The Power of Good Rituals.

Yesterday I found myself attending to an age-old ritual that actually works, and I was thinking about how different my experience with it was from the ones I performed as a Christian.

It starts with bacon, as most wondrous things do in my world.

Assembling ingredients. (zenithe, CC-ND.)
Assembling ingredients. (zenithe, CC-ND.)

Cas & Julia.

There’s a special delight involved in cooking a Julia Child recipe–and that delight is what propelled an otherwise mawkish, ungainly middle-aged woman to superstardom in the 1960s when she introduced her techniques and ideas to a dazzled, weary world. She wasn’t that great a speaker and there was a certain impromptu feel to her shows, but genius leapt from her hands–and found its way easily into those of her fans.

Understand, America in the 1960s was a very divided one in terms of cuisine. Our country’s food history was never a perfect line, but in the 1950s that already-blurry line turned into a hopeless mess of squiggles and curlicues like little Jeffy’s paths. Shitty convenience and fast foods, bizarre “glamorizing” flourishes, sub-par shortcuts, and horrifying congealed “salads” lurked on one side of a hapless cook’s path.  Looming on the other side of that path were complex, demanding, fussy French recipes that took way longer than expected to cook, cost exorbitant amounts of money to buy ingredients for, and then after all that fuss and expense produced meals that were barely edible. Rising through the ranks were weird hippie foods: brown rice with stuff in it, carob chips, and fad diets, but nothing that regular everyday Americans wanted to mess with.

Faced with these unpalatable options, little wonder that expedience won the battle for American cooking. As women joined the workforce and stopped cooking from scratch, their daughters–and then their granddaughters–often never really started. Whether they could cook or not was not the question. Nor was their desire to cook a concern. Women might love to cook or hate to cook, they might know how to do it or have no idea in the world where to begin, but they still had to cook day in and day out, two or three or more meals a day. That day-to-day cooking was decidedly part of the canon of women’s work–that large body of daily had-to-get-done scutwork that fell to the wife or mother in a family. If a particular woman actually enjoyed the tasks involved then so much the better for her, but it still had to be done–and it would still be done by her. Feminism barely made a dent in that mountain of requirements.

By the time Julia Child rocketed onto the scene, most women had already eschewed the fussy French cooking that was the province of women who actually knew how to cook. I can look through my own vintage cookbooks and see the tasks narrowing over time down to the ones that simply had to be done for a dish to retain its character, while the ones viewed as time-consuming or extraneous vanished.

Women used to make stews by first browning the meat and vegetables in hot oil; by the 1960s, even if a cookbook still listed that browning process as a first step, most women skipped it–just tossing everything in a pot of water and having done with the mess. I checked many of my vintage cookbooks; most listed the browning but even the beginners’ cookbooks omitted any details that were essential to know to accomplish the goal. It was like they expected women to skip it, so they put in the most perfunctory reference to the step–like a vestigial organ whose original use was long forgotten.

In the same way, sauces could be easily (if imperfectly) obtained from cans and packets; most cookbooks offered tips to doctor these up to cut their tinny or overly-salty tastes. I’m not sure I could find a single woman now within ten miles of me who’s ever made a frosted layer cake or biscuits from scratch, now that boxed mixes and frozen pre-baked products produce fairly reliable (if chemical-laden and inferior) results.

Tellingly, one of the most popular “recipes” of the 1960s was what one author called “Sweep Steak,” which involved simply putting a big cut of beef into a tinfoil package in a pan, slathering it with powdered onion-soup mix from a packet, maybe pouring in some beef broth (or using a cube plus water), and then closing the tinfoil up tightly and baking the mess for a while. My mom made that all the time even in the 1970s. It made a palatable dinner with instant mashed potatoes, heat-n-serve rolls, and canned green beans.

In the middle of this muddle of resentment, lost time, inexperience, and misdirections, along came Julia Child saying of her nearly ritualistic style of cooking: NO, try this instead. It’ll take more time, but it’s way worth it. Please trust me on this. Yes, it looks weird. Do it anyway.

She’d won her knowledge the hard way, clawing her way to expertise from complete inexperience. Now she knew why cooking steps had to be done the way they did. She knew why this idea worked but that one didn’t. She wanted to share that knowledge with everyone she could.

And women listened to her–maybe just a few at first, but then in droves. Men, too, tuned in to the show and bought her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, encouraged by her very unisex approach to the show (she made sure to stress at every opportunity that she was aiming for everyone as a target audience, not just middle-class stay-at-home moms with time on their hands). Her recipes might be time-consuming but they seemed so fun to make and the results looked so luscious that people began to try them.

Slowly we learned as a country that maybe the reason we hadn’t liked French cooking before was that the recipes were written poorly and explained even more poorly. Julia Child came in to set the record straight–and we listened.

Falling Open.

When I discovered Julia Child’s cookbook in a used bookstore in an otherwise-dreary strip mall (the same one where I bought the giant pink recliner, actually), I noticed immediately that it fell open to the recipe for Boeuf Bourguignon (p. 314). It wasn’t stained or anything, but it was clear that some past owner of this book had had this one page open for a long time.

Since that exact mechanism is a time-honored one in Christianity–that of the Bible just magically falling open to a page containing a Bible verse that the god of the universe wanted to remind his follower of (ZOMG! IT’S A MEERKUL Y’ALL)–you can bet that my attention was held at that point. I bought the book.

This is a sort of stew with a rich, dark beefy gravy. It’s meant to be served on top of potatoes or noodles. It’s rich and complex-tasting enough that you probably don’t want to eat it right before bedtime unless you have an antacid on speed-dial. Of it Julia Child writes, “it is certainly one of the most delicious beef dishes concocted by man.” I’d agree fully.

Later on, when I saw the movie Julie & Julia I noticed immediately that at several points in the movie, the recipe is mentioned or shown being made. One of the recipe’s early steps involves carefully drying beef cubes with paper towels until they are as dry as can possibly be–which is another long-lost step in the making of stews. That’s how you can tell that Julia Child’s gotten to someone in the movie, in fact: they suddenly take the time to complete this otherwise cumbersome and ickie task, which itself is part of an unbelievably time-consuming recipe. That’s the step of faith into the empty crevasse. That’s the moment that a modern reader or viewer decides to try it Julia’s way even if they’re not totally sure why it works or that it even will.

If you’re not particularly certain about cooking, a Julia Child recipe may sound very intimidating–but I promise you that it isn’t. This is one of those dishes that looks complicated and tastes like it was made by a real live chef, but it’s so well laid-out and well-explained that I think anybody who can manage a frying pan can probably make this recipe happen.

The Boiling of the Bacon.

The first step involves slicing bacon into slim strips and then simmering them in water for a few minutes. Then, after the strips are drained and dried, they are fried to render out their fat. The cubes of beef and then the vegetables will be browned in that fat.

Now, the impulse is powerful to skip that step and just get to frying the bacon. And it’d probably taste okay in the end–maybe a bit smokier than it should, but it probably wouldn’t be horrible. But Julia Child says to boil the bacon first to cut some of that smoky taste. I thought, If I’m going to spend all this money on this much beef, I’ll do it the way she says to do it.

The first time I made the recipe all I could think about was that scene in the 1985 teen movie Better Off Dead:


“You said you didn’t like all the grease from fried bacon. So I boiled it.”

But it really isn’t that bad. Boiled bacon doesn’t look awesome–it’s limp and pale, not green and ickie. It fries just fine too.

As mentioned, the next step is one that most cooks also skip: the browning of the beef. Julia Child wants the meat cut up into 2″ cubes, then dried carefully and fried a little at a time–if it’s not perfectly dry or if the meat is crowded in the pot, the meat will steam rather than brown, it turns out. Then it turns grey instead of brown. That brown stuff is what you’re actually doing all this for, so you don’t want to risk losing it.

Browning the beef always takes a very long time, but I would never dream of omitting it. I know what a difference proper browning makes to a stew. Skip this, and you might as well just throw that beef into a tinfoil packet in the pot with onion-soup mix and bake it for four hours. Browning beef for this recipe feels almost dreamlike to me–and it’s a ritual I perform while I listen to podcasts in the background, sometimes with a cold beer next to me.

Once the beef is done, then we brown the cut-up carrot and onion that’ll be stewing with the beef. Then the whole mess is combined in the pot, salt and pepper and flour are added, and it’s roasted in the oven at 450 for a few minutes to get that flour nice and crusty. Halfway through that blast of heat, the meat must be briefly stirred.

Only then–possibly an hour and a half after starting the recipe–is the beef stock and wine and herbs and other such stuff added, and only then is the pot covered and stuck into the oven to bake for three or four hours.

It doesn’t look that inspiring as it goes into the oven, and the cut of beef one uses isn’t particularly tender really.

But in a few hours, alchemy happens.

All that prep work turns out a magnificent stew of beef so tender you could use a spoon to cut it, of beef gravy so thick it barely wobbles. In those hours away from human eyes, the vegetables and thin strips of bacon dissolve and everything darkens to a shade well past Coca-Cola brown. Three pounds of beef ought to net you about six servings of this delicious stuff (assuming you’re eating other stuff besides that).

(Jun Seita, CC.)
(Jun Seita, CC.)

A Trustworthy Leader.

I read cookbooks the way musicians read sheet music, or the way that Cypher read the Matrix on a screen. By now I can spot a cookbook that isn’t well-written. The recipes in a bad cookbook sometimes omit ingredients from the cooking steps, or don’t specify varieties of butter or milk requested, or leave out cooking times. A cookbook that advises you to brown anything in butter at low heat is one you should avoid (you need very high temperatures to brown meat, as mentioned, and butter will scorch long before it reaches that point).

But back when I was learning to cook, I didn’t know what a good recipe looked like. I put my trust into recipe writers who didn’t actually know how to cook, then blamed myself for the lackluster results–as a lot of women have ever since the 1950s. It didn’t occur to me that the techniques and recipes I was learning might not actually be trustworthy.

Once I actually discovered some guides who could lead me well and responsibly, I clung to them and never looked back. Julia Child is one of those guides, though there are others, of course (Cooks Illustrated will never, ever steer you wrong).

When I was Christian, I put my faith similarly into guides and teachings that could not actually get me the results I was promised. These guides were using systems that were categorically not ever going to work, but I didn’t realize that. I kept trying to put those teachings into action in my life and kept failing miserably at even being a decent human being–let alone a superior one to all those unsaved heathens around me. And when I failed yet again, I blamed myself for the failure, not the system, not the unreliable and hypocritical guides, not the unsound teachings masquerading as fundagelical doctrines. I’d keep performing the rituals prescribed, always failing, never understanding why.

Rituals aren’t a bad thing in and of themselves, though. Sometimes if we don’t understand totally how to do something, simply following directions will get us where we need to be. I happen to like knowing why something works, but even I accept that sometimes a recipe (like this one, OMG) will sound so out-there that I totally don’t understand why the hell I’m doing this or that. If I haven’t ever been let down before by my guide, then I’m willing to travel along for a little while to see how those steps translate into that photo in the cookbook–even if the first step involves boiling bacon.

Gauging the effectiveness of a recipe–or a life teaching for that matter–comes down to being able to compare the promised results with what I’m getting, accurately evaluating how well I executed the recipe, and then ensuring that I’ve done everything a reasonable person could be expected to do to fulfill those instructions.* If the answers to those three evaluations are “it doesn’t, I did fine, and I sure did,” then there’s a very good chance that the recipe is the problem, not me.

I couldn’t do any of that as a Christian, and I see a lot of Christians today who can’t. But I can now, which is why it’s probably no coincidence that I’m a way better cook now than I was then–and an ex-Christian.

There are now actual Julia Day celebrations--and unsurprisingly, they serve Boeuf Bourguignon at their functions! (Roland Tanglao, CC.)
There are now Julia Child celebrations (called Bonne Fete Julia)–and unsurprisingly, they served Boeuf Bourguignon at the function in this photo! (Roland Tanglao, CC.)

* It’s kinda cringeworthy to see someone give a recipe a super-low rating after describing their own complete bastardization of that recipe. I once saw someone criticize a basic blueberry muffin recipe after changing it to gluten-free flour, using totally different fruit and liquid in it, baking it in a totally different pan with a wood fire, and then probably stomping on it and setting it on fire, I don’t know. There comes a certain point when you’ve changed a recipe so much you can’t really say what the original would have been like.

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