January 26, 2007

Butterfly Effect - the Written Word

Bet you all figured I'd given up on this whole Butterfly Effect meme, huh?

Ye of little faith.

Part four sends me to explore my culinary bookshelf in search of the volume that changed everything...

Flash back to 1989. Your heroine is a twenty-something soon-to-be-senior in college. She's survived a year of dorm food without donning the famous freshman fifteen. She's spent the last few years as a pampered sorority girl, with an on-site chef, houseboys to serve Monday night formal dinners -- her only foray into the kitchen a once-a-month obligation to empty the dishwasher and refill the milk dispensers.

It's a bright late September afternoon (especially by central Oregon standards) full of the promise of things to come. Your heroine's unloaded the car, hung the curtains, made the bed, stocked the bathroom with enough haircare products to open a salon and rearranged the furniture in the small sitting room. She now stands with her roommate Susie surveying no-mans-land, the large-by-campus-apartment-standards kitchen they'll share for the next 9 months.

Susie owns a set of ginsu knives her grandmother bought on late-night-TV. Your heroine's a little better off -- she's got a toaster oven and a popcorn popper from the dorm days and a set of mis-matched fraternity-labeled beer steins, souvenirs from a sampling from a series of invitations to that social rite of passage in the collegiate Greek community: the barn dance.


Houston, we have a problem. Neither our budgets nor our waistlines are going to withstand a semester of Track Town delivery or burgers and beer at Rennie's Landing.

Solution? Pick up the phone and call dad. In less than a week, his food loving friends have outfitted our apartment with an eclectic collection of hand-me-downs. A 1950's vintage "Mix Master" mixer. Two mix-and-match collections of cookware: a 6 piece nonstick set and 4 copper-bottom sauce pots. Dented but functional cookie sheets and muffin tins.

But I digress. The purpose of this side-trip to kitchens past is to divulge the cookbook that most influenced my culinary journey. That cookbook arrived two weeks after my desperate call for help: a housewarming gift from my godparents.

The package was heavier than its packaging would indicate. I eagerly tore the tape off the box, scattering Styrofoam peanuts along the counter to reveal a book wrapped in Ruth's trademark wrapping: the Sunday comics. "Julia Child," the cover pronounced. "The Way to Cook."

"Julia Child?" I pondered? "That funny French chef from PBS"? I set the book aside for later; I had more textbooks than I could handle without one for the kitchen.

Fortunately, it wasn't long before I found myself wanting to impress another young man with food. Our typical fare of ramen noodles with a side salad wouldn't cut it. Neither would hamburgers on the hand-me-down hibachi. And I'd already done the chocolate chip cookie thing.

I wanted something adult, something unforgettable. {Get your mind out of the gutter}

I was thinking ... steak. With some kind of sauce. Real vegetables on the side. The kind that came from the produce aisle, not the freezer. Like a restaurant. As I pondered the menu, I knew I was in over my head. But wait. Where's that Julia book? She's got to have a recipe...

As I paged through the meat section, I found myself transfixed, and transformed. Julia had more than a recipe. She had advice. How to purchase good quality meat. How to work with various cuts. Which was best sauteed, roasted, grilled. And why. Questions to ask the butcher. A couple of "master recipes" with dozens of variations. In the span of a half dozen pages, this woman told me what to do, showed me how to do it, and offered me the inspiration and the courage to stray from the printed recipe, making the menu truly my own.

I was hooked.

In that moment and over the course of the next several years, Julia changed the way I approached food preparation. Rather than heading to the grocery with a rigid list, I started shopping for the freshest ingredients and those that appealed to me in the moment. I began using recipes as guidelines rather than commandments. With a stocked pantry (which Julia taught me how to do), I was confident I'd find a way to put interesting meals together. I usually succeeded. And when I failed, I learned something in the process. When I wanted to try something new there was Julia, ready to show me the way. Puff pastry. Pie crust. Exotic seafood and vegetables.

Thanks Julia. We've come a long way together. And I've eaten well along the journey.

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wheresmymind said...

Great post! I would've loved to have seen a picture of that first apartment!

Mae said...

What a lovely read! I've never owned a Julia Child book. I've heard so many good things about her. :)