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Mastering the Child Within

Celebrating the 100th birthday of Julia Child, the woman who inspired generations of couch potatoes to eat, and eat well.

The long hot days of summer have the power to evoke so many memories--Fort Lee boys playing stickball in empty lots or on side streets that carried little, if any, traffic; exploring the pockets of our neighborhoods with friends we thought would walk beside us every day of our life; and, for us post-boomers, retro television shows.

For this editor, this is the time of year that brings to mind late-summer afternoons lazing on the burnt-orange tweed Sears sofa in an air-conditionless living room-- the tweed biting into my perspiring skin like sand fleas. There was one whirring fan whose sole task was not to deliver any measure of cool relief, but to circularly distribute hot pockets of air around the room.

On those lazy days, while lounging on that sofa, a black and white Julia Child spoke to me from behind the screen of the portable RCA television set with foil wrapped around the antennae (rabbit ears) for better reception. PBS ran repeats of Julia Child's cooking show from the early 1960's and, by doing so, introduced her to a whole new generation of viewers. 

It wasn't so much what Julia cooked, but how she went about cooking it. Haphazardly, at best, compensating for mistakes by just covering them up with powdered sugar or gravy. What was so enjoyable about watching her move around her kitchen was that, like the Galloping Gourmet, she looked like she was having a ball doing what she was doing. It was as if she was breaking the rules while making new ones at the same time--an idea that spoke to the very heart of a teenager. And despite what went wrong in the kitchen, she always had a happy boozy ending.

I took that summer of Julia with me, and although I never attempted to cook like her, as my tastebuds moved higher up the culinary food chain, I did learn to order dishes that sounded like something she would cook.

As my life moved away from Bergen County and became "Manhattan-centered" I decided, in trying to decide what to do with my life, to attend culinary school and be trained as a pastry chef in the days before Food Network pushed hordes of people off the couch and into the kitchen. After all, Julia made it look like so much fun back in the day.

Every evening I would leave work and from 8pm to midnight I whipped cream by hand in a copper bowl, kneaded more dough than any person should have to knead, mastered a pastry bag, and brioched, croissanted and cannolied, to near culinary death, every person in my life. Every evening on the B-train home, I handed out eclairs and frangipane tarts like subway tokens to grateful, inebriated straphangers.

Through all the mixing, kneading, rolling, flouring, fluting, marzipaning, decorating, and taste-testing Julia stood watch over me. I could hear her slurping wine and criticizing my technique, or lack thereof.

In 1992, my pastry class was called upon to bake for Julia's 80th New York City birthday bash. We made what seemed like thousands of croque em bouche -- miniature creampuffs sugar-glued into the shape of a Christmas tree. The endless hours stirring the pastry on the stove, infusing the right amount of air into the dough so that they would bake to a light crisp perfection and injecting streams of cream into the puff with the mastery of a Park Avenue proctologist. I cursed Julia then and decided that the life of a pastry chef was too back-breaking and precise for this unruly, break-the-rules kind of girl. 

We weren't invited into the party, though we did manage to steal a glimpse of her. I wondered, as Julia bit into one of the puffs, if she appreciated the labor that went into making that tiny, powdered cream ball. By the look on her face it was evident that she did. That big ol' gal appreciated food and what went into the making of it. And I realized then, while watching her eyes ecstatically roll to the back to her head as she popped another puff into her mouth, that although I would leave my sugar-crusted apron behind, I would forever have the memory of the Child within me. 

In celebration of Julia's 100th Birthday, restaurants are taking part in Julia Child Restaurant through Wednesday, August 15. Participating restaurants in Bergen County are:

For those of you who like to venture across the river to dine, participating restaurants in NYC are: 

And as Julia would say, "Bon Appetit!"

Have a question or a news tip? Email the editor Ann Piccirillo at annpiccirillo@yahoo.com. Or, follow us on Facebook and Twitter. For news straight to your email inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

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