Tuesday, March 25, 2008

From Julia's Kitchen

I went to cooking class across the valley last week in Julia's kitchen. The keeper of the kitchen these days is an American lady of a certain age--sensible shoes, salt and pepper hair that she doesn't bother coloring anymore--who teaches cooking to vacationing Americans. We met this winter, and then we met again, and the second time--in yoga class, this was--she invited me to come for a day. There would be only one vacationing American. I would be there to offer a little local American color and to fill in the conversational cracks.

The vacationing Americans who come for cooking class spend the morning with the keeper in the kitchen, making a three or four-course lunch. At around one o'clock everything is ready, and then everyone sits down and eats and drinks until three o'clock or so. They spend a week at Julia's house--three days preparing and eating lunch, a day visiting the markets and lunching out in a proper French restaurant, a day with a visiting chef. The keeper is there throughout, shepherding, chatting, coaxing, leading, teaching. So only one visiting American can make for an intense week. Thus my invitation.

I have made the pilgrimage, several times, to Julia's kitchen, the one from the Cambridge house, now at the Smithsonian. The countertops are high and made of worn butcherblock. There is an island in the middle of the kitchen, with large storage baskets underneath. On the wall, of course, the famous pegboard, with the outlines of the pots and pans and whisk and spatulas painted so that the busy cook will know just where to put everything. I have looked in at that kitchen and read all the labels that the curators thought fit to write, and imagined what it would be like to step inside and take down a rolling pin. When I was a little girl I read a book about a sister and brother who got locked in the Metropolitan Museum of Art after hours. I'm sure that something else must have happened to them, but I don't remember what it was. What stayed with me was the thrilling idea of being behind the ropes, of being able to wander, to touch, to sit, without any shushing or shaking of heads. So all my life that notion has followed me. Locked in Versailles and sitting on the little slipper chairs in the Queen's bedchamber. Locked in Monticello and sitting at Jefferson's desk. And if I were ever locked in the Smithsonian Museum of American History, I would bypass everything else and go directly to Julia's kitchen.

On the appointed day last week I drove across the valley, down the lane, past the "Défense d'Entrer / Propriété Privé" sign, and up a rutted gravel track. Julia's house is not grand. It is the house that you would design if you were not trying to impress anyone with Your House in France, but just wanted a place to live and have your friends to stay. Park and go around to the back--there isn't really a front door, just a series of French doors opening onto the small terrace--and open the screen door. It leads directly into the kitchen. Julia's kitchen. The same. High counters, butcherblock, island with wicker baskets of equipment, and, of course, the pegboard.

The keeper handed me an apron, a dishtowel, and a clipboard with copies of the recipes we were to make. I met the visiting American--an elfin lawyer from St. Louis--and we started cooking. The keeper taught techniques and tricks: save the tops of leeks for making stock. Correct melted chocolate that has gotten too hot and separated by whisking in heavy cream. Put basil stems, shorn of their leaves, in the sauce for their flavor, and fish them out later. We both took notes, and watched, and asked questions. In between times there were stories, about other places we'd been, meals we'd eaten, people we had eaten with. But there were no stories about Julia. She hardly came up, really. A few times I thought she would--and then instead I learned that in France it is permissible to break off just the amount of celery that you need from the stalk, and buy that instead of the whole bunch, which is a helpful thing to know. As the morning wore on I found myself bending to lean my elbows on the kitchen island where we were working. I am nowhere near six feet myself, and the countertops were too high for me.

It was when we were sitting down to lunch--if the pink champagne is good, go ahead and serve it with the meal, and when you put the plate down in front of your guests, the meat always goes at six o'clock--that I suddenly understood. There was no need to talk about Julia. This was not some exercise in hagiography. No saints lived here. This was the house, the kitchen, of someone who liked to cook, who liked to teach people to cook, who liked to sit long over her meals with friends eat and drink and talk and laugh without reservation. What we were doing was not participating in some pilgrimage but simply carrying on the same work that Julia had done herself, the ordinary alchemy of turning groceries into lunch. A particularly good lunch, but nothing mysterious. Sitting at Jefferson's desk I have always imagined that I might get that much closer to Jefferson's thoughts, and maybe at Monticello things are different. But in Julia's kitchen what I learned was that cooking done with love and care is the same in every kitchen.

I tried out my theory this weekend. It was Easter, and the house was full of company, so much that we overflowed into Jules' house up the terraces. Of all our household this weekend I was the only one for whom Easter meant much, or anything, beyond egg hunts and chocolate rabbits, and although I have long ago stopped sorting out my thoughts on resurrection, I retain a sense of the holy. A sense that this holiday is about grace, about good things happening when you don't think they will, when you've given up hope that they ever will again. So we have the chocolate bunnies and the girls have grown up with egg hunts, and I struggle with teaching them--not bread into body or wine into blood, but grace and compassion and kindness.

That's what I was thinking about Sunday afternoon while I made the keeper's recipe for osso bucco. That, and worrying. Everyone, even the dogs, had gone out and left me to cook, happily, in the kitchen. I turned on music and opened the kitchen door to the breezes, and chopped and sautéed and braised. Our guests were a motley assortment--family, old friends, friends of friends--and though they knew each other there was plenty to worry about. Would everyone be on time? Would they bring what they had said they would, and if they didn't, how would I produce the backups I had ready in the downstairs refrigerator without hurting feelings? Would conversation be easy? Would there be common ground? Would there be enough, would there be too much, what had I forgotten...the litany went round and round.

But everyone came when they said they would, and brought their offerings. We opened champagne and toasted Easter and Passover and Spring and family and friendship and hope for better days. When the osso bucco came out, it was as good as the one that had come out of Julia's kitchen the other day. Everyone loved it. We told stories and laughed until we couldn't catch our breath. We sat long over the main course, longer over the cheese--with the cheese some honey from a friend's hives, and our own olive oil--and then over the American cake longer, and, then, finally, time for tea. When we got up from the table late that night we were full, contented, a good meal closer to heaven. The bread and wine and osso bucco may not have turned into the body and blood, but they did knit us together, and make us all a little more whole. Julia said one time: Good food is also love.

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