “Mrs. Child.” It’s fascinating to see who’s stood the test of time—who both Avis and Julia considered to be major players—and who hasn’t. No doubt, sixty years from now, people will laugh to see who we made a huge fuss over as well.

Editor Joan Reardon, a noted culinary historian and author of many books, especially about culinary icon M.F.K. Fisher, has worked very hard in the footnote department to explain to the general reader who a lot of the now-obscure people Julia and Avis discuss are, as well as to shed some enlightenment on obscure cooking trends, such as why a company called its stainless steel knives (a newfangled development deplored by both Julia and Avis) “Frozen Heat.” Yet she’s left some really stunning gaps, such as failing to explain why a sauce mentioned in the letters would call for “blending flour, butter and coral.” Yes, coral, and yes, this was a sauce for food. One can only hope it was a popular term at the time for something else!

All told, however, this is looking like a delightful read, and I can’t wait to get further into it. As a modern publishing professional, reading about the ethical standards and practices of publishing at that time is painfully, screamingly funny. Ah for the good old days when publishing was editorially rather than marketing-driven! As Always, Julia also has the greatest photo of Julia Child I’ve ever seen. (Hint: It’s on page X, which of course is not marked as such but is in the front of the book.)

If there are other gaps in your Julia library and you’re a diehard Juliaphile, here’s an overview of some of my must-haves:

My Life in France (Julia Child with her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, Anchor, 2009). This is such a delightful portrait of Julia during her “French years” that it ranks right up there with the great autobiographies (if you’re willing to stretch a point and can call a coauthored book an autobiography). If you want to read a more wide-ranging bio covering Julia’s entire life, the workmanlike Julia Child: A Life (Laura Shapiro, Penguin, 2009) is okay, but avoid the wonderfully-titled but mind-numbingly boring Appetite for Life (Noel Riley Fitch, Anchor, 1999). How anyone could make such a vibrant person as Julia Child boring is inconceivable to me, but the author managed it, and I should know, since I forced myself through all 592 deadening pages.

“Julie and Julia.” Watch the movie, skip the book (Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Julie Powell, Back Bay Books, 2009). The movie is fun, the book is nasty. In the movie, Ms. Powell comes off as a delightfully goofy, elfin type married to a super-gorgeous, sympathetic guy. In the book, she comes off as a self-pitying, ego-driven monster. Ugh! Of course, as everyone says, the movie’s scenes in Paris with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) are the highlights, but that’s because the movie’s creators wisely took them from My Life in France. It’s worth watching the movie for the views of Paris (and the Childs’ amazing apartment) alone. And if anybody wants to understand the finer points of great acting, watch the superb Meryl Streep as Julia discovering the sensual joys of French cuisine versus poor Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert desperately trying to pretend that she’s discovering the sensual joys of Italian cuisine in “Eat, Pray, Love.”

“Julia Child! America’s Favorite Chef.”*** This PBS documentary is an excellent intro to Julia Child, her life and long career. It’s fun to watch if you already love Julia, and a great way to meet Julia and understand America’s love affair with her if you don’t already know her. Includes the famous Dan Aykroyd parody skit of Julia on “Saturday Night Live.”

“The French Chef.” The original PBS series starring Julia Child is now available on DVD, and it’s every bit as hysterical and delightful, thanks to Julia, as I remembered when, barely more than a toddler, I used to watch, enthralled, every week with my siblings as Julia ran riot in the kitchen. I’ve loved Julia from that day to this. Bon appetit! I’m sure Julia’s numerous later series are also available on DVD as well.

Julia’s books. My beloved Mama swore by Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes I and II, as did so many home cooks of her generation. I feel very proud to have a first-edition copy of the first volume in my own cookbook library. I also own a very battered used copy of The French Chef Cookbook, which gives all the recipes for those dishes Julia’s whipping through so energetically on the series, and Julia Child’s Kitchen Wisdom, a collection of Julia’s foolproof kitchen tips.

As a vegetarian and intuitive cook, I’ll admit that I have these more for sentiment than use, but as is well known, if you want clear, can’t-fail directions, precise measurements, and thoroughly researched guidance, nobody has ever bested Julia and no one has come close to equalling her until the advent of America’s Test Kitchen and its magazines, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, with their thoroughly and precisely tested recipes and product reviews. Were Julia alive today, I think she’d really love them. And just imagine a Julia Child cooking magazine!

Julia produced many other cookbooks and TV shows during her long career, both solo and with such culinary luminaries as Jacques Pepin. If you have your own favorites, please share what they are and why you love them! I’d love to hear. Meanwhile, back to reading…

               ‘Til next time,


* Julia’s devotees will recall that Houghton Mifflin first optioned, then stupidly rejected, Mastering the Art of French Cooking after deciding that it was too long and elaborate for American audiences. Maybe they’re finally atoning for that mistake with the publication of As Always, Julia.

** It cheered me up no end to discover that the reason Simone Beck was called by her nickname, Simca, was because of her fondness for a quirky little European car called the Simca. My own parents acquired a Simca—God knows how, in Nashville—early in their marriage, and I can actually remember it, eccentric and uncomfortable little thing that it was.

*** In her defense, Julia Child never referred to herself as a chef, a term usually reserved for professionals who are classically trained, serve apprenticeships under renowned chefs, and become the heads of professional kitchens in restaurants or hotels. Her TV team promoted her as “The French Chef” because they felt that, at the time, “chef” sounded French, perhaps a bit more savvy and chic than “The American Home Cook Who Loves French Food and Cooks It.” It always fascinates me when watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” when he bestows what he obviously considers the highest possible accolade by addressing someone he encounters on his travels simply as “Chef,” rather than by their name.

Cooking contest blues. June 14, 2010

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. The other day, I saw that Francesco Rinaldi spaghetti sauce was celebrating its 20th anniversary with a contest drawing. The winners would get an all-expenses-paid trip to Tuscany for four.

Tuscany! What an incredible thrill. As someone who’s never been farther from the States than England, Wales, and Quebec, the thought of it made my hair stand on end.

“Ben! Can you drive a stick shift?”

“Yes, why?”

“If we win this trip to Tuscany, our free rental car is manual transmission. I wanted to make sure you could drive it before I entered, since I can only drive automatic.”

“Trip to Tuscany?! What are our odds?”

“Oh, maybe one in 150 million.”

“And if we win, how much will it cost us?”

“Nothing, silly! It’s free!”

“No, it’s not free. Look on the form and tell me what the cash equivalent is worth. It will say on there somewhere.”

“Uh… here it is. It’s almost $9,000.”

“And what’s 25% of $9,000?”

“Um… a little less than $2250?”

“Happen to have that sitting around in pocket change?”

“You know I don’t, Ben!”

“But that’s what you’d owe Uncle Sam in taxes on your ‘free’ trip.”


“That’s why these contests always give you the cash equivalent somewhere on the form. Because you’ll be taxed on that amount. There’s no such thing as a free prize, sweetheart. Let’s win the lottery and then we’ll go to Tuscany for as long as you like.”

I was still reeling from this news when I finally, finally got a copy of “Julie and Julia” from Amazon. I was buying birthday and Father’s Day gifts on Amazon and thought I’d treat myself to an unbirthday present as long as I was getting stuff for everyone else. When I opened the DVD, I was shocked to see a contest brochure inside. Three Grand Prize winners would spend three days taking classes at Le Cordon Bleu Culinary Arts Institute in Ottawa, with a free four night/five day stay for two and air transport from the major airport nearest you. This sounded wonderful, but it got better: 25 First Prize winners would receive a set of cookware from Le Creuset, my all-time-favorite brand of cookware, in Flame, the same burnt-orange color as Julia Child’s own Le Creuset set.

Classes at Le Cordon Bleu and an all-expenses-paid trip to Ottawa? A complete set of Le Creuset cookware? Okay, I gave up the Tuscany thing, but this was different.

“Different? And how much does this one cost?”

Drat that Ben, always the spoilsport. “Uh… $8,700.”

“And 25% of $8,700 is… ?”

“GRRRRRRRRRR!!!! But, um, never mind.”

“Never mind?”

“Well, I see that the entry deadline was January 31, 2010. I guess that means we’re not in the running.”

“Too bad, sweetheart. But when we win the lottery and take that vacation to Tuscany, maybe you’ll find that there’s a Cordon Bleu school there, too. And we can hop on over to France and visit the Le Creuset factory while we’re in the vicinity.”

Okay, I’ll start MapQuesting. You may say we’re just dreamers, but we’re not the only ones…   

               ‘Til next time,


Silence goes to the movies, take one. August 16, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in homesteading, recipes, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. I usually leave the movie reviews to our friend Ben, but figured I should add my two cents to the “Julie and Julia” reviews, especially after seeing that The Week gave it only two stars. After watching the film yesterday, I felt that was a little mean-spirited.

To recap what I’ve written in earlier posts, I’ve been a Julia Child fan since childhood, loving the slap-happy, larger-than-life figure on our family TV screen. I’ve read two Julia bios to date, the deadly dull (but wonderfully titled) Appetite for Life and the wonderful autobiography (with her grand-nephew by marriage, Alex Prud’homme) My Life in France. I’d been unaware of Julie Powell’s blog, The Julie and Julia Project, but became aware of the resulting book, Julie and Julia, and eagerly checked it out of the library. Eeeewwww!!! I hated the whiny, self-absorbed Julie and couldn’t get through it. So normally I wouldn’t even have gone to the movie, but discovered that the clever creators of the film had merged the narratives of Julie and Julia and My Life in France so it was about Julia Child as well as me, me, me.

Reviewers seem to feel that there’s not nearly enough Julia and way too much Julie in the film. I have to disagree. I didn’t hate the film Julie (and I loved her sweet, hot husband), but I agree that half as much of her would have been plenty. But actually, there was enough Julia. This was because the film cleverly combined flashbacks to Julia’s life in France with episodes from her TV show (watched by Julie and her husband) and even the Dan Ackroyd parody of Julia on “Saturday Night Live.” Without the TV Julia, I’d have found the film wanting, but because you got to see her at her finest on TV (and Meryl Streep really was great here, I’d watched the identical episodes with the real Julia just the night before), you—or at least I—felt closure. I also thought the way the film ended was brilliant. If you love Julia, France, and/or cooking, I recommend it.

True confession, though: One highlight near the end of the film showed Julie Powell being besieged by calls from publishers, literary agents, film producers, magazine editors, etc. Much of the audience was teary-eyed as Julie was vindicated after her year of blogging. I, too, was teary-eyed, but I confess that it might have had a bit more to do with the fact that publishers, agents and producers weren’t breaking down our friend Ben’s and my door to turn our blog into books. Envy. Shame on me!

Blogging friends had recommended a Julia bio I’d been unaware of, Julia Child: A Life, by Laura Shapiro. So after watching the movie, I hauled my hapless friend Delilah to the nearby Barnes & Noble to see if I could find it. Bingo! The author’s name had failed to ring the proverbial bell, but after checking her bio, I realized that she was a food historian whose two previous books, Perfection Salad and Somethin’ from the Oven, I’d read with great interest. If you want to read about how and why we as a country moved away from real food, and what Julia was up against when she tried to bring it back, I highly recommend these books for background reading.

Julia’s triumph was that she managed to return the attention of the American housewife to actual food, and away from the contemporary, industry- and ad-based focus on pseudofood. Were it not for Julia, today’s local food, organic food, artisanal food, slow food, and real food movements might have never been. We might all have been living in a Matrix world of tube-fed, tasteless but nutritionally adequate mush. Instead, Julia birthed the TV chef movement, and we can now all enjoy real chefs loving real food, not to mention enjoying the whole process of creating food. That’s a pretty big deal.

          ‘Til next time,


Julia, just Julia. August 5, 2009

Posted by ourfriendben in recipes, Uncategorized, wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Julia Child is my hero, so I’ve been thrilled to see all the coverage the movie “Julie and Julia,” which opens nationwide this Friday, has beeen getting. Even our local paper had a big feature on it this morning with a couple of Julia’s recipes.

I confess that the reason Julia is my hero is a bit dubious. Both of us love (er, loved, in her case; she died in 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday) cooking for the sheer, sensual pleasure of it. But Julia was a stickler for detail, and my cooking style could be described as “freewheeling at best.”

Instead, I love Julia for her personality, which was every bit as exuberant and oversized as she was. (Julia was 6’2″ tall in the 1930s, a time when the average woman’s height in the U.S. was more like 5’4″.) Our family grew up with Julia, and my brother, sister and I would all sit, enthralled, in front of the TV when her show came on. We thought it was a comedy and found her onscreen antics hilarious, especially as the show progressed and the wine bottle was resorted to with ever more frequency. (I have read in recent years a heated denial that Julia actually drank wine on the set at all, but rather, that she “pretended” to drink wine to encourage Americans to become more at ease with the French custom. Um, right, perhaps she simply became more relaxed as the filming of each episode progressed.)

As a lifelong Julia fan, I was thrilled when a massive biography of her with the marvelous title Appetite for Life came out a few years ago. But despite the title, the book was devoid of life, arid, unspeakably boring. How could a bio of Julia Child possibly be boring?!! And yet. So what a relief to discover My Life in France, Julia’s late-life autobiography, coauthored with her husband’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme. This book lives up to its subject, and is in part the basis for the movie “Julie and Julia.”

As you probably know, the other part of the movie is based on the book Julie and Julia, which is based on a hugely successful blog created by the Julie of the title, Julie Powell, when she decided to relieve her urban ennui by recreating every dish in Julia Child’s classic work Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I’m probably one of the few who was unaware of the blog until the book came out, but once I saw a new book about Julia, I enthusiastically checked it out of the library and settled in for a good read. Zzzzzzz. Julie’s no Julia. Not even close. I couldn’t finish the book, and while I enjoyed the author’s fantasy sequences about Julia’s life as she (Julie) imagined it, I thought they didn’t ring true.

Of course, this may be just me. No matter how much I read about them or how much Julia obviously adored him, I can’t see Paul Child as anything but a cold, pompous little mediocrity who was fortunate enough to gain the love of a great woman. Unlike Julia, Paul does not engage. Neither does Julie.

This is one reason I think the moviemakers displayed a true stroke of brilliance by combining the life of Julia, as described in My Life in France, with the story of Julie as described in Julie and Julia. Julia fans like me will be lining up to see a film we might have skipped had it simply been the Julie story. Kudos for a brilliant idea! I can’t wait to see the movie, and maybe even own it.

Speaking of which, no, despite my love of Julia, I don’t own all her cookbooks. I have a first edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, ca. 1961, courtesy of a local used bookstore, and Julia’s Kitchen Wisdom, a latter-day, small, sleek compendium that probably horrified her. And I have a very battered copy of The French Chef Cookbook, ca. 1968, with a shredded, taped-together cover, also from a used bookstore and based on her famous PBS series, the first TV cooking show in the U.S. (I should add that, despite my childhood memory of the TV Julia being ancient and fat, she actually looks surprisingly youthful and even more surprisingly trim in the photos in this book.)

Then there are the DVDs. Julia comes most vividly to life when she’s captured live. Thanks to modern technology, you can buy or rent her famous TV show in two DVD collections, “The French Chef” and “The French Chef 2.” Or, if you’d rather have a fun introduction to Julia before taking the series plunge, there’s “Julia Child! America’s Favorite Chef.” As a Julia fan, I own and enjoy them all.

However, I wouldn’t want to try to cook from TV. Despite the apparent ease with which Queen Latifah was able to recreate Emeril’s recipe while watching his show live in “Last Holiday,” I’d look drunker than Julia at the end of a program if I even began to attempt such a feat.  So thank God for that battered, taped-together copy of The French Chef Cookbook, which presents Julia’s recipes episode by episode.

Today, I’m going to share Julia’s recipe for Beurre Blanc, one of those mysterious French sauces that you hear about but don’t necessarily know about. (White butter? What the hell is that?!!) In France, this sauce is most often served with fish. But I think it would be delicious over pretty much any vegetable and even as a dipping sauce for bread. Voila, and as Julia herself would say, bon appetit!

             Beurre Blanc

1/4 cup white wine vinegar

2 tablespoons each of lemon juice and dry white vermouth

1 tablespoon finely minced shallots or scallions (green onions)

1/2 teaspoon salt

1/8 teaspoon white pepper

2 to 3 sticks (1/2 to 3/4 pound) chilled butter, cut into 1/4-inch pieces

Boil the vinegar, lemon juice, vermouth, shallots or scallions, salt, and pepper in a 6-cup enameled saucepan until the liquid has reduced to 1 1/2 tablespoons. Remove saucepan from heat and immediately beat in 2 pieces of chilled butter with a wire whip. As butter softens and creams in the liquid, beat in another piece. Then set pan over very low heat and, beating constantly, continue adding successive pieces of butter as each previous piece has almost creamed into the sauce. Sauce should become a thick ivory-colored cream, the consistency of a light hollandaise. Immediately remove from heat and season to taste. (If not served immediately, set over barely tepid water to keep butter from congealing; do not reheat, as sauce may thin out and turn oily.) Makes 1 to 1 1/2 cups.

So, are you planning to see “Julie and Julia”? Our friend Ben and I are going to see it next weekend with our friends Chaz and Delilah, both accomplished and enthusiastic cooks, after a French picnic lunch in the spirit of Julia. (Chaz and Delilah are both by-the-book cooks who’d do Julia’s techniques honor, even as I honor Julia’s spirit of exuberance and try to internalize rather than actually following her technique.) Poor OFB is coming along by default, but at least he’ll get a wonderful picnic lunch out of it.

Anyway, if you see the movie or have read any of the books (or blog) or are a way-back Julia fan like me, tell me what you think. Julia Child is an American phenomenon, a child of privilege who found herself in an exacting discipline and went on to become an enduring icon, America’s own “The French Chef,” in a world where chefs were men and chefs were genuinely French. Julia was a true bon vivant, someone who enjoyed life’s pleasures, at a time when our knowledge of health and health foods was about to bury the rest of us under a pile of scientific guilt. (“I can’t eat this piece of hard candy, it’s worse for my teeth than chocolate! I can’t eat this potato chip, it’s full of fat and bad cholesterol! I can’t, I can’t, I can’t!” How refreshing to find someone who said, “It tastes good, so why not?”) Note that Julia, with all her indulgences, managed to live into her nineties. She’d probably be with us today if she’d been alive to benefit from the latest geriatric advances.

I wish. I miss her!

         ‘Til next time,