August 6, 2012
In Italy, working on assignment for several magazines, author Bob Spitz got an unusual call from the Italian Trade Commission in 1992.
“Would you like to be an escort for an older woman?”
Spitz was quick to answer, “Lady, I don’t do that kind of work.”
“It’s for Julia Child,” the woman on the phone informed him. Even quicker to answer this time, Spitz said, “I’ll be right over.”
And thus began his month long tour with one of the greatest culinary figures in American history.
Julia Child would have been 100 years old this August 15. Known for her distinct vibrato voice, her height and her role in bringing French food across the Atlantic in the 1960s, Child stood an impressive 6-foot-2 and couldn’t help but be noticed.
The first time Spitz met her, all he could hear was a chorus of lunching Americans chirping, “It’s Julia. It’s Julia.” Seated at a hotel in Taormina, he watched her walk across the piazza. “Every head in the place turned,” he says, everyone referring to her simply as Julia, not Julia Child.
Together the pair ate their way across Sicily, talking about food and reexamining her life. Child had just watched her husband and business partner Paul enter a medical facility as his mental faculties began to fade and she was in a contemplative mood, says Spitz.
Of course, that didn’t diminish her spirit, which Spitz describes as “relentless.” Even though she didn’t particularly care for Italian food (“The sauces were too boring for her”), Child took her tour seriously.
“We went into the restaurants, but then she would head into the kitchen,” often without invitation, says Spitz. “She talked to the chef, she’d shake everybody’s hand in the kitchen, even the busboys and the dishwashers,” Spitz remembers, “And always made sure to count how many women were working in the kitchen.”
If Child received warm receptions from vacationing Americans, the Italian chefs were less than star struck. Many, says Spitz, didn’t even know who she was. “The Italian chefs, most of them men where we went, were not very happy to see a 6-foot-2 woman come into their kitchen and, without asking them, dip her big paw into the stock pot and taste the sauce with her fingers.” Her brash behavior often brought reproachful, murderous stares, says Spitz. Not easily daunted, she found it amusing. “She would say to me, ‘Oh, they don’t speak English. Look at them! They don’t know what I’m made of. They don’t know what to do with me.’ It was great,” Spitz says.
Few people in Child’s life seemed to know what to do with her. She grew up in a conservative family in Pasadena, Calif. playing tennis and basketball. After college and a brief copywriting career in New York, she headed back home and volunteered with the Junior League. Craving adventure, she tried to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps but was too tall. Instead, she wound up in the Office of Strategic Services, beginning her career in Sri Lanka in 1944 before heading to China and eventually France after Paul was assigned there.
The rest is a familiar history. She developed a devoted passion for French food and technique, trained and worked tirelessly to record her findings. The first volume of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, with a second volume to come in 1970. In between, she began her TV career hosting “The French Chef.”
“She never tried to work on a personality,” Spitz says of the show’s success. “The day she first walked on TV, it was all there–the whole Julia Child persona was intact.”
Her dedication to getting real French food into American homes that were used to TV dinners and Jello desserts energized every episode. But Spitz insists, she didn’t just change the way Americans ate, she changed the way they lived.
Given the opportunity to clear one thing up, Spitz has one misconception on his mind: “Julia never dropped anything. People swear she dropped chickens, roasts–never happened.” Likewise, the mythology around her drinking on the show, which was limited to the close of each show when she sat down to enjoy her meal, also developed its own life. “Julia was by no means a lush,” says Spitz. “Although,” he adds, “when we were in Sicily, she consumed alcohol in quantities that made my eyes bug out.”
“She was a woman who liked adventure,” Spitz says. The pair would sometimes tour the Italian countryside by motorcycle. “Just knowing that this 80-year-old, 6-foot-2 woman, no less Julia Child was on the back of a motorcycle, riding with me–it told me everything I needed to know about her.”
Spitz will read from and discuss his new biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Wednesday, August 8, at 7 p.m. at the Natural History Museum. He will also attend the 100th anniversary celebration August 15.
December 24, 2011
I was about five or six years old when I figured out that Santa Claus was a fictional character. (Although my family is Jewish, we used to celebrate Christmas with our half-Christian cousins, so my parents played along with the ruse.) When I told my mother I wanted something or other for Christmas, she slipped and said, “We can’t afford it.” She quickly caught herself and said, “I mean, that’s a little expensive for Santa Claus,” but I was on to her. Instead of being upset, I thought I was really clever.
I ran upstairs and bragged to my older brother that I had figured out that Santa was really just our parents. “Duh,” he said. “I learned that a long time ago.”
If I had thought about it, there were plenty of other causes for skepticism. I mean, how does one guy in a sleigh—even one pulled by flying reindeer—deliver goodies to every household around the world? Does he outsource?
In a way, yes. Although tubby, red-suited Santa Claus is the gift delivery man in most of North America and other countries, many places have their own traditions about who—or what—is responsible for bringing Christmas candies and toys. It also helps that he spaces out the festivities so that in some countries, distribution happens on a night other than the one before Christmas.
Dutch children, for instance, leave out their shoes—those cute wooden ones, traditionally—on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’s feast day. In the morning they find that Sinterklaas has filled them with chocolate coins, small toys and spice cookies called pepernoten. This Sinterklaas fellow has a similar name and appearance to the American Santa, but he dresses more like a bishop and arrives on a horse. Maybe the reindeer union doesn’t allow them to work more than one night a year? He also has a politically incorrect sidekick named Zwarte Piet (Black Pete) who wears blackface and metes out punishment to misbehavers.
In Italy, it’s La Befana who comes bearing sweets for good little girls and boys. La Befana is an old witch with a broom and raggedy, patched clothing; according to folklore, she declined an invitation to accompany the three wise men on their quest to bring gifts to the baby Jesus, then thought better of it and wandered the land looking for them. Now she comes down the chimney on the eve of Epiphany (January 6) to fill children’s stockings and shoes with caramelle—or coal, if they were naughty.
But I’d have to say the most colorful, and amusing, candy-bearing Christmas character is the tió de Nadal, or Christmas log—also called cagatió, or pooping log. Beginning on December 8, the Feast of the Immaculate Conception, children in the autonomous Catalonia region of Spain “feed” their log; meanwhile, their parents discreetly make the food disappear. Come Christmas, the kiddies beat the log with a stick and order it, via catchy little songs, to poop candies for them. The parents then make it appear that the log has indeed eliminated treats such as turron, a type of nougat. When the log plops out an egg or a head of garlic, that means the party’s pooped till next year.
Strange? Yes. But is it really any less plausible than flying reindeer? And when you consider that this was also the land that produced Surrealist artist Salvador Dalí, it all begins to make sense.
December 12, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked for stories about holiday foods that make your holidays. This is a rich subject for Smithsonian and its readers; we have run stories of holiday lefse (and other time-consuming traditional foods), lutefisk, rice grits, sugar plums and the great debate over whether latkes or hamantaschen are the perfect Hanukkah food. Susie Tilton, who has written for Inviting Writing about mysterious greens called cardoons, starts us off with a story about mysterious cookies called… something. She blogs at Sweetie Petitti.
Pasquale’s Italian Wonders
By Susie Tilton
My parents have a Christmas party every year without fail. Even now, with my dad well into his 80s and my mom not far behind, they are making copies of the song book; my mom is practicing the carols on the piano; and the freezers are filling up with party foods.
The highlight for me, for many years, was made the day of the party. My dad, Pasquale, would crank out sheets of sweet dough in the pasta machine. He would then cut the dough with a fluted pastry cutter and fry it in spirals. He would pile the pastry spirals up like a pyramid and cover it in warm honey and nuts. We called it shca-te-la. And therein lies the problem.
One year, when the Internet was still young, I decided that I was going to make them. My dad’s recipe had no name. So I started researching. It is nearly impossible to find anything on the Internet when you have only a phonetic spelling (of a foreign language, no less). I couldn’t find another recipe, history, photo or anything on these things. I am sure it is because we didn’t pronounce the name like most Italians would. My family is from a small mountain town in Puglia, Italy, and the dialect is unlike any other in Italy. There is a lot of French influence in the region, and even many Italians have no idea what people from there are saying! I live in a close-knit community with a fair amount of Italians, so I got on the phone and called the Italian who owns the grocery, the Italian who owns the liquor store and the Italian who has the pasta market, to no avail. They all wanted to help, but when I said shca-te-la, they drew a blank. But I got my dad’s recipe, so I went to work and renamed the pastries Pasquale’s Italian Wonders.
On a recent trip to my ancestral town in Italy, I met the most amazing people. The language barrier was still an issue, but when I said shca-te-la, eyes lit up. They knew exactly what I spoke of! The spelling is schart’llat, which returns no answers in a Google search (although I intend to change that with a blog post), and it is similar to scallidde, a pastry found in some more southern areas of Italy. The pastries were made in spirals as a symbol of approaching heaven, and they are indeed heavenly. I have decided that having the proper name is reason enough to crank up the fryer and make a batch this holiday. But we decided that naming them after Grandpa Pasquale will be the new tradition!
July 29, 2011
When I was in New York City earlier this week, I decided to check out Eataly, the Italian food emporium slash gastronomic theme park that opened near the Flatiron building a year ago. (There are also locations in Italy and Japan.) Aside from a large selection of imported products—pasta, anchovies, olives, oils, spices and much more—the complex includes six restaurants. Rather than specializing in different regions, each eatery focuses on a different kind of food: pasta, pizza, seafood, salumi, etc. Chefs Mario Batali and Lidia Bastianich are partners in the venture.
At first, the atmosphere reminded me less of Italy—one of my favorite places—and more of a high-end and very crowded food court. It wasn’t until I ate something that I was transported. I sat at the counter of the pasta/pizza restaurant and ordered the daily special, half-moon spinach ravioli in a lemon sauce, sprinkled with pistachios. It reminded me of something I had tasted in Rome years ago, at dinner with an American expat acquaintance and her Italian friends that has crystallized in my memory as my quintessential Roman experience.
Afterward I roamed the food aisles, not buying anything because it was mostly too expensive. Then I spied the candy counter. At the end of a row of chocolates was something I hadn’t encountered since that Rome trip: marrons glacés, or candied chestnuts. These ultra-sugary confections are popular in France and Italy, and although I don’t always like overly sweet sweets, I remembered liking their earthy, nutty flavor when I tasted them more than a decade ago.
But they were $4 apiece for something smaller than a golf ball—two or three bites at most. I could have gotten a whole dish of gelato for the same price. Then again, gelato is relatively easy to find in the United States—if not always of the same quality you’d find in Italy—but a marron glacé is a rare sight. I decided to go for it.
It was worth it. As I bit into it, I was immediately hit with a sugar rush. The finely granular, almost creamy texture was similar to some Mexican confections (also very sugary) made with sweetened condensed milk. But then there was the unmistakable warm chestnut flavor, which anyone who has tasted roasted chestnuts from a New York City cart in winter (or elsewhere) would recognize.
For a piece of candy, it was expensive. But for a one-minute mental vacation to a favorite memory, it was a bargain.
The reason candied chestnuts are so pricey is that it takes a long time to make them, plus the cost of importing them—I don’t know whether anyone makes them domestically. You can make them yourself, if you have four days to spare this winter, when chestnuts are in season. There are also shortcut versions that take only an hour, but that seems like sacrilege.
As for me, I’ll probably just wait until the next time I encounter one—even if it takes another 15 years.
May 16, 2011
For this month’s Inviting Writing, we asked you for stories of lost foods—cereals, soft drinks, cookies or foreign foods that you savored once but can no longer easily find. Today’s memory comes from Susie Petitti Tilton, who works at Williams-Sonoma and has a small business baking decorated sugar cookies. She blogs about a town in Italy called Faeto where her grandparents came from—and recently heard from a man whose great-grandfather was her great-grandfather’s brother. “The Internet does indeed shrink the world!” she writes. Her website is called Sweetie Petitti.
In Search of Lost Cardoons
By Susie Petitti Tilton
I am the daughter and granddaughter of grocers; you could say I come from a lineage of foodies. When I was growing up, we always had the most amazing things to eat, even though we lived in a very small Iowa town. In addition to the products we sampled that came through the grocery stores, we had many relatives in Chicago, and our favorite Italian bakeries there were always on the must-visit list. We also had a garden that only an Iowa farmer could rival. I spent many summers with my dad picking beans, tomatoes, cucumbers and zucchini, among other things.
My grandparents were Italian immigrants, and I had a large extended family of great Italian cooks. One summer, my dad’s Aunt Molly arrived for a visit. We were excited to enjoy her amazing biscotti (which we still call, appropriately enough, Aunt Molly Cookies), home-made ravioli and her chocolate cake. She was a beautiful woman, very tall, and quite skilled in the kitchen. She headed out one day into our woods armed with a knife, and emerged with an arm-load of leafy greens—plants I had looked at my whole life with no idea what they were. They resembled rhubarb, but grew wild in the woods where I played. Aunt Molly called them cardoni; most would call them cardoon. She cut off the large leaves and cleaned the stringy stalks with a paring knife. I remember her dipping the stalks in egg and flour and then frying them in a pan until they were golden brown. We sprinkled salt on them and ate them as fast as she could make them. The flavor is unlike anything I have ever eaten in my life.
My whole life, I have been on a mission to find my childhood treat. I found seeds one spring—they are in the thistle family—and planted them in my garden. It was one of my first summers in the Deep South, and I was unprepared for the violent summer heat, and my cardoons did not survive. Recently, an international market opened here, and I have had a great time tasting all kinds of produce that hadn’t been available before. Imagine my surprise when I was shopping one day and saw cardones. The spelling was Spanish and they were cultivated in Mexico. They didn’t look like the cardoons of my childhood, which were much smaller, but I have since found there are many varieties. Of course I bought a large bunch and headed straight to the computer. Every article and recipe I found suggested soaking or cooking the cardoon in lemon juice to remove any bitterness, and then frying or cooking them in a gratin. I don’t remember the soaking step all those years ago, but Aunt Molly may very well have done this.
After cleaning the stalks with a paring knife, I peeled the largest of the fibers off the stalk, trimmed off any dark spots and cut the stalks into manageable 3-inch lengths. I soaked them in lemon juice for about four hours and then rinsed and dried them. I simply beat a few eggs and dipped the cardoon pieces in the egg, dredged them in flour and fried them in canola oil. Lots of salt is a must. Many people compare the flavor to artichokes, and they are in the same family, but I disagree. The flavor is unique. But sadly, my cardones weren’t exactly Aunt Molly’s Cardonis. They took me back to my childhood but were not as I remember. A trip to my small Iowa town is on the agenda for the summer, and while my kids are picking fresh sweet corn and nibbling mulberries, I will be wandering the woods looking for cardonis, just like Aunt Molly.