Photo by ktphotography/Flickr CC
Mastering the Art of French Cooking fell on fertile soil in Cambridge in 1961. In the late 1950s and early '60s, the academic community boasted (as we are wont to do) a significant number of accomplished amateur cooks. Fulbright Fellowships, a junior year abroad, the GI Bill of Rights, supportive parents, and obscure fellowships had created a Francophile enclave in Harvard Square. A bored French war bride, Genevieve McMillan (who later became one of the great collectors of African, Asian, and Oceanic Art now in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston), imported a chef and opened a restaurant, Henri Quatre, where conversation turned to vinaigrettes, soufflÃ©s, omelettes, pÃ¢tÃ©s de foie gras , and even truffles. This was in striking contrast to the post-WWII cuisine from which we were emerging: Spam grilled with canned pineapple, accompanied by colorful fruit-studded gelatin molds.
By the mid-sixties, Julia Child was the ranking guest at social events. Many under- and unemployed women Ph.Ds and a male professor or banker or two were creating dinners that took the better part of a week to prepare. The search for basil and dill could take days (I was growing my own). Even students were caught up in the frenzy.
In 1966 my husband and I were invited to dinner at the apartment of his research assistant, Andy, who had been one of six students at Harvard to have majored in ethnobotany. Collecting wild mushrooms was no small part of the curriculum. Andy was by then in medical school. One roommate, Jeffrey, was at law school; the third, Woody, was at the School of Education. Mostly they talked about food.
Certifiably brilliant and equally droll, they had obviously put a great deal of effort into meticulously recreating a dinner from "The" book. The setting was a modest graduate-student apartment, but the table was beautiful--and the food could hold its own with a first-rate French restaurant. It quickly became clear that these were serious cooks.
The dinner began with pÃ¢tÃ© in aspic flavored with jus de truffe . The aspic had started as a brown stock, which many, many hours later was clarified with egg whites and fresh herbs. Then it was gelÃ©ed with the natural gelatin from cracked veal knuckles. My first thought was: When do they have time to attend classes?
My second thought as I looked at the glistening, flawlessly encased pÃ¢tÃ© was: This cannot be real. I had some 15 years' experience eating in France; had been hanging out for years with a food-obsessed summer neighbor in Provincetown, the inspired cooking teacher and cookbook writer Michael Field (who was also a concert pianist and bon vivant); and I had worked for days to create this very aspic myself. There was no way these self-confident upstarts could carry it off. I took one bite, looked up, and proclaimed, "Canned." Fortunately, the mind heals itself: for 43 years, I had repressed the guilt and humiliation of being so unkind. Only recently, when we were remembering Woody after his memorial service, did Andy remind me of my gaffe. He smiled broadly, but he had not forgotten.
The main course was Veau Prince Orloff. The recipe alone covers three pages of fine print and contains instructions for making soubise, a sautÃ© of rice and onions; mushroom duxelles ("a handful at a time, squeeze the finely minced mushrooms in the corner of a towel to extract their juice"); and a thick veloutÃ© sauce. The veal was roasted then carefully sliced to keep its shape so that the soubise and mushroom duxelles could be smoothed between each slice and the roast reassembled. Then the roast was coated with the veloutÃ© and baked until it gleamed.
The presentation was breathtaking and the taste memorably unctuous...all of the component parts had become one whole. This too represented hours and hours of work, and enough butter and cream to constrict the arteries of everyone at the table. If I remember correctly, the roast was accompanied by braised endive, at that time a rare, expensive etiolated green grown in the absence of sunlight and only in Belgium.
The Cuisinart, which would have considerably cut the painstaking hand work of mincing, chopping, slicing, and pureeing, had not yet invaded the kitchen, and the Robot-Coupe, its predecessor, was used primarily in restaurants. This dinner was all manual labor.