The Culinary Nerd Goes To Mecca (Well, -a- Mecca, Not -the- Mecca)

So, first of all, I am sure you want to know who or what the Culinary Nerd is.

That would be me.

That nickname was given to me in culinary school by a fellow student one day when a visiting chef once asked the crowd of us if anyone knew what huilacoche was.

I was the only one who raised my hand. When he recognized me, I said, “It is a fungus that grows on corn that we in the US call corn smut, but which in Mexico, is eaten.” He asked if I had tasted it, and I said yes, that it had a soft texture rather like oyster mushrooms, but it tasted more like a combination of corn, truffles and wild mushrooms.

He liked my answer.

The student sitting next to me, who had been through all the first year classes with me, and who had seen me get into arguments with chefs over the origin of potatoes (he said Ireland, and I said Peru–and was right) and over whether something was a green tomato or something else (I said it was something else, but I wasn’t sure what–it turned out to be a Thai eggplant) and over the proper method of frying okra (he said to follow the recipe and use a beer batter and fry it whole, I said to do it the way that real southerners have been doing for, like, ever, and cut it up into slices, coat it in seasoned cornmeal and flour and then fry it in either lard or bacon fat. We each cooked up a batch, and guess whose okra got eaten, even by Yankees, and whose didn’t?).

So, Maria looked at me and said, with a fond smile, “You are -such- a Culinary Nerd.”

It stuck. My personal chef business was called, “The Culinary Nerd Personal Chef Company.” I taught workshops as The Culinary Nerd, and in fact, that was almost the name of this blog.

But, even though I named the blog differently, I am still The Culinary Nerd at heart and sometimes I do things that prove it.

Like this:

Willingly getting my photo taken at the American History Museum with one of my great culinary heros, “The Swedish Chef” certainly counts as very nerdish behavior.

Posting it on my blog is further proof.

But, well, when one visits a mecca of sorts–and today’s visit to The American History Museum at the Smithsonian -definately- counts as a culinary mecca, considering that not only the Swedish Chef is there, but a holy of holies is there as well: Julia Child’s Kitchen.

I mean, I have known it has been there for -YEARS- and I kept meaning to go. I thought it was going to be dismantled after a couple of years and tour the country, but I found out today THAT IT WAS STILL THERE!!!!

So, of course, both Morganna and I went and paid homage.

I took a lot of photos, but I am only sharing these that came out–I had to use the flash to get them into focus, so I am sorry for the glare on the glass. But, I think that for those of you who cannot get to DC to see this most sacred of places, you can deal with a little bit of imperfection in my transmission of the goodness to you.

I was excited to see it close up. I mean, I grew up seeing her do her shows in the kitchen, so it is as familiar to me as the kitchens of my mother and grandmothers. But, I was still impressed with seeing it in person–and seeing how no-nonsense it was and how colorful it was without being garish. It was simple without being plain, it was large without being grand, and it was beautiful without being pretentious.

It was like Julia herself.

I loved it. Gazing first hand upon it was like going to a cathedral and seeing relics up close probably is for devout Catholics (I am only slightly kidding when I call her Saint Julia, after all).

Though, I had to laugh, when I overhead Martha Stewart, on the video talking about how it is important, when we eat things like venison steak, that we recognize that what we are eating is a deer, and how Julia was always making that obvious, and how she always emphasized that, without being overt.

The video cut to a clip from Julia’s first series, “The French Chef” where she is talking about roasting a suckling pig. The wee piggy is there, and she strokes it and pats it while she talks about how important it is to get a milk-fed piglet, because without only being fed mother’s milk, its meat isn’t so succulent and tender.

While she is talking, she shows how to prop open the piglet’s mouth with a ball of foil before roasting him so you can present him with an apple.

Several folks watching the video were disturbed, and winced and backed away, saying, “Oooh, that’s gross!”

I walked out laughing. They didn’t get it.

But, I did.

So, that was The Culinary Nerd’s adventure for the day–I got to travel to a holy place, view and photograph sacred relics of a beloved kitchen saint, and had my photograph taken with an icon of culinary goofiness.

And after we came back to Maryland, we all adjourned for a delightful feast at Akbar’s where we dined magnificently upon some of the best North Indian style food in the world. (And we had three Akbar’s virgins with us, so the feast was made doubly divine because we had the pleasure of introducing others to the glory of some of our favorite Indian food.)

And then, we came back here, and I am writing to tell you all about it.

With that, I say, “Goodnight, and good cooking.”

21 Comments

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  1. Terribly jealous! Growing up in Northern Virginia, I practically lived in the American History Museum (free entertainment for small children – my Mom took us there any chance she had). Glad you got to see Julia’s kitchen before they close up for renovations – for TWO YEARS! I don’t know what I will do with myself when I go to visit my folks….

    Comment by Tammy — July 19, 2006 #

  2. that’s so funny & cute

    Comment by sam — July 19, 2006 #

  3. What a great, great post, with your spirit and Julia’s shining through.

    Comment by Tana — July 20, 2006 #

  4. The Swedish Chef! He’s one of my heroes, too. I love the way he throws food around – it reminds me of my cooking technique ;)

    Comment by Stephanie — July 20, 2006 #

  5. What a great day – Julia and the Swedish Chef! They both bring a smile to my face.

    Comment by maureen — July 20, 2006 #

  6. *blink*

    A chef thought potatoes came from Ireland?!

    Comment by Ladylark — July 20, 2006 #

  7. Nerds can have so much fun!
    Great post, wish I’d been there.

    Comment by tanna — July 20, 2006 #

  8. Bjork, bjork, bjork! I too would absolutely have to have my photo taken with the Swedish chef!

    Sounds like a wonderful day…I’m jealous!

    Comment by Meg — July 20, 2006 #

  9. You are so cool! I’m very envious that you went to see Julia’s kitchen. Rock on!
    And by the way, kudos on the okra. You were so right and he was so wrong. Cornmeal and bacon grease, there’s nothing like it.

    Comment by Glenna — July 20, 2006 #

  10. Hey, everyone! Good morning. Today will not be such a Culinary Nerd day, as we are going to the Museum of the American Indian–which while it is lovely, interesting and has some of the best interior and exterior design of any museum I have ever seen (and, as a Nerd, I have gone to many a museum in my life), it doesn’t have much about food in it.

    But whatever further Nerdishness comes my way on this trip, I will be certain to share here with y’all.

    And about that chef and the potato issue:

    He really thought they came from Ireland. We really got into it. In his defense–he really is a great chef, he is very intelligent and well-educated, and he taught me excellent culinary technique. He just also happened to believe that wee culinary myth about potatoes.

    But–that said, here is what happened: after class, he apparently went into the faculty lounge, and bitched about how uppity I was to argue with him about where potatoes came from.

    Another chef heard him, and started laughing in his face. This chef, who is much, much older than the first, (who was my advisor), spoke up, while the other chefs started laughing and said, “You stupid German–she wasn’t being uppity, she was being right! Of course potatoes didn’t come from Ireland, you ignorant bumpkin.” (The chef speaking was French–Alsation, to be exact. If you know anything about Germany, France and Alsace, you will get where the “ignorant bumpkin” and “stupid German” comments came from. These two guys loved each other, but there was still rivalry between them.)

    Well, my chef was dumbfounded, so the older Frenchman continued. “So, you shamed her in class, in front of everyone, didn’t you, knowitall German that you are, always having to be right. Well. Didn’t you?”

    “Yes,” was the answer, said, I am told, shamefacedly. “She said she was going to bring her copy of Larousse with her tomorrow to prove it to me.”

    The Alsation laughed. “You should know better than to argue with a woman who reads Larousse like it is the Bible. The kitchen is her church, and she takes her study seriously. Silly German. Well, I will be there tomorrow, waiting for her and her Larousse, and I will stand there and make sure that you apologize to her in front of the class where you shamed her, and tell them all that she was right and that potatoes come from Peru. She probably argued with you so that all of your students wouldn’t think something so ignorant as that, and doesn’t deserve to have a half-assed apology.”

    So, the next day, I was lugging Larousse along with my knife kit, and was met by the Frenchman. He saw it, smiled, and clapped his wide hand on my back. “You don’t need that, you know. I told him what was what. Stupid German. I’m coming to class to make sure he apologizes to you in front of everyone, and tells them where potatoes come from.”

    Then he grinned at me and said, “You keep arguing, Miss Scholar. When you catch a chef, all of whom think they know every little thing there is to know about food, telling an untruth, you point it out. And don’t stop. Don’t be afraid to tell the truth. Just do it. Some of these chefs egos need to be skewered, and you are the one to do it.”

    So–I was apologized to, quite graciously. My chef and I went back to getting along very well (he liked me from day one, I think because I recognized him as a Bavarian, because, well he looked like one of my cousins, and he recongized me as a fellow Bavarian-American, because I looked, in his words, like the women he grew up with), and the little French Chef–he ended up being one of my strongest advocates, in large part, because he knew that even though I had a head like an encyclopedia, stuffed to the gills with information, I could still, in his words, “Stand at the stove, and without foolishness or pretension, cook.”

    So, that is the whole Irish potatoes story.

    There isn’t a moral, unless it is this: Sometimes Nerds are valuable.

    And sometimes, being a Nerd gets you yelled at.

    But, in the end, being true to who I was, which is a truly nerdish individual, made it so that folks liked me and respected me, and it certainly made life more interesting….

    Comment by Barbara — July 20, 2006 #

  11. Oh! I am so sad that you are in the area and I won’t get a chance to see you! Sounds like you are having a great time, though! I can’t wait to hear more stories about this adventure!

    Comment by Kate — July 20, 2006 #

  12. Barbara,
    From one nerd to another: huiTlacoche.

    I’ve never commented before, but have been reading you for a while.

    I love every one of your stories and recipes. You’ve opened my culinary world, given me confidence in my humble skills and instilled a passion for learning more.

    My friends think I’m weird because I get giddy over vegetables (my CSA box), but you make it cool to be a Culinary Nerd ;-)

    Comment by Isabel — July 20, 2006 #

  13. Darn, I didn’t know you were in DC. I would have loved to met you. Great pic of you and the Swedish Chef.

    Comment by Barbara (Biscuit Girl) — July 21, 2006 #

  14. Hey, I was just in DC in June! So sorry our timing was off and we couldn’t connect. And… the Museum of the American Indian does so have something of culinary interest in it – the Mitsitam CafĂ©! See http://americanindian.si.edu/subpage.cfm?subpage=dc&second=visitor&third=inside#museumcafe (hope that URL doesn’t get too munged) for a bit about the range of regional Native cuisines on offer. We ate there twice and were pleased with the jicama salad Nicoise in particular; interested to know what you think of it.
    –APS

    Comment by Alan P. Scott — July 21, 2006 #

  15. That was a great post. I read your blog every day and I thikn this is one of yur best posts yet. I love the name ‘Culinary Nerd’ because I can identify with it myself. And being a big fan of Julia (‘Saint Julia’, I like it!) I really appreciate sharing the photos of her kitchen.

    Comment by Dave — July 22, 2006 #

  16. I, too, have always gotten in trouble for correcting people who make false statements. :-)

    You will love the cafeteria in the Museum of the American Indian. The food is based on ingredients that were used by the various first people on this continent, and is much more interesting than food available elsewhere in museums. It’s probably too late to tell you this, but maybe others will benefit — they give tastes! It took me 20 minutes to decide what to have……. (Soup with quinoa, something with winter squash, and one more thing — can’t remember, it was nearly a year ago — all delicious.)

    Comment by Vicki in Michigan — July 23, 2006 #

  17. Culinary Nerd. It “so” fits. And the potato story, especially the continuation, is priceless. I didn’t know Julia Child’s kitchen remains … what a good thing! It’s an interesting question, should anyone ELSE’s kitchen be preserved? Someone contemporary?

    Comment by Alanna — July 24, 2006 #

  18. Kate, and Biscuit Girl–I would have loved to meet up with you both, but due to the fact that we were travelling with six people total, all with different needs, and it was hot and we pregnant ladies get tired and cranky in the heat, I decided not to add any other folks into the equation by meeting up with Internet and blogging friends. Too much confusion and heat and dehydration as it was!

    I will catch y’all on the flip side, though.

    (Of course, I say this and then find out today that Hadar was in the area, too, for a conference. Sigh.)

    I am very thrilled to see so many who consider the Swedish Chef to be a personal hero! That is awesome! Though I didn’t look my best in the picture, being sweaty and with my hair pulled back to keep it off my neck and face (it was about 98 degrees that day–ugh) it is still a good pic, and was a fun one to take.

    As for the food in the American Indian Museum–Alan (yes, it would have been TOTALLY cool to see you and Roberta again, and meet your kids) and Vicki–it was very, very good. Hideously overpriced, even by Smithsonian cafe standards, but it was quite good. I was so tired and hot though, that I stuck with tried and true beloved goodies–frybread and bison chile. It was comfort food….and it was quite good. I just think that an exhibit about native plants and foods and medicines would be cool. Maybe sometime in the future….

    Isabel–I am just not good at spelling! Thanks for correcting me–it IS cool to be a nerd! Especially a culinary one.

    Alanna–what an interesting thought. I think the reason they preserved it was because it had been seen on television, and so was familiar to us. It would be neat to preserve or rebuild kitchens from different eras, too. Have an exhibit on the development of the American kitchen….do you think anyone other than the Culinary Nerd would like it? I think so, but maybe I am wrong….

    Comment by Barbara — July 24, 2006 #

  19. Gotta boast, even at this late date. I was at the Sainted Julia’s exhibit opening and have photo to prove it. Of me, with Herself, getting a question answered.

    Barbara, you should create a line of clothing dedicated to the Culinary Nerd. I could outfit myself from head to toe. At cooking school (I was one of the dilettantes attending for the fun of it) I had that rep although not the name. Risotto day was the day the school examiners visited my class. See, it was That Time, when the Accreditation Committee examined the school to determine whether it was still up to snuff. The AC approached me and asked me what I was doing. I launched into a 15 ad-libbed exposition about risotto: the technique, the science of sauteeing rice and absorbing (NOT evaporating, thankyouverymuch) liquid, common problems, related techniques such as Indian pilaf which led to a mini-lecture on universal techniques (good thing it wasn’t dumpling day or they never would have gotten me to shut up), how to optimize the recipe for a restaurant kitchen, other ways to speed the process and how that might affect the final result, and the particular additives I was using (parmesan rinds to be removed later, prosecutor rinds that would soften during cooking, and spinach) and why. Finally I stopped to draw breath and they asked me how long does it take to cook risotto. “I don’t know,” I replied.

    The shocked looks on their faces was priceless.

    I continued “This is the first time I’ve made risotto. The book says 40 minutes via standard method.”

    Comment by Harry — October 22, 2007 #

  20. Ah, Harry–that is an awesome story. What question did you ask?

    I was one of the J&W volunteers who got to cook for Herself at one of her birthday galas. I could have volunteered to serve, and thus had a chance to meet her, but I stayed in the kitchen. I figured I’d rather do that. A friend of mine served her, though.

    It was cool.

    I love your Nerd story! Culinary Nerds of the World Unite!

    A clothing line–what an interesting idea. I will discuss with Zak who did the logo for my original Culinary Nerd business which was when I was a personal chef.

    We could do t-shirts and jackets and such to support the T&S website bills.

    Thanks for the idea!

    Comment by Barbara — October 22, 2007 #

  21. Stripped of the polite frames, I asked what made her think people would be interested in her book? I didn’t get a good answer, darn it; she was substantially non-cogent by that time in her life.

    It’s a question I’m interested in, though. Cooking is a crowded field. What makes one think one’s offering will succeed or offer something new?

    You cooked for the JC? Wow. That takes guts. I know I could have served her without dumping food in her lap (unless we were doing non-plated service, which is hard for me if I’m not lifting).

    For the Culinary Nerd stuff, check out cafepress.com. The essence of their business is you send them your logo and pick which of their items you want it on, and they make and sell it for you.

    Comment by Harry — November 1, 2007 #

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