I am midway through writing my 3rd book, and Julia Child is ruining all my plans.
Last New Years Day, I—always a big proponent of setting high, unachievable goals for myself—vowed that one of my resolutions for 2014 was to read better books. Every author knows that you only write to the level at which you read. So, if your literary diet is high in, say, the Harlequin/Silhouette genre, then that’s probably what you’re apt to write. Mind-Candy in, mind-candy out, I say.
Thus, aiming high, I started my Brave New Reading Regimen with the rather unfortunate choice of Willa Cather’s My Antonia. It’s not a bad book. In fact, literati reckon it to be a great book. I just didn’t count it among, you know, my favorite books.
*shifty glance away*
I wish I were a smarter reader.
But I kept doggedly on, and early into my resolution, a friend passed me Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France. I not only loved it; I devoured it, in a single, guilty, protracted sitting, much like eating an entire Charlotte Malakoff Aux Fraises all by myself. With only virtual calories, thank goodness. But it started me on a Julia Child kick. I promptly went out and (I, who never pay Full Price for a book, ever, at all, for any reason,) paid $40.00 for a hardcover copy of Julia’s cookbook: Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Then, even as I cracked the green, be-fleur-de-lis’d covers for the first time, I started watching any clip of Julia’s TV show The French Chef that I could find on YouTube.
Anyone as old as dirt me, who grew up watching Julia on Saturday afternoon PBS programming, might remember those warbly, soprano tones of hers, so incongruous in a wide-framed woman well over 6 feet tall. You may recall the faint prickle of awe you felt while watching her—all elbows and thumbs, so apparently airheaded and capricious—face off against a calf’s liver, or a cheese soufflé, and bring it, whiplash by giggling whiplash, into perfect, subdued culinary obedience. Julia Child was a veritable snake handler of the food arts. Watching her, I feel the need for my cooking—and eating—habits to be born again.
But, opening her cookbook for the first time, I saw that her recipes contained things like brains, and calves feet, and bone marrow. I clapped it shut again and, for the better part of a year, it sat there: green, fleur-de-lis’d, and unopened, on my kitchen counter between the more 21-st century Betty Crocker and Cook’s Illustrated.
And then….oh, then, tonight happened!
Somehow (the story is too long and boring to tell,) I got nudged again in the direction of Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon. That is to say, French-style Beef Stew.
Look, I’m the Taste of Home generation. I prize recipes that say things like…Throw 7 ingredients into a crockpot before breakfast, push “Go” and come home to a hot meal tonight! Also, I’m just not a huge foodie. I don’t care all that much how food tastes. I have other vices, believe me, but gourmand food sensibilities are not among them. Yet today, here I was, with 3 pounds of stew beef conveniently thawed, and a brand-new box of wine in the cupboard (the recipe calls for 3 cups,) so what was to stop me? I had to go to the grocery store anyway, so while I was at it, I picked up bacon, mushrooms, beef stock, and called it good enough.
I came home and began to cook.
Here’s the thing. Boeuf Bourguignon takes all day to make. I kept thinking of my Taste of Home beef stew recipe. I could have had all this shoved into a pot and simmering on “low” by now, I thought resentfully, as I diced bacon, quartered mushrooms, and dried chunks of beef with a paper towel, as lovingly as any mother ever dried the bum of her diaper-rashed baby.
Meanwhile, because I don’t believe in underachievement, I also: roasted 3 chickens; boiled beets for a salad; finished cooking the rest of the bacon (for fried macaroni & cheese balls;) made a pan of Rice Krispy Treats with candy corn for the neighbor boys, started an apple-cheddar cobbler, and whipped up an outstanding (if I do say so myself) parsnip and bleu cheese soup. Because hey, I was stuck in the kitchen anyway. Might as well.
The boeuf stuff finished cooking in the early evening, around the time the parsnip soup did: just as my sundry family members came ambling in from various points of the compass: hungry and expectant.
Half an hour later, we were all sitting around on the living room couches (because this is where the 21st-century family eats dinner together,) moaning and rolling our eyes. What was that??? Was the general, stupefied sentiment. And Can you make it happen again???
Oh, it was nothing, nothing… Just Julia Child come for a visit.
But the point of this all was how Julia is ruining my writing plans. And it’s not just because writers who spend 10 hours a day in the kitchen aren’t spending time, you know, actually writing. It’s because my encounter with her was so unplanned. I felt…hijacked by her, and her boeuf bourguignon.
Look, when it comes to writing, I’m an outliner; a planner-out-of-things. Story arcs. The inner journeys of characters. That kind of thing. But this next book—the third one—deals with grief, and the unplanned mess it inevitably is. I find, all at once, that outlines and story arcs are not cutting it for me, or for my characters. We are, all of us, being hijacked by the very unexpectedness of it. I find myself just…writing, and seeing what happens to these people I’ve created. This is uncertain ground for me, full of questions. Questions like, What the heck am I doing? Will this turn out all right? Will the result be anything worthwhile? The kind of questions that also tend to arise when confronted with a complicated French recipe for the first time.
I don’t like my life unplanned and messy. I want to throw the ingredients into the crock pot of time and be able to predict the results. Unfortunately, teenagers and dogs, and Maine weather, and marriage, and the economics of running a family don’t always lend themselves well to formulas. Kids make potentially life-destroying choices. Churches get messy. So do friendships, and family relationships. Grief happens.
So when the unexpected sideswipes me as I tend the pot of life, what is there to do, but to add what I think is called for? A word of wisdom here; a whole lot of silence there. Some prayer; some tough love. Who knows how it will all turn out?
God does. God knows: this gives me hope. And He’s good, and I think I can count on his recipes. They have not let me down yet.
This is not unlike Julia Child and her boeuf bourguignon, which turned out to be so much better than the beef stew I've always made before. Maybe Julia’s not really ruining things for me after all: maybe she’s really opening a door into something yes, harder, but better in spite of all its unexpectedness.