The first time I was introduced to the Slow Food movement was in the land of its birth, Italy. My husband and I were in Florence for the wedding of his niece, and we ended up befriending and dining out with a couple of the other guests: a Chinese-American brother and sister from California who were serious gourmets and would only go to Slow-Food restaurants.
Ever since then, I’ve been puzzled.
Not by the concept of Slow Food itself. I get the idea of savoring a meal that is cooked from fresh, locally-sourced ingredients and that has not been prepared in advance — we’re talking the anti-Fast Food.
What’s more, I had enormous fun in Florence peering at all the restaurant doorways to see if they had a snail symbol. “No snail? Well then we’re not eating there,” I would declare to my husband.
No, what I find confounding is that the movement started in Italy, not in France.
For me, Italian food, with its pizzas, anti-pastas and gelatos, comes fairly close to being the fast food of Europe.
That could never be true, of course, of French cooking. (And what better symbol of French cooking than a snail, btw?)
I feel certain Julia Child would agree with me. An expat in Paris for many years, Julia belongs in the Displaced Nation’s Hall of Fame because of her refusal to be satisfied with her native country’s Anglo-derived plain food consisting of meat and potatoes and two veggies — let alone the fast-food version: meat (as it were), bun, French (quel insult!) fries, no veg.
Addressing just one of these nefarious ingredients, Julia once said:
How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?
For Julia, France was a spiritual as well as culinary homeland. As she wrote in her memoir, My Life in France:
I fell in love with French food — the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals.
A date with destiny
Julia’s first forays into foreign cuisine occurred when she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) during World War II.
She was posted first to Kandy, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), and then to Kunming, China. Along the way, she met, and fell in love with, Paul Child, an early example of a foodie. At Paul’s initiative, they entertained themselves by exploring Ceylonese and Chinese cuisine and culture.
The pair married the year after the war ended, and Paul went to work for the American Embassy in Paris — a move that proved fortuitous in the extreme for his wife’s career.
For their first meal on French soil, Paul ordered sole meunière. For Julia, it was an epiphany — “the most exciting meal of my life.” The scales fell not just from the fish but from her eyes. She could see what American WASPs like herself were missing out on: sauces made with fresh herbs, butter, wine, and so forth.
The rest is history.
Bon appétit — say what?
Well, not quite. To be honest, I don’t think Julia’s approach to French cooking ever really took hold here in the U.S. We pretended that it did because we loved Julia so much. We loved her for her jolly-jape sense of humor and melodious voice.
But half the time, we didn’t understand what she was wittering on about.
Now, Julia knew that her fellow citizens were mostly flimsies (her word for people who aren’t serious about food). But she thought that the key to converting us was to provide a step-by-step outline of the centuries-old techniques that the French learn like a language: how to make foundation sauces, how to do a roux, how to lay in flavor, how to be patient.
The blogger Julie Powell tried to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s encyclopedic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a single year. Some say it was a gimmick, but I say, hey, she deserves the fame — including the honor of having Amy Adams play her in the ensuing Nora Ephron film, Julie & Julia.
‘Fess up: when was the last time you cracked open Julia Child’s magnum opus and gave her recipes a try?
Food writer Regina Schrambling wrote in a post for Slate just after the film’s release, analyzing the problem:
Consider the boeuf bourguignon depicted so romantically in the movie… The ingredients and instructions for its recipe span three pages, and that is before you hit the fine print: The beef stock, braised pearl onions, and sautéed mushrooms all require separate procedures. Step 1 involves making lardons and simmering them for 10 minutes in a precise amount of water; seven steps later, the fat is finally skimmed off the sauce, which is either boiled down to thicken or adjusted with liquid if it’s too thick.
And this is considered an entry-level recipe….Even simple sautéed veal scallops with mushrooms involve 18 ingredients and implements and two pages of instruction.
TDN’s October theme
Still, if expat blogs are anything to go by, a Julia Child-like curiosity with France and French cuisine has continued unabated since Julia’s own time. There is no shortage of Americans (also some Canadians and South Americans) who have relocated to France and intend to stay for as long as it takes to learn the art of French cooking at some level.
Partly out of curiosity, partly out of jealousy, The Displaced Nation will peer into the lives — and kitchens — of several of these expats during October.
What is it actually like to make the Ultimate Slow Food your focus? It any less daunting because of living in France and adopting the French lifestyle? And like Displaced Hall of Famer Julia Child, do today’s expats have (or hope to have) a spoon in the soup back here: are they planning to stir things up and convert us?
Readers, do you have any questions you’d like us to explore on this theme? Vas-y! Let us know!
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