In the Kitchen With Julie, Julia and Carrie
Let's play the Childish game.
First, we need the cookbook.
"Mastering the Art of French Cooking" by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck has disappeared off bookstore shelves like crab cakes off the buffet since "Julie & Julia" opened on Aug. 7.
In the film, real person Julie Powell (played by Amy Adams) made all of Julia Child's 524 recipes in 365 days and lived to blog about it. Child (a bravura performance by Meryl Streep), we are told, was not pleased.
Mary Ellen Tindall, of Pinehurst, obliged with her personal copy of Volume 1.
Merci boucoup, Mary Ellen.
Finding a Cook
Second, find a saucy local cook with skills, ambition and a link to La Julia.
Carrie Agic, the daughter of a CrockPot mom, grew up in Roseland loving mustard sandwiches and watching Child's "The French Chef."
"On Saturday the choice was old cartoons or Julia Child," Agic says. "I was fascinated. It was the voice and the wine," which Child sipped as she cooked, as immortalized on "Saturday Night Live." She also recalls a guest appearance on "The Muppets."
Agic's tastes have matured on The Food Network with the wicked Gordon Ramsey of "Hell's Kitchen" a favorite.
"If I were a chef I'd be like him and demand control. It has to be done right," she says. "I would definitely scream and throw things."
Agic deems Paula Deen "a fake" and rates Martha Stewart an "ugh."
Opinionated, determined, sharp-tongued, brutally honest: Sound familiar?
Agic, now a dinner cook at Rhett's in Southern Pines, apprenticed at Fat Puppy's, Bucket Heads and Broad Street Bar & Grill.
Her 11-year-old twins lean toward chicken nuggets or mac and cheese with an occasional pork chop drowned in barbecue sauce.
"At home I cook simple and clean: salt and pepper, garlic, rosemary from my rosemary bush," she says.
But Agic feels comfortable preparing the herb-accented upper-scale menu at Rhett's.
The petite single mom agreed to prepare a Julia Child recipe under these conditions:
I will shop and chronicle. She will prep, cook and comment. The Pilot newsies will eat. Newsies are famously hungry and not that picky.
Choosing the Dish
Third, select a recipe. It had to be Boeuf Bourguignon, the film's piece de resistance that Child describes as "one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man."
Or, in this case, several women.
The vessel clinched the deal for me. In the movie, Streep/Child is shown putting a heavy green enamel-on-cast iron covered casserole, perfect for stew, in the oven.
I have owned that exact pot for 50 years. It is stained, scratched, chipped and beloved. I want to be buried with/in that pot, like the Egyptians with their utensils.
The list of ingredients was long but unremarkable: stew beef, onions (two varieties), beef stock, red wine, flour, mushrooms, carrot, bay leaf, thyme, garlic, tomato paste, salt, pepper and slab bacon cut into matchsticks, called lardons.
I located everything except the slab bacon. Instead, I tentatively selected a hunk of peppered salt pork. But the angry flapping of wings overhead made me decide on thick-cut bacon.
Total cost for ingredients to serve about eight was $30, which makes me wonder how blogger Julie Powell and her husband afforded 524 complex recipes in one year.
Like Powell, Agic has a tiny kitchen, standard cookware and good knives. Child wouldn't have stooped to boil water on her electric stove, however.
Agic seemed apprehensive yet confident.
She propped the cookbook on a stand and followed directions precisely.
The recipe had too many steps for her liking including boiling, drying and frying the bacon. Browning the meat, sprinkling with flour, putting in a hot oven to brown the flour. Sauteeing the pearl onions and mushrooms separately, then adding after the stew was done instead of braising them with the meat.
Agic thought one tablespoon of tomato paste hardly enough.
It took more than an hour to prep ingredients and three hours to simmer the stew in a 325-degree oven. In my pot.
"But it sure smelled good cooking," Agic says.
The finished product was hardly a body double of Powell's on-screen dish, served in what appeared to be a red Le Creuset Dutch oven ($159) and enhanced, no doubt, by a food stylist.
Yet Powell erred by leaving carrots whole when Child said slice. Then again, the beef cubes I purchased were smaller than specified, which made the stew a bit mushy.
But the sauce was rich, brown and winey, absolutely begging a hunk of baguette for sopping -- not on Child's list but I bought one anyway.
After mincing a pile of vegetables, Agic didn't mince words about the experience.
"I wouldn't attempt it again," she states. "I can make a stew in half the time with half the steps. I prefer a thicker, more hearty stew. I like to experiment. I'd probably throw a handful of rice in it."
Or maybe dump it into a bread bowl. Or make a hot sandwich with the meat, she continues.
At that, a chilly breeze poltergeists through the kitchen, ruffling the cookbook pages.
La fantome de la cuisine?
Tindall has owned the book since the French revolutionary 1960s.
"But I haven't used it for 25 years," Tindall says. "Making a Julia Child recipe was a big undertaking -- and so fattening, all that butter and cream. Now I get recipes out of 'Cooking Light.'"
That's OK. Child admitted defections to McDonald's.
Agic seemed pleased with the undertaking, if skeptical about the results.
"Did I ever think I'd be making a Julia Child recipe? No. But now I'm curious. I'll look some more up. Julia Child decided she was going to do it, get her degree, and she did. She's a legend."
Meanwhile, back in The Pilot newsroom, stomachs were growling. My adored green pot looked shabby under the fluorescent lights. The lukewarm stew was very brown but appreciated.
Reporter John Krahnert III: "Really good a lot better than (plain) beef stew."
Proofreader Locke Bowman: "Wonderful smell(pause) no, a wonderful aroma."
Senior writer Florence Gilkeson: "Tangier than most beef stews. The meat is tender and the mushrooms and onions retained their texture."
Managing editor David Sinclair: "I can definitely taste the wine. This stuff is bangin'."
Design editor Martha J. Henderson: "I taste the wine, too."
Graphic designer Andie Rose: "It's the sauce."
Features editor Faye Dasen: "The little onions."
I bent my vegetarian vows and mopped up the dregs with a crust of bread. Then, while packing up the heavy pot I heard that oft-imitated voice trill softly in my ear:
"Bon apptit, dear!"
Contact Deborah Salomon at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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