Monday, September 6, 2010

Culinary catastrophes build character

I should be working on a piece for my as-to-be-disclosed project, but right now my mind is swimming with images of melting butter, de-boned duck, vodka gimlets, and utensils being flung around a tiny Long Island City apartment. Yup, I just finished reading Julie Powell's Julie & Julia.

I picked it up as the inaugural book for my Berkeley Public Library membership (about friggin' time, I know), and polished it off in just under a week. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. But it definitely struck a deep chord.

I know it's hip to hate Julie ('cause it's easy to hate people who become successful for doing what they love), and to be honest, there's a part of me that kind of does. But this is the part that recognizes the things I hate are exactly the same traits I find in myself. Which shuts me up fast and makes me appreciate her even more.

Here's the story of a depressed urbanite on the cusp of 30, who finds a direction for herself by taking a giant leap with her eyes closed. Is it easy? No. Is it sane? No. Is she trying to change the world? No. She's just trying to cook 524 recipes in 365 days.

She drinks too much. She has crying fits in the kitchen. She bitches about her job. Her apartment is filthy. She fights with her husband (a lot). In other words, she's a human being. Flawed, like the rest of us. Which is why I like her. She's no Martha Stewart. Thank god.

One thing that makes it easy to relate to Julie is her approach to cooking. She's not a kitchen goddess with eight arms, each coolly waving a gleaming gadget over her perfect culinary creations. She fucks up. A lot. But she's honest about it, and she keeps trying.

A lesson to remember when things like my Sweet Bean Pudding incident occurs:

This was supposed to be a delicious fusion of coconut milk-soaked rice and homemade black beans scented with orange, gently steamed in a fresh banana leaf.

What it was, was a friggin' mess:

I'd like to blame the vague cookbook directions, which lacked the proper instructions for working with banana leaves. But the cold, hard facts of the matter are that a) I should have known better than to substitute brown rice for white rice, and b) I didn't think about replacing the steaming water in the pot until after it had evaporated. At least, not until after the delicious aroma of steamed coconut milk transformed into the stench of scorching banana leaves.

And scorch they did:

It was so bad it took three days of soaking, plus a good working over with steel wool to get all the black funk off my best pot and steamer basket. To add insult to injury, I think this little mishap is what contributed to the burn-out of my biggest electric burner.

Did I cry? No. Did I throw things? No. Did I pour myself a big glass of red wine and whine to my lovingly patient mama? Oh yes. Yes. Yes. It still felt like a very Julie moment, even if it was Sweet Bean Pudding rather than Julia's Charlotte Malakoff.

Every cook has those moments. And every cook worth their Morton's knows the only thing to do is try again. And again. And again. Now that the burner is fixed, I actually can, and I will.

I'd like to think that Julie and Julia would approve.

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