Wednesday, September 19, 2018
Cooking

I binged Julia Child and Jacques Pepin's 1990s PBS show, and here's what it taught me about cooking

It started when someone on Facebook posted a photo of Julia Child flashing an old-timey pistol at her friend Jacques Pepin and wrote, "Spoiler Alert: they drink in basically every episode."

Oh, sweet streaming! I immediately fired up Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home on Amazon Prime, a show I had a vague recollection of from PBS back in the day: 1999, to be exact.

Child and Pepin — no, let’s go with Julia and Jacques — were old friends when they teamed up for their show. They met in 1960, Jacques wrote in the New York Times, and maintained a sweet rapport until Julia’s death in 2004. They were, of course, very famous chefs by the time they filmed the show, he the French author, TV star and master instructor of technique, she the American who brought French cooking to the masses at home. Their collaboration was both a lesson in classical cooking and
classical sassy friendship.

The first episode opens with footage of Jacques and Julia taking mastodon bites of hamburgers. Then come the opening credits, with their names scrawled on low-budget place cards, and an AV club fade to a giant baked potato.

My husband, Josh, walked in the house. He sat down and started watching, with barely a word.

"This one is great and terribly expensive," Julia said, poking the red flesh of a steak. "What is it, $10 or $12 a pound or more? But it’s worth it to have one meal with a perfect steak!"

Their entire counter was covered in meat. Seven slabs, all in a row, with Jacques instructing the camera to get close on the sinew. They defined, butchered, prepared. Chateaubriand, steak au poivre, burgers, Julia gingerly topping hers with fixings.

"Bon appetit," they said at the end. "And happy cooking." Magic.

We binge-watched 22 episodes.

• • •

Food, and food television, is a comfort for me, cooking shows my preferred background serum. Food shows are why I am the last person in my 30s with a subscription to cable (the actual last person, look it up).

Growing up, we watched Yan Can Cook, Two Fat Ladies, The Galloping Gourmet, Emeril in his infancy. Then came Food Network greats Giada, Ina, Alton. The game shows were pretty clever at first. For many years, Chopped was my favorite show. Top Chef is still up there, though they make far too many toasts.

But food television has become a bit of a Brawndo black hole, a little cooking and a lot of idiocracy. There are a few bright spots that feel aim-high, like Molly Yeh’s Girl Meets Farm. The Great British Baking Show, with its gentle nature and intricate skill performance, is a treasure Americans don’t deserve.

Otherwise, these are the elevator pitches:

Cheese on Tots Casserole

Celebrity-Adjacent Cream Slam Dump Cake

Blindfolded Arms-Bound Zany Bakeoff

Blindfolded Arms-Bound Zany Bakeoff for Kids

Meat-Face-Stuff American Road Trip of Death

Anything feat. Bobby Flay

Let me be clear: I watch all of them. I’m not a monster. A household Sunday tradition is smugly watching Pioneer Woman and inventing complex backstories about Ladd and the ranch hands while Ree Drummond pours heavy cream on something.

But at a certain point, autopilot set in and the thrill of learning fell away. If you’ve watched TV food prep since you were in Pampers, you know how to take the core out of an avocado. And for the most part, TV chefs use pretty butcher cuts wrapped in paper. There is no fowl gore under fingernails. There are no closeups on sinew.

Julia and Jacques, though. They had actual weapons.

• • •

Rather than "California Boat Cruise Picnic," a real title of a Giada episode, these are the episode titles of Cooking at Home:

"Vegetables"

"Winter Vegetables"

"Roast Chickens"

"Soup"

"Eggs"

Do you know what J&J do? They show you how to prepare these items.

Of course they do. They are two of the finest chefs in history, with skills to dream about. Not that there’s anything wrong with home cooks and weekend warriors — aren’t most of us just that? — but to learn techniques from these two on Amazon felt like finding a magic amulet buried beneath a collection of support panty hose.

Their chemistry is real. They taught cooking together at Boston University in the ’80s, and the show started after they filmed PBS specials together. Their polite back-and-forth jabbing is what people responded to, Jacques wrote in the New York Times.

"We argued on stage, stealing each other’s mise en place. We felt comfortable together, had a good rapport, a good time, and we respected each other. Our affectionate disagreements resulted in heated, opinionated discussions; we had conviction, enthusiasm and passion for our métier."

It’s true. On Cooking at Home, Jacques and Julia each make a similar recipe their own way. They peer over each other’s creations, commenting that it could use some salt, or a stir. They’re super set in their ways. Julia doesn’t seem to like fish skin. She likes white pepper, not black. Jacques likes a whole lot of garlic. But their differences never break them.

They start almost every episode with a cheesy theme or a prop — that gun, a bike pump, fire extinguishers — and end almost every episode with a new bottle of wine.

It’s dated. Please forgive the flower garnishes made out of vegetables. It also exposes the nutrition milieu of the 1990s, with Julia’s constant references to people who are afraid to eat fat. There are kitchen gadgets like salad spinners. (Related: Should I get a salad spinner?)

But the techniques are real. Watching Jacques cut up poultry is absorbing. We learn to make a chicken three ways: whole rack-roasted, trussed and stuffed under the skin, butterflied. We learn to make a proper omelet; how to prepare vegetables simply. The war horse is a whole turkey, stuffed, cut up and reassembled. Our Thanksgiving this year will be an epic disaster.

They have an almost religious reverence for lettuce — NEVER SQUEEZE!!! This doesn’t translate seamlessly in triple-washed and ready-to-eat 2018, but it seems right to know. You have to have reverence for something in this world, even if it’s lettuce.

• • •

Some friends eloped and another had a birthday, the perfect excuse to throw a little dinner.

You know who had the menu? My other friends, Julia and Jacques.

Josh, who now does expert impersonations of J-squared, got me the show’s companion cookbook for my birthday. It’s hardcover, heavy and impressive, with lots of hot takes from Jacques and Julia. All the recipes from the show are in it, plus some more, ranging from incredibly simple to "dial 9-1 ..."

We made Jacques’ Mediterranean seafood stew with crusty baguette and spicy rouille, a mayo-like spread of bread, broth and other goodies. We made Julia’s stuffed Provencal tomatoes and Jacques’ Pommes de Terre Macaire, which is fancy hash browns.

The cooking was a full-day affair, baking potatoes, cooling and peeling, grinding bread crumbs, chopping herbs, letting broths develop layers. I treated my salad with godlike regard, even though it was a hydroponic butter lettuce with no dirt on it. It was relaxing, therapeutic, as far from Grocery Store Face Race as it gets.

There’s a time and a place for all kinds of cooking, including cheesy tots. Cheesy tots are great. But there’s definitely still a place for the effort, love and care demonstrated by these two in 1999.

My friends politely argued about politics, which felt true to the lessons of sassy friendship. Dessert was layered crepes with raspberry jam, and sparkling rose, because you can’t end an episode without opening a bottle. And there were Jacques and Julia in spirit, saying bon appetit. And happy cooking.

Contact Stephanie Hayes at [email protected] Follow @stephhayes.

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