Mastering the Art of French Cooking

If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.
— Julia Child (1912 – 2004)

I went to graduate school “in Boston”, which is the socially responsible, if risible, way of saying that I went to Harvard. My using the word “risible” just then instead of “laughable” was a dead giveaway, too. Have I ever said that I went to grad school in Boston instead of saying that I went to grad school at Harvard? Yes, I have. Talking about Team Elite education is the new talking about money. Both are uncomfortable to talk about in any, god forbid, non-Team Elite or mixed social settings, which leads to cringe-worthy responses like “in Boston”.

Why is it so uncomfortable to talk about elite college education? Because it really is the new system of landed gentry. Because as unequal and polarized as America is today on the dimension of wealth, we are even more unequal and polarized on the dimension of education. The difference in life impact between going to an elite school and going to your local community college is far greater than the life impact of being born really rich and being born really poor. It’s not correlative. It’s causative. And we all know it. It’s probably the deepest, most influential Common Knowledge in our society today. But that’s an Epsilon Theory topic for another day.

Harvard, of course, isn’t even in Boston at all, but in Cambridge. And of course, as a graduate student I was way too poor to live in Cambridge, so three friends and I shared one floor of a triple-decker house in Somerville, one town over from Cambridge. Or Slummerville, as we called it. I haven’t been back in 30+ years, so I’m sure it’s all gentrified now. Back then it was still a working class neighborhood, mostly Portuguese families, near Union Square.

Every day I’d make the walk down Washington Street to get to class, and every day, just across the Somerville/Cambridge border where Washington Street turned into Kirkland Street, I’d pass a grocery store and a liquor store. Both stores were named Savenor’s, but they were owned by different Savenor brothers, and they weren’t friendly with each other. As I heard the story, one brother got the grocery store, which was the crown jewel, and the brother who got the liquor store never forgave him for that.

Most days I’d stop into the grocery store on my walk home to buy something to cook for dinner. I like to cook … always have … and if sports were how I most easily connected with my father growing up, cooking was how I most easily connected with my mother. It connected my parents, too. Both my mother and my father enjoyed watching Julia Child on “The French Chef”, which ran from 1963 to 1972 on whatever your local PBS channel might have been. We had a black and white TV where my brother and I served as the remote control, and I remember my parents laughing along with Julia as she pulled dish after dish from that TV studio oven. I remember my father giving my mother the two-volume “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” for Christmas, and I remember my mother working her way through the dishes over the years.

There’s nothing like Julia Child on TV today. Every bit of TV cooking today is a contest. From the omnipresent and inescapable scold that is Gordon Ramsey to the celebrity chefs holding court on Top Chef to the rotating cast of “personalities” on the 24-hour programming that The Food Network must fill … it’s all contests all the time. Do I watch these shows? Yes, I do. They’re entertaining. They’re entertainment.

But, see, that’s the difference.

Julia Child was entertaining, but she was not entertainment. Julia Child was a teacher. Julia Child was a coach. Julia Child was laughing WITH you if you spilled a little wine or if you ran out of butter, not AT you. Cooking was not a contest for amusement. Cooking was art.

And there she was at Savenor’s. Standing at the butcher’s counter.

I knew that Julia Child lived “in Boston”, meaning in Cambridge, and I had heard from friends that she had a house nearby. But I had also heard that she spent her time in California and was rarely back in the neighborhood. I also vaguely remembered that a butcher would come on the TV show from time to time, but I had never put it all together with the old school butchery that was the heart of Savenor’s.

She spoke with the butcher for a minute and then walked back to the produce section. She was carrying a hand basket. I followed. I knew what I had to do. I was going to buy whatever Julia Child bought at Savenor’s that day. And before you ask, no, the thought never even entered my mind to say anything to her. It would have been … terribly rude … like asking Michelangelo what he saw while he was pondering giant slabs of uncut marble.

Julia Child only bought one thing from Savenor’s that day. She bought corn. White corn. In November.

Now look, I love corn. I’m from Alabama. Corn and the pig are nature’s two perfect foods. But corn is yellow and corn is summer and anything else is … not right. Worse than not right. Actively wrong. This is nuts.

I bought the corn.

I got home and thought about creaming it, but that’s not a small amount of work. So I ended up just boiling it … butter, salt and pepper. It was, naturally, a revelation. Just perfect corn … a slightly different, maybe cleaner or clearer taste than what I was used to. Totally delicious.

Over the past 30+ years, I’ve tried to recreate that dish a dozen times. It’s always been terrible. White corn, yellow corn, doesn’t matter. But of course it’s terrible. IT’S CORN IN NOVEMBER IN NEW ENGLAND, FFS.

The truth is this … it’s entirely possible that I willed myself into thinking the Julia Child corn was delicious. The power of Narrative is so strong, and this was such a powerful story for me as a 22-year-old kid away from the South for the first time in his life – to see freakin’ Julia Child in the grocery store – that this is surely the most likely reason that corn tasted so damn good. And there’s a powerful lesson in that.

But it’s also possible that Julia Child really did see something special in that November white corn at Savenor’s.

I’m wrestling with this a lot these days, here in the dawning of an age of Big Data and AI. Is there still room for art in politics and investing? Is there still room for an artist who can SEE things differently? Who can see the potential and the opportunity for something truly special where everyone else sees … corn in November.

And even if art is still possible in these core social arenas of human endeavor, is it possible to master our art as Julia Child did with hers?

I don’t have an answer yet. And like I say, it’s a powerful lesson even if the answer is NO.

But I sure am hoping the answer is YES.

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