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Simplicity Itself

What kind of Darwinian funhouse trick is this? The blithe happy humans were just enjoying themselves too darn much to make time for procreation, is that it? Is the self-denigration mutation linked irrevocably to a heightened genetic immunity or something?

If you will be so kind as to indulge me in a quick flashback:

The time is crack of dawn, second Tuesday of July, 2003. I am due at my office in an hour for another in an endless series of early-morning meetings, for which I perform the vital duties of dais card setup, last-minute xeroxing, hysterical, high-heeled running up and down of hallways, and purposeful-looking standing around. This is all quite bad enough. But what is worse is that I have spent the previous three hours lying in bed, wide awake and bitch-slapping myself because I’d failed to make apple aspic.

Here I am with just over a month to go, fifty-eight recipes left, and instead of making the apple aspic like a responsible member of society, I wasted the whole night eating mashed potatoes and steamed broccoli and London broil. Yes, I made Champignons Sautés, Sauce Madère. Do you know what Champignons Sautés, Sauce Madère is? It’s beef stock simmered with carrots and celery and vermouth and bay leaf and thyme, then thickened with cornstarch; some quartered mushrooms browned in butter; and some Madeira cooked down in the skillet. Combine the brown sauce and the mushrooms and simmer. It’s horseshit, is what it is. I should just get that scarlet L branded on my chest now, because I’m a big LOSER. And then there’s Eric. “Maybe part of the Project is that you don’t finish everything.” Where has he been for the last eleven months? Doesn’t he get it? Doesn’t he understand that if I don’t get through the whole book in a year then this whole thing will have been a waste, that I’m going to spiral into mediocrity and despair and probably wind up on the street trading blow jobs for crack or something? He hates me, anyway. Look at him, curled over on his side of the bed like he doesn’t want to so much as touch me. It’s because I’ve got the stink of failure on me. I’m doomed. . . .

Ah, yes. Nothing like a good night’s sleep.

I shower a bit of the failure-stink off me and pull out my Big Important Meeting Suit. I haven’t had it on in a while, and so I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that I’ve gotten too busty to wear it. I’m gaining cup sizes like—well, like twenty pounds of butter-weight. I’m like the Lara Croft of food, only without the groovy outfits and exotic locales and sex appeal.

Though running late and busting out of the front of my suit and sweating like Nixon before seven in the morning, I hook up my laptop to scrawl out a blog entry and check my mailbox because what can I say? I’m an addict. I’ve gotten a note from an older gentleman who spent twenty-two years in the military in France, who feels the need to tell me, in no uncertain terms, that he thinks my project is, in essence, an unpatriotic glorification of Charles de Gaulle’s 1966 decision to withdraw France from NATO’s unified military command structure, and the resulting relocation of NATO headquarters from Paris to Brussels. Christ. As if I don’t get enough of this crazy-old-man, “pour-out-your-Bordeaux-and-call-your-fries-‘Freedom’” crap at the office.

The thing that makes me wonder if I just don’t have a knack for this happiness stuff is that this early-morning meltdown came right on the heels of one of my most impressive accomplishments. For the weekend before, we had had a blowout of tarts, a tart bender, tart madness—even, I dare say, a Tart-a-pa-looza, if you will forgive one final usage of the construction before we at last bury that cruelly beaten dead pop-culture horse. Tarte aux Pêches, Tarte aux Limettes, Tarte aux Poires, Tarte aux Cerises. Tarte aux Fromage Frais, both with and without Pruneaux. Tarte au Citron et aux Amandes, Tarte aux Poires à la Bourdaloue, and Tarte aux Fraises, which is not “Tart with Freshes,” as the name of the Tarte aux Fromage Frais (“Tart with Fresh Cheese,” of course) might suggest, but rather Tart with Strawberries, which was a fine little French lesson. (Why are strawberries, in particular, named for freshness? Why not blackberries? Or, say, river trout? I love playing amateur—not to say totally ignorant—etymologist. . . .)

I made two kinds of pastry in a kitchen so hot that, even with the aid of a food processor, the butter started melting before I could get it incorporated into the dough. Which work resulted in eight tart crusts, perhaps not paragons of the form, but good enough. I made eight fillings for my eight tart crusts. I creamed butter and broke eggs and beat batter until it formed “the ribbon.” I poached pears and cherries and plums in red wine. I baked and baked and baked and baked. I washed all the plates and coffee cups that had accrued a sticky black layer of industrial wasteland grit. I think I even washed myself, because we were having people over. And I did all this without throwing a single hysterical fit, while Eric stalked these damned flies that are everywhere all of a sudden, dozens of tiny flies.

A year ago, it was like pulling teeth getting people to come over to our house and eat. Now when I ask, they come. I don’t know why. I like to think people want to be involved in my grand social experiment, but I sniff a sense of narcissism there. We had a full house that night, and no one worried too much about the heat or eating too much; we laughed a lot and promoted our personal favorite tart. I made them sit down and watch some DVDs of JC’s shows, thinking I think that somehow I could convert them to the ineffable wisdom and rightness of her. From the polite, slightly mystified looks on their faces, and their occasional Dan Aykroyd jokes, I inferred that this didn’t work—wild-eyed proselytizing rarely does—so I soon switched JC out for some more accessible Season 3 Buffy.

Eric cheered my accomplishment with a hearty “That’s the way we do it in the L.I.C., bitch!” And indeed, it was a magnificent groaning board of tarts, more tarts than an army of Buffy fans could actually eat—though an army of Republican bureaucrats did a pretty good job with the leftovers, even eating what was left of my Tarte aux Cerises, Flambée that failed to flambé and as a result tasted excessively boozy. (I guess they have to get their intoxicants wherever they can—who can blame them?)

I’d made eight French tarts, any one of which would have done me in a year ago. I’d had a dozen people over to my apartment, where a year ago I’d have been lucky to tempt two. Julia would be proud of me, if she knew. Hell, she was proud of me. I knew this because for nearly eleven months Julia had resided in my brain, in those drafty, capacious, hopeful apartments where the ghost of Santa Claus still placidly rattled about, along with my watchfully dead grandmother, and reincarnation and magic and everything else that couldn’t survive out in the brighter hard highways of my mean metropolitan mind. She’d ensconced herself in there, so that now, though I couldn’t look at her straight on without her melting away, I believed that she was with me more than I believed that she wasn’t.

But on the morning after I failed to make the goddamned apple aspic, none of that seemed to matter.

“The End” is a tricky bugger, but if you wanted, you could define the beginning of the end as the point when the protagonist has to see that her actions mean something, and that if they don’t work out right, she is well and truly fucked. By this definition, the end was a long time in coming. And it might have started back in July, with a sleepless night and punishing thoughts about aspic.

It was August 19, 2003. I had six more days left, and I was making three icings for a single cake to take to my appearance on CNNfn. (Don’t ask why CNNfn was interested in me and my cakes—I cannot fathom it myself.) I’d figured that since here I was with exactly one week and twelve recipes to go, three of which were for icing, I’d go ahead and get all the icing out of the way at once, and ice a third of the cake with each one, Mercedes-logo style. It was making me a little crazy, or maybe I was going nuts because on the morning I was to appear live on national television, I had come down with a raging case of pinkeye.

I’d made the first icing, Crème au Beurre, Ménagère, which was a snap, and the second icing, Crème au Beurre, au Sucre Cuit, which would have been a snap, if only I could read. Although, in my defense, please take a look at these first two instructions:

1. Cream the butter until it is light and fluffy. Set aside.

2. Place the egg yolks in the bowl and beat a few seconds to blend thoroughly. Set aside.

What does that mean to you? To me, it means that what I did, two times, was: beat the butter until fluffy, then beat in the egg yolks. And when I moved on to the third step:

3. Boil the sugar and water in the saucepan, shaking pan frequently, until the sugar has reached the soft ball stage. . . . At once beat the boiling syrup in a stream of droplets into the egg yolks, using your wire whip.

Two times I wound up with an egg-yolk-and-fluffy-butter mixture studded and wire whip adorned with marble-sized globules of hardened sugar crystal. At first I blamed that whole “soft ball stage” part, “soft ball stages” being things I’ve long heard of but never truly believed in, like the Easter Bunny or, more aptly, the bogeyman. It wasn’t until the third read-through that I noticed the clue embedded in the Enigma code of the text:

. . . beat the boiling syrup in a stream of droplets into the EGG YOLKS . . .

The egg yolks and butter, don’t you mean, Julia? See, you say so yourself, in instruction #2: “Place the egg yolks in the bowl . . .” THE bowl, see? As in the bowl sitting here next to me with the beaten butter in it, no? Into which the egg yolks must be beaten. Is my logic not impeccable? Though in truth, “placing” the egg yolks does strike me as somehow the wrong way of putting it . . . and look over here to the left, at the list of necessary equipment . . . TWO 2 1/2-quart bowls. Not one. One for the butter. One for, just to make sure we’re on the same page here, the egg yolks.

Ah.

The third time, the Crème au Beurre, au Sucre Cuit worked like a charm.

So it was 9:45. I’d taken the morning off work to do this, because what were they going to do, fire me? I had to leave by eleven if I was to make my 11:30 makeup call; I’d made two icings with one more to go (plus actually slapping the icing on the cake, of course), and still needed to take a shower, since I thought I probably ought not appear on TV with globs of hardened sugar-lava in my hair, smelling like a dockworker. Plenty of time to check e-mails.

This was when I got Isabel’s announcement.

He asked me to MARRY him, and I said YES!

The ink on Isabel’s divorce papers was not yet dry.

. . . He asked me on a bridge overlooking the Weir—you must come and visit us, it’s so unbeLIEVably lovely here—because he wanted us to have a place we could always go to remember this and show OUR KIDS, and he gave me a ring he had made for me specially, and we’re going to be SO disgusting! Julie, I’ve got me my fairy-tale ending, and I don’t even BELIEVE in those!!!

My thoroughly rational first response was, “Oh, for Christ’s sake!”

My second reaction was to turn off the damned computer. There are times with your friends when you just have to put their whole mess out of your mind for a while. This is especially true of Isabel. What the hell was she thinking? She of all people should know that a goddamned marriage proposal—from a goddamned punk guitarist in Bath, no less—wasn’t the ending of anything, fairy tale or not. And how was I supposed to deal with her ruining her life when I had to ice a cake and take a shower and go on TV?

It wasn’t until midway through my second attempt on icing #3, Crème au Beurre, à l’Anglaise, that I had my third response.

Crème au Beurre, à l’Anglaise is based on Crème Anglaise, which is sort of a building block of French desserts, at least French desserts Julia writes about. So I had already made it a couple of times. I was still nervous, though, because it involves custard, which is in the jelling/thickening family of cooking. It’s just egg yolks blended with sugar and beaten together with hot milk, all cooked over very low heat until thick but not curdled. It’s then beaten in a bowl, over another bowl that’s got ice in it, until it cools nearly to room temperature, at which point you mix in a lot of butter. Which sounds simple, and I’m sure is, if you’re really solid on the difference between “thick” and “curdled,” but after doing this a dozen times in the last year I still wasn’t.

So the first time I didn’t cook it long enough, and nothing thickened and it was this whole big thing. It was after I’d thrown the first attempt away and was cooking the custard for the second time—stirring, staring into the pot trying to spot “thick”—that I found myself giggling, thinking about how I was making three cake icings before eleven in the morning, to ice a cake which I would then be taking with me onto a nationally broadcast financial news show. I was doing all of it with pinkeye and was getting out of my secretarial job to do it, which made it both the best day I’d have all week and an ending no one could have invented for my blog, or for me, a year ago. A perfect ending.

A fairy-tale one, even.

And it was only then that I had my third response to Isabel and her e-mail.

What was I, the woman with the plan? It was not exactly as if I told my friends and family, “Hey, I’m going to cook my way through an old French cookbook, and when it’s done, I’ll have figured out what to do with the rest of my life,” and they all just sat back with a sigh of relief, thinking, Well, I’m so glad Julie has got it all figured out. Sensible girl, that Julie.

Who was I to judge somebody else’s navigation? Was I some kind of existential backseat driver? I mean, who exactly did I think I was, anyway?

I was interviewed on CNNfn by three women anchors, all at once, all of them gobbling up my cake at the same time they were interrogating me, so that I didn’t get a single bite myself. It was disconcerting. One of the things they were really curious about was how much weight I’d gained. Which is kind of an insulting thing to be asked about on national television, but understandable, I suppose. It’s all about the “French Paradox,” that much-publicized puzzle of how French people eat all that fatty food and drink tons of wine, yet still manage to be svelte and sophisticated, not to mention cheese-eating surrender monkeys. Reasonable individuals quite naturally hope there’s a way to prove its existence scientifically, to the immense benefit of mankind, while dried-up, self-righteous fascists hope there’s a way to disprove its existence, so they can go on feeling superior with their good-war-fighting and/or raw food-eating ways. Everyone’s always looking for evidence, and I guess the Project is sort of a naturally occurring laboratory test.

But I would call the results inconclusive at best. Eric hasn’t gained anything at all, skinny bastard that he is, but while I have not bloated to a New Yorker’s Midwest-airport-nightmare proportions, neither would I call myself either svelte or sophisticated. We both have a persistent corset-shaped ache cinched around our torsos. There have been some other unsuspected side effects, but I’m not sure how they affect the hypothesis—I don’t believe the French are known worldwide for letting inch-thick layers of dust accumulate on every surface of their homes. I’ve also never heard that the French keep fleets of houseflies in their kitchens. And we already were cheese-eating surrender monkeys, so I guess we weren’t really the ideal test subjects on that count. Also, the tendency we had to eat four helpings of things and drink, in addition to wine, entirely too many gimlets, may have polluted the results somewhat. Julia had always preached moderation, but if there’s one thing this year has proven once and for all, it’s that I have no talent at all for that particular virtue. I’m more sympathetic to JC’s old runnin’ buddy Jacques Pepin on this: “Moderation in all things—including moderation.”

And then the CNNfn ladies didn’t give me my plate back. Which kind of pissed me off.

On the morning of the Sunday I was to serve the second-to-last meal of the Project, I began with Petits Chaussons au Roquefort, pastry turnovers with Roquefort cheese. The pastry was made the normal way, as I have made it perhaps three dozen times in the last year. The weather had taken a turn for the better, with a small injection of cool in the air, a small extraction of moisture, and this helped the pastry turn out, this penultimate time, perfectly.

While it was resting, I made the filling by mashing together a half pound of Roquefort, a stick of softened butter, two egg yolks, pepper, chives, and, oddly I thought, kirsch. Then I rolled out the dough. Moderate though the day was, preheating the oven had gotten the kitchen a little hot and bothered, so I had to work quickly. I cut the dough out into (roughly) two-and-a-half-inch squares, put a little dollop of filling in the middle, painted the edges with some beaten egg, and sealed them together with my fingers.

There was something about all this familiar work—the kneading and rolling and flouring, the Book beside me, Julia in my head chortling quietly to herself like a roosting pigeon in its cote. Something about all the checks on all these recipes on these 684 yellowed pages—519 black checks, five left to be made. It made me philosophical—or maybe just hungry. (I’d eaten nothing but what Roquefort filling I could suck off my fingers.) Anyway, as I was stuffing and sealing turnovers, I found myself considering the essential rights of Roquefort filling. I’d brought the filling into being, and now I was seeking to entrap it in a buttery pastry prison, though it was obvious from its evasive behavior that there is nothing Roquefort wants more than to be free. Was this not arrogance? Was it not, in essence, a slave-owning mentality, to be approaching this from the perspective of how best to trap the Roquefort filling, without consideration for the Roquefort’s fundamental desire for freedom?

I was getting a little dizzy.

In retrospect, of course, this can be recognized as the first sign of my imminent psychotic break.

I manage to get the turnovers made, though the pastry dough is getting sticky fast. Some of the turnovers are not pretty. I throw them in the oven anyway. My head’s spinning, I’ve got spots before my eyes—except they’re not spots. They’re flies. Hundreds of them.

They’re EVERYWHERE. While the turnovers bake I position myself in the middle of the kitchen like Gary Cooper with a flyswatter, my body like a coiled spring, ready to kill. But they are too fast for me, and too many. For every fly that falls fluttering to the floor, two more take its place. Discouraged, I turn to the dishes. This, too, is a loser’s game because, well, there are so fucking many of them, several days’ worth, and the water doesn’t want to drain in the sink, probably because of the accumulated sludge down there in the drain catch.

I take out the Roquefort turnovers. They look okay. I stuff one into my mouth, not realizing until I feel a tingling throb that starts in my mouth and travels ahead of the (searingly hot but actually quite delicious) masticated knob of Petits Chaussons au Roquefort down my throat into my stomach that I’m not just hungry, I’m
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