Cooking with Julia
August, 2020. I wore two face masks and a head scarf wrapped not once but twice around the lower part of my face to buy oat milk at Trader Joe's. Outside my Hollywood bungalow news of protests growing violent had me glued to my phone for real-time information. Police helicopters idled for what seemed like days over my head. And, it being summer, of course it was hot. LA hot, which is to say not Atlanta or New York hot, but hot enough for the thin walls of my abode, built long before the concept of climate change, to soak up the heat and by the end of the day turn the place into a sauna.
I needed a respite from real life. I needed a world of decadence and parties and fun and, more than anything, food. I needed to channel Julia -- not Child (whom I love and worship) but Reed, the food writer, party-thrower extraordinaire, southerner through and through, citizen of the world Julia Reed.
She had just died, Julia did. That she died of cancer and not some madcap adventure gone wrong is even more of an injustice, but then the summer was all about injustices. What I did not accept was that life should be lived any other way, which is to say, without having a bottle of good bourbon and some mixers at the ready, without being willing -- in this case, if the limits of social distancing allowed it -- to throw a party spontaneously and make food that was rich and perhaps difficult to assemble but that showed you cared even if the situation didn't necessarily call for it. Even if, say, helicopters were buzzing and sirens were blaring -- you did it because you knew that kind of effort would imbue the moment with a deeper meaning, perhaps one with more gravitas. Gravitas mixed with joy.
I gobbled up her books, trying my best not to do it on an empty stomach lest I develop a craving for one of her mother's friend Bossy's casseroles at midnight. Bossy appears often in Julia's essays, a lifelong bit player whose food and friendship shaped Julia's eccentric worldview. Julia grew up in Greenville, smack in the middle of the Mississippi Delta, a vast fertile, alluvial plain that also birthed the Blues. Her father was prominent in the Republican party; her mother threw lavish parties that lasted for days (partly, according to Julia, because one had to travel great distances to get from one home to another, so if you did make the trip, you stayed). Julia moved to New York and started working in magazines in her twenties. She apparently moved up the -- pardon the pun -- food chain by wowing some editors of Newsweek by throwing a party and serving the food she had grown up with: simple food that may involve a can of Campbells soup or two, but that tasted good. We're talking pre-calorie-cutting, pre-farm-to-table, pre-vegan-as-mainstream. This was food whose fat needed the sting of bourbon to break up its molecules and neutralize it. Legend has it -- whose legend? Julia's own, of course -- that Julia made her mother's cheese straws at this fancy New York party, and the next thing you know, she had impressed the literati enough to move into her true calling: writing about food.
Los Angeles is the wrong place for spontaneous shindigs, pandemic or no pandemic. People do not assemble without the added incentive of a networking opportunity, and they certainly don't do it spontaneously, even with traffic being reduced to small smattering of cars going ninety down the freeways. So I decamped to North Carolina, where my family resides and where I grew up. I used the excuse of my sister's fiftieth birthday followed by Thanksgiving, but the truth is, I was lonely sitting on my couch and reading about police brutality and cooking just for myself. I had discovered a fun new world in the pages of Julia's books and wanted to preach my gastronomic gospel.
It needs to be said that I did not grow up reveling in food. My mother, German by birth and by tastebuds, tends to judge food by its portion size and health benefits. I enjoyed certain dishes she made when I was growing up: spaghetti with meat sauce (still good), "Chinese" chicken, and an Indian dish whose recipe was given to her by the man who bought all my father's knitting machines after it was deemed that polyester doubleknit -- the fabric those machines made and my father sold -- were too hot to be worn in the southern part of America but apparently not in New Delhi. But somewhere along the way, perhaps after feeding a family of five for eighteen years, my mother lost her touch. She doesn't enjoy cooking, and I think the food rebels. Eating, a sensual act, conflicts with the post-World War II German aesthetic. I made it my mission to re-introduce the joy of eating back into her and her boyfriend's life. He hails from Belgium and enjoys rich and decadent food; she would say things like, "Very rich. How much butter did you put in it?", but also be glad she didn't have to cook that night.
I made hearty beef stews in a Dutch oven that simmered on the stove of my rented apartment fir three hours. I made shortribs served with collards I had bought in a small rural town and were sold to be by a woman whose accent was so thick I could barely understand her. The collards were larger and lighter than the ones Whole Foods sells, with a sweetness also unlike any I'd ever bought in a store. I stewed them with a ham hock and soy sauce.
I threw parties -- outdoor parties even when winter hadn't yet given way to spring and we all wore down parkas as we gobbled up garlic smashed potatoes with sour cream and chives and drank pink champagne from Trader Joe's. After the first such party, to commemorate my mother's birthday, I took to bed for two days. I'm not sure I have the constitution Julia had for such extravagance, the kind that can prepare a meal two days and then socialize for seven hours on the third. But I did it again in April for my brother's birthday: I made a two-tier orange and chocolate layer cake with an orange buttercream frosting. When you cut into it, one layer was chocolate cake and the other orange cake. My sister brought a delicious slaw with peanuts and my mother made Swedish meatballs. For my birthday a mere two weeks later, I made Martha Stewart's lemon cake with a merengue frosting (I made mine gluten-free, a minor adjustment that gives the impression, rightly or not, that you're doing yourself a favor when biting into all that moist, merengue-y goodness). I made chicken thighs bathed in a soy ginger sauce, and again, the much-loved smashed potatoes. A few weeks later, I loaded up my car and drove back to L.A.
I went through Mississippi. I drove the southern route, and spent the night in Ocean Springs, a small, artsy town adjacent to Biloxi, right on the Gulf. I stayed in an old hotel apparently frequented by Al Capone with an ornate lobby and a golf course. As I drove on, I saw signs for highways leading to Jackson and then, eventually, Greenville and the Delta. I wanted to visit this loamy, lush place, but alas, I needed to push on. But then, while semi-deliberating the idea of making like Julia and spontaneously choosing fun over duty, I saw a sign. "Julie's Barbecue! All You Can Carry!". It was close enough. I pulled behind a semi and exited the highway to enjoy some of the best ribs I've ever eaten in my life.