Last week I was planning to make an almond meringue for my book group because it seemed like something that was French enough, without getting me into trouble. I have been facilitating a seniors book group for four years and I stuff these ladies with sweets. This month, we read Bob Spitz’s Dearie, the remarkable life of Julia Child, so the pressure was on. The results actually went into the compost, a fate I only dole out to the most egregious failures. I even ate that chocolate cake that didn’t have any butter, but these sea sponge-like bloblets went in the bin.
Once the meringues went out with the yard waste, I decided to bake something Julia wouldn’t: a banana cake filled with Noccialata, the fancy chocolate hazelnut spread that I like. It was simple and moist and just right for the group. One member claimed that she thought the Grande Dame herself would have liked it. I wouldn’t go that far, but knowing a bit more about Julia now, I am sure she at least wouldn’t have made me feel badly about it.
Though I have tried to absorb some of Julia’s confidence and wisdom, (such as “Remember you are alone in the kitchen”) she has not been a muse of mine, culinarily. Honestly, I just don’t understand French cooking; it has always seemed too meaty and saucy. Besides, I am not short on kitchen muses. I have my beloved Nigella Lawson, a veritable Queen of Cookery, who I may have mentioned a time or two.
I was introduced to Nigella in 2000 when I started library school. In the mornings before catching the bus to Seattle, I would fold a few clothes while watching her first show, Nigella Bites. A journalist, restaurant critic, home cook, author, and television personality, she is wildly successful and as you can see, genetically blessed. For some, this is a bitter pill. Recently, she was questioned on whether or not she is a feminist. Perhaps the interviewer wasn’t questioning Nigella’s commitment to sisterhood simply because she enjoys the kitchen and looks fetching on a couch, but I doubt it. Ladies, please! Gone are the days when we flipped a man the bird and frisbeed a frozen TV dinner at his forehead just because his stomach had the nerve to growl. (Of course if he’s demanding dinner, by all means brain him with a soup can.)
Nigella made me aware of rhubarb and custard boiled sweets (that’s British for hard candy), a delight that is unavailable in the United States. A few days ago I had the pleasure of being in San Francisco at Omnivore Books on Food. I was thumbing through Nigellissima when I turned to my BFF and said earnestly, “I just wish I could try a rhubarb and custard boiled sweet! I would have to go all the way to England and I don’t want to! As an English major I feel guilty about not wanting to go. The rain! The brown sauce…” Needless to say I went on a bit, but here’s what happened next: I walked to the counter to buy a postcard and there was a jar of, YES you guessed it! More to the point, it was an open jar, for sampling. The owner imports them. I ♥ San Francisco. I have now tried the indescribably toothsome RaCBSs, they are the best hard candy I have ever eaten, and I didn’t even have to go all the way to the British Isles and endure their inferior dentistry.*
Though I owe Nigella so much (if only she wanted something, anything from me!) for making me familiar (perhaps a bit too familiar) with pavlovas and other confectionary and savory joys, there is a way that Julia Child has also done me a good turn. Julia didn’t start cooking in earnest until her late thirties, after spending years trying to light on her true passion. She is the Patron Saint of Late Bloomers, of which I am a proud (or rather, a sheepish and nervously smiling) member. I am, in fact, still waiting to burst forth in bloom, any day now…
* That link is to one of my favorite poems so as you can see, my English degree has hardly been for nothing.