My Kitchen Saint

I suppose it should come to no surprise to anyone that Julia Child is my Kitchen Saint, since just this summer I wrote about my experience going on a pilgrimage to see her kitchen, which is ensconced in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

But, since I cook primarily Asian foods, most particularly Chinese. Indian and Thai, one might wonder why I hold Julia in such high esteem, since she was mostly expert in French cuisine.

Well, you see, the paradox does make sense, eventually, but it takes some explanation.

Julia may not have cooked the same foods which are my passion, but she had the same passion for food that I feel. She, in fact, was one of my earliest influences in the kitchen, along with both grandmothers, several aunts and my mother, none of whom cooked Asian foods, either. From watching Julia on television as a child, I learned a certain fearlessness in the kitchen, a refusal to be cowed by any unfamiliar food item or technique. From her good-natured, self-deprecating humor and sly wit, I learned not to take myself or cuisine too seriously, while at the same time, being deadly serious about those things in the kitchen which matter, such as safety and precision of measurement.

At the same time, I learned to go with the flow, loosen up and improvise, particularly if anything went awry.

I learned never to apologize, and to always move forward with utter and complete self-confidence, a trait which has served me well for years, but especially when I was in culinary school, and had to cook under the critical eyes, noses and palates of stringently critical chefs.

In reading her writings, especially her recipes, I learned how best to write recipes for my own classes, so that students could exactly replicate them at home without my help. I learned that precision of language and detailed description went very far in ensuring that my students would have the confidence to run home and try making dim sum delicacies or a complete vegetarian North Indian feast without me standing over them.

And, from her, I learned how to put students at ease.

According to my father-in-law, I am one of the most intimidating people he knows, particularly when it comes to being in the kitchen with me, so it behooved me to find a way to relate to my cooking students that did not include sending them running for the hills, screaming in terror. Instead, I took a page or two from Julia’s book, and used self-deprecating humor, jokes, and bits of kitchen science, history and food lore to draw my students into the lessons, and give them something to hold on to.

Finally, I cannot help but love a woman who once said, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”

And so, that is why Julia Child, even if she mostly cooked French food, is my own beloved Kitchen Saint, whom I call upon in times of trouble and need, and who has been enshrined as part of the decor of my sacred culinary space. (With thanks to Dan and Heather, who gave me that wonderful sign pictured above for this year’s Generic Winter Holiday.)

Does anyone else have a Kitchen Saint or two, or three? If so, who?

15 Comments

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  1. Barbara, I would say when I am stuck in the kitchen, I ask myself “What would Alton do?” or, if it’s ethnic Asian food, “What would Barbara do?” Not quite sainthood, but certainly invoking the muse… On that note, I feel that for Indian food Madjur Jaffrey is the definitive cookbook author, and I loved Breath of a Wok for Chinese food. Do you have a recommendation for a Thai cookbook?

    Comment by Kim — February 2, 2007 #

  2. I am with you on St. Julia; in fact, I took a small photo of her that I found and made a refrigerator magnet. She’s the one who taught me to cook and I will never forget those early PBS shows. Funny AND informative.

    Comment by Nancy — February 2, 2007 #

  3. My Grandpa.
    A lover of food, all kinds, and eating. A member of Chaîne des Rôtisseurs, he taught me to “try everything once, you never know if you might like it”. He gave me my love of popovers, chives and pumpernickle bread. He made the most beautiful omlette I have ever laid eyes on.
    He is my Kitchen Saint (or rather Ancestor) and I always hope that he is standing over my shoulder as I cook.

    Comment by Robbin — February 2, 2007 #

  4. I’m English, and I suspect that is our equivalent of Julia Child. My other kitchen saint is , a food writer who has published several books and writes for UK newspapers and magazines. He writes about food with a poetry and passion that I can only dream of emulating!

    Comment by Sadie — February 2, 2007 #

  5. The Swedish Chef – from the Muppets. He holds place of honor in my kitchen in the form of my kitchen clock with wood spoons as the clock hands.

    Julia comes next. I loved watching her shows. Many a night I have read myself to sleep with her books.

    Third place is held by Dione Lucas and Edna Lewis. I still go back to their books for clarification, instructions and inspiration.

    Comment by Maureen — February 2, 2007 #

  6. I recently picked up the first season of THE FRENCH CHEF on DVD…they are great. I hadn’t seen most of them, just bits and pieces here and there. She’s wonderful.

    I love the qoute over your entrance. Sweet!

    Comment by scotte — February 3, 2007 #

  7. I have to say Betty Crocker, even though I believe she isn’t a real person. It was my first cookbook and it opened my eyes to simple cooking. I still have it-got in in the 60′s- and still use it, especially the brownie recipe. I have been working my way through Mastering The Art of French Cooking, trying to learn the French way of cooking and it has really expanded my cooking world. I can’t wait to read the biography of Julia Childs-I’m waiting for it to come out in paperback.
    My gaurdian angel in the kitchen is my Uncle Bill who taught me great cooking secrets and made me my first cocktail in college. He taught me to be adventurous in cooking.

    Comment by Linda — February 4, 2007 #

  8. Julia just has to be the one. Her shows, cookbooks and her bios are an inspiration.

    Comment by tanna — February 4, 2007 #

  9. I want to claim Julia too, but also Irma Rombauer as co-saint. Irma and Joy of Cooking presided over the first part of my culinary education, when I was 19 years old, newly married, and clueless. The J of C’s breezy writing and logically presented recipes made me feel as if I could manage the whole cooking thing. Julia stepped in later, when my culinary horizons needed broadening.

    Comment by lucette — February 4, 2007 #

  10. I’ve been thinking about this post and I don’t have a single person that is or has been in the media spotlight that has inspired me in the kitchen. Sure, there have been a number of authors I enjoy but to the level of sainthood, I can’t say I have one.

    The people who inspire me are the people I cook for, friends and family.

    Comment by Jenn — February 4, 2007 #

  11. Hello! My husband stumbled upon this blog and led me to it. I have to say, this is the first food blog I’ve come across that is mostly devoted to Asian cuisine. Refreshing! I’m a culinary school graduate and a bread baker by trade so my culinary saints are the heros of the baking spotlight: Rose Levy Beranbaum (www.realbakingwithrose.com)
    (my favorite), Peter Rheinhart, and Maggie Glazier (who owns and operates betterbaking.com). For general cooking, I look up to Alton Brown the most. I am also a fan of Ming Tsai and long to dine at Blue Ginger if I ever get the chance.

    Comment by Roxanne — February 5, 2007 #

  12. Kim, I am proud to be your muse, along with Alton Brown! I am flattered.

    Robbin–both of my grandmothers are at my shoulder, always, when it comes to cookery. In fact, there is an old Norse word for what they are to me–the disir–meaning “female ancestors,” or “divine female ancestors,” or “heathen tribal mothers.”

    Back when I was having trouble making pie crust, I invoked not only St. Julia, but my grandmothers, as well as all of the disir of my paternal line–all great cooks and all Bavarians, and talked to them in my head in a running monologue.

    It helped get me over my pie phobia, and has made a good pie baker after all of these years.

    Whatever works, right?

    Maureen–I have a Swedish Chef doll, who for years was my kitchen witch, and presided over my kitchen. Now, because he is about fifteen years old or so, he is relegated to my office to keep him from getting coated with stir-frying oil, but he watches over my blogging.

    I love the Swedish Chef and still sing his little song now and then while I am stirring….

    Linda–Betty Crocker is a created persona, but she was played by different people over the years. There is a biography of her out–you should look it up. Very interesting reading.

    Lucette–Irma is also very, very cool, but I didn’t grow up with her. No one I knew cooked from her, if you can believe that! Now that I have copies of her books that are mine, I enjoy her a lot.

    Jenn–my family and friends inspire me, too. I like your heart and style!

    Roxanne–welcome, and I hope you enjoy reading here. I love Rose and Peter, too , and I know some folks he has trained.

    And yes, I love Ming Tsai. Not only is he a great chef and very inspirational to me, he is a handsome fellow.

    Would you kill me if I said I have eaten at Blue Ginger, and it was just as amazing as I hoped it would be?

    Comment by Barbara — February 5, 2007 #

  13. I have the article Time printed when JC passed framed on my spice cabinet, next to my Chinese Kitchen God. Love your kitchen; I have the same color green walls, too!

    Comment by Rob — February 13, 2007 #

  14. Barbara! You lucky gal! Now I’m jealous that you’ve been to Blue Ginger :-).

    Ah, well, on day…

    Comment by Roxanne Rieske — February 13, 2007 #

  15. Good post. You make some great points that most people do not fully understand.

    “In reading her writings, especially her recipes, I learned how best to write recipes for my own classes, so that students could exactly replicate them at home without my help. I learned that precision of language and detailed description went very far in ensuring that my students would have the confidence to run home and try making dim sum delicacies or a complete vegetarian North Indian feast without me standing over them.”

    I like how you explained that. Very helpful. Thanks.

    Comment by chiz — March 28, 2008 #

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