Julia Child probably had the greatest influence on my culinary aspirations and accomplishment. Last week was the 100th anniversary of her birth. Television and newspapers have been celebrating her life with a series interviews with people who knew her and reruns of her early French Chef shows. I’ve been thinking of how she changed my whole way of thinking about food.
I grew up in a small Michigan town. Cookbooks weren’t necessary, our mothers cooked the same things their mothers had cooked. Friends shared recipes on handwritten index cards. Gelatin salads and casseroles featuring canned soups were just coming into vogue fueled by the new focus on packaged foods. It was a time of Penny Suppers in the church basement featuring meat loaf, scalloped potatoes and coleslaw prepared by the women of the church and carried to the event in baskets. Sunday dinners were chicken and dumplings or a chuck roast baked until it fell apart.
My mother could stretch a pound of hamburger to feed a dozen people and a can of salmon took many different guises. These were the years following World War II. The pressure cooker was the miracle convenience of the day. My father didn’t like “tough” meat so on the rare occasions when we had steak, into the pressure cooker it went. It came out as easy to cut as butter and as tasteless as an over cooked hamburger.
Julia and Mastering the Art of French Cooking came into my life as a Christmas gift in 1962. I was hooked. It was the beginning of an education and a quest for new and different foods. There were obstacles. Nowhere could I find the cheese for the Quiche au Fromage de Gruyère. I scoured the shops in nearby Lawrence and then into Boston’s North End. Alas, the North End had many cheeses unknown to me but not Gruyère, nor could anyone tell me what might be an acceptable substitute. I’d never bought a mushroom but the Boeuf Bourginion required them. It turned out they were delicious.
It was years before I found capers or artichokes or endive and I never did find (or look for to tell the truth) sweetbreads.
I soon acquired an assortment of wooden spoons and wire whisks and longed for a copper bowl for beating egg whites (quite beyond my budget). I did get the Julia recommended omelet pan for my birthday one year as well as a charlotte mold.
Who could resist Julia’s description of roasting a chicken? “to produce a juicy, brown, buttery, crisp-skinned, heavenly bird… does entail such a greed for perfection that one is under compulsion to hover over the bird, listen to it, above all see that it is continually basted, and that it is done to just the proper turn.” Never let it be said that I neglected a chicken or the opportunity to make something outstanding.
The Veau Prince Orloff (Veal Gratinéed with Onions and Mushrooms) was worth the time it took but it’s been years since I’ve made it. On the other hand, the Suprêmes de Volaille À Brun (Chicken Breasts Sautéed in Butter) and the Crème Pâtissière (Custard Filling) have become old stand-bys.
Watching reruns of The French Chef this past week has brought back memories of many fabulous meals and what fun it was just watching Julia and reading Mastering the Art.

Crème Pâtissière
This is my version of Julia’s recipe. I’ve learned that it can be made just as well with fewer steps. To a purist it might not be quite the same but it’s incredibly rich, easy, and good.

2/3 cup granulated sugar
5 egg yolks
½ cup flour
2 cups milk
1 tablespoon butter
1-1/2 tablespoon vanilla or 2 tablespoons rum, orange liqueur, or instant coffee.

1. Place sugar and egg yolks in a blender and blend until pale yellow.
2. Add flour and blend until it is completely absorbed, scraping sides often.
3. Dribble the milk into the blender as it is going.
4. Pour into a sauce pan and set over moderately high heat. Stir constantly with a wire whip or wooden spoon. It will become lumpy but smooth out as you beat it. When it reaches the boil turn the heat down a bit and cook 2 or 3 minutes to cook the flour.
5. Remove from heat and stir in butter and flavoring.
6. Cool
This makes a wonderful filling for a cream pie, just slice bananas between two layers of the cream or top with fresh berries. It’s also good for cream puffs and eclairs and anything else you might think of.