What a thrill it is to see Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Simone Beck, and Louisette Bertholle at the top of the Amazon bestseller list, and for weeks now! Of course this has something to do with the appeal of Meryl Streep’s extraordinary performance in Julia & Julia. It is also possibly evidence that in uncertain times, people take refuge in timeless activities like cooking–or the fantasy of creating wonderful dinner parties (I took to reading cookbooks on Metro North to Manhattan in the dark months after 9/11). But it also confirms something I discovered after reviewing hundreds of books and interviewing bestselling authors for Publishers Weekly. To paraphrase the great mystic G.I. Gurdjieff, people who have a real passion for a craft and do it really well also have something to teach the rest of us about deeper truths in life. While I never had the pleasure of meeting Julia Child, I did meet and talk with a few chefs, including Patrick O’Connell, who turned a former gas station in the rolling Virginia countryside into what is thought to be one of the most sumptious and original restaurants in the world, the Inn at Little Washington. I met O’Connell one long-ago night at Restaurant Daniel on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Chef proprietor Daniel Boulud himself was honoring O’Connell by preparing recipes from Patrick O’Connell’s Refined American Cuisine and I got to taste how deeply savory, how, well, resonant and even moving seemingly simple snacks like pizza with wild mushrooms can be.
Days later, I spoke to O’Connell by phone. We actually spoke about Julia Child and the culinary revolution she began, a revolution that continues to evolve with the work of American chefs like Alice Waters and himself. O’Connell made the point that American cuisine is now on a par with–if not eclipsing–French haute cuisine. It started with Child’s openness to the experience of great food: “When you experience the best, you realize that it is humanly possible to create it, ” O’Connell told me.
And how do we achieve that greatness?
“I think the discipline or approach you need to take to learn to cook is the same for anything you might want to pursue….You have to give everything you have. I’ve given cooking demonstrations to young chefs where I’ve brought a broom. I demonstrate how to use it. The point is that when I learn how to become one with the broom, when I learn to engage completely in what I am doing, I will sweep the floor perfectly. It is the same with cooking. I have to learn to become one with the food, to engage with what is in front of me with my whole being. ”
O’Connell also spoke with me about the importance of finding your place in the universe, of connecting with life, of coming home to our true nature. He discovered what it was to have a sense of place in the countryside of Washington, Virginia. Instead of the distracted state he felt he was in in the city, his priorities shifted to the basics of country life, the goodness of being warm and dry and fed: “In the country, you realize you want to share what you have with other people, so you have a sense of connection with others.”
I asked him if he thought people can taste this heightened sense of connection and generosity in his food (people from all over the world travel to the remote Inn at Little Washington): “If you make it that way, it will be received that way. People will receive it no matter how dense they are….If you have purity of intention, it gets through. It reaches them all.”
I interviewed a few other chefs and food writers and I’ll get to that later. For now, suffice it to say that based on the Amazon list the quality of passionate openness and engagement that Julia Child embodied is reaching people in a way that Julie Powell’s likable but gimmicky book just can’t.