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^ . . . To Make an Omelette

Why don’t you just call someone to take the damned thing away?”

I was sitting in the living room with my right ankle—swollen to twice its usual circumference and turning an unsettling shade of yellowish-green—propped up on an ottoman. Eric was in the kitchen, getting me some ice; Heathcliff was standing over me with his arms crossed.

“I told Sally she could have it. She’s going through a rough patch.”

“Yeah, well, you can’t get into your apartment without major injury. I’d say that’s pretty rough.”

I shrugged.

“Now who was it she broke up with? A David?”

“Of course.”

In the ten years I have known her, Sally has dated at least a dozen Davids. It’s kind of creepy.

Eric came out of the kitchen with some ice in a Ziploc freezer bag. “What do you want me to do about dinner?”

“I’ll cook. I’ve got the artichokes to do. Anyway, I’m really behind.”

“You shouldn’t be putting weight on that foot. Hold the ice on.”

But I was already getting up and hopping back toward the kitchen. “I only did six recipes last week. And the week before that with the folks in town I didn’t do any at all. My readers need me!

I had meant that last to be construed as a joke, even though it wasn’t, really. Eric was having none of it. “Your readers? Come on, Julie.”

“What?”

“I think the dozen people who click onto your Web site while they take their coffee breaks will manage to carry on if they don’t get to read about you sautéing thorny vegetables in butter for one more day.”

“Oh, fuck off.”

Eric and I glared at one another with a poisonous good humor meant to suggest this whole argument thing was just a big loving put-on. Heathcliff smirked, eyes sliding between us, taken in not at all.

My brother has house-sat for a mobster in Crete. He’s been mugged by policemen in Hungary. He’s chewed coca leaves offered to him by a waiter in Peru. He left an island off the coast of Sicily once because he was the only redhead the people there had ever seen, and the old ladies kept crossing themselves whenever they saw him. What’s more, the woman he lives with off and on, when he isn’t getting his wallet stolen in Budapest or herding goats in Italy or selling soap in New York, is the kind of person who can just decide of an evening to whip up an apple pie from scratch. Together they make ice cream for the pie by putting milk and cream and sugar and vanilla in a coffee can set inside an old potato chip tin filled with ice, then sitting catty-corner on their kitchen floor and rolling the tin back and forth between them. Clearly, he’s got laid-back domestic bliss down just as pat as brave adventuresomeness.

When I snap at Eric in front of Heathcliff, then, it’s a humiliating acknowledgment of my relative failure on both these fronts. But it’s not only that. It’s also a searing reminder that I will inevitably turn out just like my mother, either a martyr or a nag or irrational or just grumpy about my bad joints. Hopping around the kitchen on a swollen ankle while bitching meanly at a spouse, for example, is exactly something my mother would do. I would have soothed the irritation provoked by this realization with a healthy vodka tonic if only Eric hadn’t dropped the bottle of Stoli he’d bought on the way home on the subway platform, smashing it. Getting mad about that would be another very Mom-like thing to do, so I just gritted my teeth and set about preparing the very strange meal I’d planned for the night, Omelettes Gratinées à la Tomate and Quartiers de Fonds d’Artichauts au Beurre—tomato-filled omelettes gratinéed with cream and cheese, and artichoke hearts, quartered and buttered.

Chris—the one who wrote the halfway creepy thing about missing me so much when I didn’t post and thinking I was dead—found it mind-boggling that before the Julie/Julia Project began, I had never eaten an egg. She asked, “How can you have gotten through life without eating a single egg? How is that POSSIBLE???!!!!!”

Of course, it wasn’t exactly true that I hadn’t eaten an egg. I had eaten them in cakes. I had even eaten them scrambled once or twice, albeit in the Texas fashion, with jalapenos and a pound of cheese. But the goal of my egg-eating had always been to make sure the egg did not look, smell, or taste anything like one, and as a result my history in this department was, I suppose, unusual. Chris wasn’t the only person shocked. People I’d never heard of chimed in with their awe and dismay. I didn’t really get it. Surely this is not such a bizarre hang-up as hating, say, croutons, like certain spouses I could name.

Luckily, eggs made the Julia Child way often taste like cream sauce. Take Oeufs en Cocotte, for example.These are eggs baked with some butter and cream in ramekins set in a shallow pan of water. They are tremendous. In fact the only thing better than Oeufs en Cocotte is Oeufs en Cocotte with Sauce au Cari on top when you’ve woken up with a killer hangover, after one of those nights when somebody decided at midnight to buy a pack of cigarettes after all, and the girls wind up smoking and drinking and dancing around the living room to the music the boy is downloading from iTunes onto his new, ludicrously hip and stylish G3 PowerBook until three in the morning. On mornings like this, Oeufs en Cocotte with Sauce au Cari, a cup of coffee, and an enormous glass of water is like a meal fed to you by the veiled daughters of a wandering Bedouin tribe after one of their number comes upon you splayed out in the sands of the endless deserts of Araby, moments from death—it’s that good.

Still, I think it was the omelette section that really turned me around on eggs.

The diagrams in MtAoFC are always exciting. You can pretend you’re mastering something really daunting, like lithography or cold fusion or something. Or maybe there’s another analogy in here somewhere:

Grasp the handle of the pan with both hands, thumbs on top, and immediately begin jerking the pan vigorously and roughly toward you at an even, 20-degree angle over the heat, one jerk per second.

It is the sharp pull of the pan toward you which throws the eggs against the lip of the pan, then back over its bottom surface. You must have the courage to be rough or the eggs will not loosen themselves from the bottom of the pan. After several jerks, the eggs will begin to thicken.

It’s not just me, is it? Surely you too think immediately of some ancient and probably very painful Japanese sex practice you vaguely remember reading about when you were in college?

Okay, maybe it’s just me.

JC writes, “A simple-minded but perfect way to master the movement is to practice outdoors with half a cupful of dried beans.” I can just picture her chortling to herself as she wrote this, thinking of all those early-sixties American housewives in their sweater sets and Mary Tyler Moore flip hairdos scattering beans all over their manicured lawns. Because simple-minded is my middle name, I followed her advice, only instead of a lawn, my pinto beans got scattered all over the grimy sidewalks of Jackson Avenue. Drivers of semis honked at me; prostitutes stared. A minivan from Virginia pulled up in front of me. The driver, seeing that she had spotted someone of good sense and breeding in the person of Julie throwing beans out of a pan onto the sidewalk, asked me for directions to New Jersey.

“Lady, you are hell and gone from fucking New Jersey.”

My manners are not always the best, I’ll admit, and unsuccessfully flipping dried beans in a skillet in front of God and everybody does not do much to improve them.

(When I write about this incident, my high school boyfriend Henry, who I broke up with to go out with Eric, and who didn’t really forgive me for that for about ten years, writes, “Now your neighborhood has a crazy bean lady. That is so cool. . . .” Also, somebody I don’t know from Adam takes the trouble to lament the fact that I use the word f**king so much; people who object to my choice of language always use lots of asterisks.)

Accomplishing this technique with actual eggs can make you feel quite giddy—it’s like managing to tie a cherry stem into a knot with your tongue. The first time I managed it—sort of, anyway—was on a Sunday morning, for Eric and his friend from work, Tori. I didn’t know Tori all that well—she was an artist, she spent her days in an office with my husband, and she was pretty. For all I knew she could tie cherry stems into perfect bows with her tongue and flip omelettes like a whirling dervish to boot. So I was a little nervous.

When cooking omelettes the Julia way, everything goes so fast. It’s just silly to try to decipher the drawings and their captions—which besides being generally intimidating are also written for the right-handed among us, necessitating some synapse-switching on my part—while actually cooking. I couldn’t get the first one to flip at all; it just crumpled against the far lip of the pan, cracking up some at the stress points. But once I flipped it onto a plate it sort of covered up the filling—mushrooms cooked down with cream and Madeira, good, good stuff—and looked more or less like something one might call an omelette. So that one I decided to call a qualified success. The second, though, could not qualify as a success under any circumstances; first it stuck, and then when I flipped harder, the eggs sloshed all over the stovetop. Another flip sent a large portion of the semicongealed thing to the floor. I gave up, flipped its raggedy ass onto a plate, and called it mine. On the third, with increasingly terrified jerking motions, I managed to get a start on the rolling thing Julia describes, a bit. I managed not to spill anything more onto the stovetop, at least, and it stayed in one piece. I guess you can’t ask for any more than that. We ate our omelettes roulées with some prosecco Tori brought. I do love an excuse to drink before noon.

Anyway, by the time I limped into the kitchen to make a dinner of artichoke hearts and tomato omelettes for my husband, my brother, and me, I’d gotten pretty comfortable with the whole egg-flipping thing. The omelettes came out more or less omelette-looking, no harm done to the stovetop, and soon enough dinner was served. All should have been well, but somewhere along the way, with the lack of liquor and the embarrassing marital bickering, I’d gotten my hackles up, I guess.

Sally’s couch was what started it. Discussion of why it was still teetering in the foyer had led naturally enough to talk of her love life, always an interesting conversation.

“It’s not like the guy’s some great catch. He’s cute, I guess—if you like the type.” Sally’s type is muscular, loud, handsome, funny, and arrogant; mine is thin, quiet, dark, funny, and shy. In our years of friendship we have never once been attracted to the same man. “But he’s a total fraud. He basically told her that she had to apply and go with him to Oxford so he wouldn’t be ashamed of her. Him, ashamed of her. That ass isn’t worthy to lick her Manolos.” Sally was the only person I knew who actually owned Manolos—she’d bought them on eBay, and they made her feel deliciously sexy. And when Sally felt deliciously sexy, every man within a three-block radius thought her deliciously sexy as well—it was like a pheromone thing, she couldn’t help it.

Heathcliff poked at his artichokes somewhat warily, as if they might still have some fight in them. But while it’s true that when you attack artichokes, artichokes can fight back, the benefits of evolution had not saved these particular specimens—sprained ankle or no, I had been more than a match for them. I’d broken off their stems and snapped off their leaves, sliced and pared them down to tender yellow disks with spiky purple centers like tropical flowers, floating in a bowl of water doused with vinegar to keep their color up, simmered them, and mercilessly scooped out those tough, colorful petals, the artichokes’ last defense, until they were nothing more than accommodating delivery systems for butter. “So if he was such an asshole, what’s the problem?”

“The problem is, she wants somebody. Or thinks she does. If she doesn’t want to hear that she keeps picking assholes, what am I supposed to say?”

I’ve been with Eric the entire time I’ve known Sally, and in all this time Sally has never dated a boy for more than six months. This is a state of affairs that cuts both ways. Sometimes she’ll present us with a flurry of boys all at once: Cuban food with one on Wednesday, a Ben Stiller movie with another on Friday, brunch on Sunday with a third, the two of them freshly showered and flushed from one last morning round. She’ll have a cheerful, leering glint in her eye, and when the boy gets up to use the restroom, she’ll lean across the table with a grin and whisper, “What do you think? He’s cute, isn’t he?” These periodic springtimes of Sally’s erotic life can sometimes knock me for a loop. One thing that must be said about marrying your high school sweetheart is, one does rather miss out on the polyamorous lifestyle. But it’s always a kick seeing Sally so confident, proud, with these guys’ dicks in one hand, the world on a string in the other.

But then some high school friend gets pregnant, or Sally’s mother gives her insufferably well-adjusted little sister who’s getting married a homemade family cookbook of well-loved recipes, then refuses to give one to Sally because “It’s only for the wives in the family.” Then Sally starts bringing only one boy around, one of the original three or another one altogether, and this time there’s a slightly desperate appeal in her eye, and when she asks, “He’s cute, isn’t he?” it’s more like a plea for reassurance than a prideful acknowledgment of her catch. She starts asking other leading questions: “You know,” she’ll say, her eyes wide with worry, “he only wants to have sex like three times a week. That’s a bad sign, right?” Or she might just say, “What do you think I should do?”

Sally’s looking for my usual “married friend” advice: “Relationships have ups and downs,” “stay the course,” etc. But I don’t want to give it. I usually don’t like the guy, anyway, and I don’t like who Sally is when she asks me. What I like, when it comes down to it, is the gleeful, sex-crazed, willfully neurotic Sally. The Sally who doesn’t care about being married like her dull sister, who knows that not one of the boys she brings over for us to meet is one whit good enough for her—not smart enough, not kind enough, with no gift to match her percolating laugh, her voice that can spread its champagne bubbles throughout a room of strangers.

Eric skated his last artichoke quarter heartily around on the plate he had balanced on my swelling foot—which in turn was resting on his lap—sopping up the last bits of melted butter. “It’s not like Sally’s some kind of saint.”

Just as he plopped the last khaki green, dripping triangle into his mouth I smacked him, hard, on the shoulder; quite a trick, since I had to reach across the entire length of my outstretched leg to do it. “Don’t be a jerk.”

“Come on. You know I love Sally. But she’s—prickly.

It’s true that none of my girlfriends are much for compliance. Gwen once got into an actual fistfight on the subway after telling a bunch of squealing high school girls to shut the hell up. (One of the girls gave her a scratch across the cheek from her three-inch fake nails—it didn’t heal for weeks.) Isabel’s singularly raucous baby voice and willfully obscure sense of humor have been known to actually make men break out in hives. And Sally is the most challenging of all of them. If she were a movie star, she’d be Rosalind Russell in His Girl Friday; if she were a vegetable, she’d be an artichoke. As it is, she’s Sally, tough cookie extraordinaire and a hell of a person to try to set up on a blind date.

“You know,” added Heathcliff, “maybe Sally just isn’t the marrying kind. Ow! What?”

Maybe if the men in my life weren’t always making smart-ass comments, they wouldn’t have to worry about bruises so much.

When we were kids, Heathcliff used to have a toy, a twisty piece of blown glass with two bulbs on either end, connected by a twining bit of pipe. It looked rather like some kitchen gadget Julia might have picked up on her travels abroad, except that it was filled with a mysterious red liquid. The idea was that you held the bulb with the liquid in it in your palm, and the heat from your body would be enough to make it boil up to the other bulb. Only it didn’t work for me. When I held the empty bulb, the red liquid in the other bulb seemed to be pulled back to my palm, as if whichever law of physics or chemistry made this toy work didn’t apply to me. This was just one of many ominous clues to the puzzle of What Kind of Freak Was I, Anyway? Another was the way I lost things—car keys, eyeglasses, retainers, twenty-dollar bills—at a rate that went way beyond plain flightiness, into the paranormal realm. Or how later, when I was a teenager, driving home alone after some late sexually fraught night out, I’d burn out the streetlights—they’d extinguish in front of me as I drove down the highway, one after another after another.

When I started cooking, in college, I quickly learned that I possess an eerie inability to make anything that requires setting, fermenting, jelling or rising. Bread, mayonnaise, vodka Jell-O shots, it doesn’t matter. If a liquid and a solid are meant to mix together and become something else, something airy or puffy or creamy, I’m hopeless.

Also, I kill every plant I touch.

I didn’t read comic books growing up, and so didn’t know about the X-Men until Eric explained them to me as an adult. If I had, I would have realized much sooner that I’m a mutant—I’m thinking something like Magneto crossed with Rogue, with a bit of Lucille Ball mixed in. Perhaps it’s all connected somehow to my hormonal trouble—the unwelcome genetic gift that is one more thing my perfect brother, being male, will never have to worry over. That gift worth a fortune to the electrolysis technician and someday, I assume, to the obstetrician who’ll be writing up the scrips for the drugs I’ll need to use to get pregnant, if indeed I’ll be able to get pregnant at all. The shock of panic that shoots through me when I think about this proves that (a) there is such a thing as a biological clock, (b) I have one, and (c) it’s ticking.

All my life, it has been as if tiny explosions were going off all around me, small revolutions, conspirators in my own body setting off booby traps. So when Heathcliff spoke the words “not the marrying kind,” I recognized the rumble of the bomb it set off deep in the underground garage of my gut.

“What does that even mean? ‘Not the marrying kind’?”

Heathcliff and Eric were now both rubbing their sore arms. “What’s so bad about that? Marriage isn’t for everybody!”

Of course not. Marriage is no more for everyone than heterosexuality or French cooking. But the queasy spasm that tore through me when he said it was real, and it didn’t go away.

“You’re not just born one way or the other.”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe you are.”

Heathcliff has never been short on women, much like Sally’s never been short on men, yet he has always remained essentially a bachelor. He lives lightly on the land, has few possessions, keeps a distance—a kind of redheaded Last of the Mohicans. Usually it doesn’t bother me.

“So, what, you think you’re beyond the whole marriage thing?”

“What?” He raised his eyebrows, sardonically baffled as only Heathcliff can manage.

“Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Like you’re better than me, that’s what like.” Suddenly, my blood was pounding in my ears, and I realized I was getting ready to say something I would regret. I was going to Tell.

When I was in fourth grade and Heathcliff was in first our parents separated. Our father went to live in some condo in far south Austin, and for most of a year we’d see him only twice a week—once when he came to take us out for burgers and video games, and once when he picked up our mother for their marriage counseling sessions. They worked it out, and Dad moved back in, and everyone lived happily, if occasionally grouchily and resentfully, ever after. All of this was old family history. But there was one thing I knew that Heathcliff didn’t.

It happened in Dad’s ZX. My father was driving, my mother was in the passenger seat, I was in the back, and my mother was crying.

“Are you okay, Mommy?” I asked.

“No, honey, I’m not okay.”

“Does your head hurt?” (Mom had sinus trouble—her head often hurt.)

“No. My heart hurts.”

This was new. “Why does your heart hurt?”

“Because your father is in love with another woman!”

My mom and I have always shared a gift for the cutting melodramatic statement; I was dimly aware even in the dreadful moment that I had just backed her up on a hell of an alley oop. Even as I began to sniffle in the backseat, somewhere deep I thought to memorize those lines—I knew the value of a good sob story.

The whole thing was so exciting and dramatic that it wasn’t until days later that the knowledge of this Other Woman began to weigh on me. But once it did, it only got heavier and heavier. I started staring at women at the mall or on the street, wondering if one was Her. I began to get tired easily. The circles under my eyes got so bad that teachers would send me home from school (although, to be honest, I might have been taking some advantage here of my inherited histrionic streak). When my mother asked me please, please, please not to tell what I knew to Heathcliff, I promised. Why spread this kind of misery around?

Well, apparently the promise stuck, because when I finally broke it that night over our artichokes and tomato omelettes—blurting out to Heathcliff, as if in revenge, that when he was in first grade his father had slept with another woman, and that his parents stayed together anyway, not because they were “the marrying kind,” but because they worked like hell and loved each other more than they’d hurt each other—I began to shake, and a lump of dread, small but heavier than iron, threatened to close up my throat entirely, as if my body judged choking to death a better fate than telling a secret.

What did I think? That upon the instant of breaking my silence, my brother would transform into the six-year-old I had to protect, crouched in his pajamas by my parents’ bottle-green glass coffee table, his bright hair still damp from his bath, his face crumpling into uncomprehending tears?

Well, he didn’t. Instead, he took another bite of omelette. “I didn’t know that,” he said. He stuck a fork into his final bit of egg, smearing it around the plate to get at the last of the sauce. “But it only makes sense, doesn’t it? It all turned out okay, so I guess it doesn’t matter.”

He burped. “I thought omelettes for dinner was a weird idea, but that was pretty good.”

And that was that. I’d broken faith, failed to keep perhaps the only real secret I had ever been trusted with. And the ground did not swallow me up. It turned out, in fact, to be no big deal. I didn’t know whether to be relieved or disappointed.

There is an entire chapter in MtAoFC devoted to the preparation of eggs. But in cooking my way through it, I found myself ravenously curious about something of which there was no mention: Julia’s first egg. I mean, surely she didn’t just start off blithely jerking off perfect omelettes at birth, right? Surely even the great JC required some practice. So what was Julia’s first egg like? Was it scrambled—a traditional choice? Was it an Easter egg she boiled herself, to tide her over until the big ham dinner? Or was she older when she cooked her first egg, a young woman, embarrassed to tell anyone she’d never acquired the skill, trying to make a dozen eggs Benedict in her first New York apartment and winding up throwing out half a dozen spoiled poached eggs while her roommates’ backs were turned?

Could she even have married before she mastered the egg? Julia married late, at thirty-five; perhaps she had wondered for a time if she was the marrying kind. That night, while Eric washed dishes and Heathcliff ate Ben & Jerry’s straight out of the carton and I recovered from the discovery that revealing a decades-old secret was no biggie, really, I wondered if that could be. For some reason it comforted me to think of Julia’s first egg as happening in her garret apartment in Paris, as she spun around in her cocoon, about to hatch as the new Julia, the Julia she was meant to become.

^ DAY 42, RECIPE 53 | DAY 82, RECIPE 95
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