Great cuisine sets the table for a better family life

How many times have we heard that today’s American family has no time to sit down to a meal together at night or even on weekends? There’s so much going on with everyone, and thanks to frozen foods, microwave ovens and fast-food outlets, it’s easy and convenient now for family members to eat at different times so as not to interrupt their routines.

But when families don’t get together to eat, so much is lost…so many opportunities to talk about daily events, convey information, ask questions, come up with ideas, share a laugh…just plain have fun and bond.

Kids who eat their meals primarily out of boxes, bags and cans also tend not to develop very adventurous palates. They learn to prefer a diet that may be quick and easy, but probably doesn’t reward them with any great depth or subtlety of flavor…and is most likely loaded with sodium and other preservatives. Not the healthiest food in the world.

On the other hand, the preparation of a really fine dish, like a Julia Child recipe, creates a special occasion that is worth getting together for. Yes, it takes more time, and may not be something you can put time and effort into every day, but the reward in flavor is worth it…and once the family gets together over a meal like this, they’ll want to stay at the table a while.

At the time Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1 was published, Julia herself sometimes worried about whether it would appeal enough to Americans to become a success. In the early ’60s, American supermarkets were already stocked with a huge variety of frozen, powdered and packaged “instant foods,” and fast-food restaurants were gaining in popularity. Quick-and-easy seemed to be the wave of the future, with little interest on the part of the average home cook in learning the intricacies of great French cooking.

Maybe Julia got a little lucky in her timing. By the time her cookbook was finally published, John F. Kennedy was in the White House. Jacqueline Kennedy loved French food, and eventually lured French chef Rene Verdon away from New York’s Carlyle Hotel to head the White House kitchens. Many American women, fascinated by the young and sophisticated new First Lady, wanted to copy everything about her: her designer clothes, her manners, even her taste in cuisine and entertaining. If they wanted to serve (and enjoy) the same kind of food served at state dinners in Washington, the way to do it was to learn to cook authentic French meals. A perfect moment for Julia and her cookbook, and her TV show The French Chef, to come to the rescue!

But have we lost that enthusiasm for tackling complicated cooking in the microwave era? Michael Pollan, a journalism professor and author of the book In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto, thinks so. In a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, he says that food channels on cable TV have only made things worse: we may actually be fascinated by the idea of great cuisine, but we’d rather watch someone else prepare it on Iron Chef or Chopped or some other show than make it ourselves.

Maybe so, but guess which book is atop the bestseller list at Amazon.com this week? Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 1. Are people just whipped up right now into a Julie & Julia movie-inspired frenzy? Or are they buying it just to buy it…only to discover later that while the spirit to try making these dishes themselves is willing, the flesh is weak?

Obviously, we like seeing people in our restaurant who want to enjoy these wonderful dishes but may not feel willing or able to prepare them on their own. But we also like to think we serve as an inspiration, and that the more you taste of this kind of food, the more you’ll want to taste. We hope that leads you back to the Bistro…but if it gives you the motivation to try setting a day and time aside for a special, home-cooked family meal, that’s great. If reading about these dishes and watching other people make them on TV is fun, imagine the satisfaction in knowing you can make one yourself.

In need of some inspiration? Come by tonight for our Julia dish, Coquilles St. Jacques. It should provide you with quite a bit.

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