Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Anti-Julia

This month, The Typical Book Group is reading My Berlin Kitchen by Luisa Weiss.  Luisa describes herself as someone with a US passport and Italian citizenship, who lives in Berlin.  In fact, she was living in West Berlin while the wall was still standing, when her parents divorced.  Her father, an American, moved back to Boston with Luisa, while her mom stayed in Germany.  Luisa became a person divided, shuttling between the US, Germany, and her mother's family in Italy.  So, she did what any reasonable person would do after graduating from college, and moved to Paris.

Luisa first became known to the world as a cooking blogger.  She has a blog still, called "TheWednesdayChef", which you can get to by clicking on those words.  Knowing her history, I was expecting MBK to be a sort of Julie and Julia meets Eat Pray Love.  In Julie and Julia, a young woman living in New York, Julia Powell, tries to cook every dish in Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in a tiny kitchen in 2002, and she blogs about her results.  In Eat Pray Love, a young travel writer, Elizabeth Gilbert, tries to recover from her divorce by travelling to Italy, India, and Indonesia.  The Typical Book Group has read both of these memoirs, and MBK seemed like it might be the perfect combination of the two, with a woman traveling the world, and giving us recipes.

In the early pages of MBK, I was really hooked.  I know a young woman who is living in Paris now, and blogging about it at La Jeune Fille Au Pair.  When I read the chapter called "Depression Stew", I couldn't decide if I should photocopy and mail that chapter to The Young Au Pair right away (so she would get real mail!) or if I should wait to finish the book and mail her the whole thing.  But before I sent it, I would, of course, photocopy the delicious recipes, like the Omelette Confiture and the Tomato Sauce with Carrots and Onions.  I was even excited to give the Sour Cherry Quarkauflauf a try, since Luisa told me where I could find Quark.  But then, Luisa turned into The Anti-Julia.

In the 1950s and 60s, when Julia Child was writing her masterpiece, she had a problem.  She was living in Paris, and writing a cookbook for busy American women.  She wanted to be sure that the recipes that she included would work in the US and that her readers would be able to find her ingredients.  She also wanted to try to make French cooking simple, even fool proof, so that American women could feel confident giving it a try.  Enter Avis DeVoto.  Avis lived in America, and Julia could ask her about the availability of ingredients, differences in appliances, and the utensils and equipment that she should expect an American woman to own. 

I first realized that Luisa was not following in Julia's footsteps when I read the recipe for Poppy Seed Whiligig Buns.  In the introduction, Luisa assures me that "they're actually quite simple to make", but then she tells me, twice, that I should eat these buns the morning that they are made.  Well of course, right?  But then I read the recipe.  It requires me to let the dough rise for an hour, mix in some more ingredients then freeze it for an hour, let it rise for another 45 minutes, and then bake it for 30 minutes.  So, by my calculations, if I am going to eat these buns the same day that I make them, I either have to get up at 4 am, or eat breakfast for dinner.

I should have realized that Luisa had something up her sleeve when she insisted that I use a "spotlessly clean" bowl for the Quarkauflauf.  Spotlessly clean.  Why would she think that my bowls aren't spotlessly clean?  Are my bowls spotlessly clean?  How does one get a bowl spotlessly clean anyway?  And then she insisted (in several recipes) that I use organic lemons.  Not organic milk, not organic eggs, not organic berries, but the lemons must be organic.  Huh.  Has she had bad experiences with genetically modified citrus?

Then we come to the Elderflower Syrup.  When a recipe begins by telling me that the greatest challenge may be finding the main ingredient, and suggests that I should try looking "in the wild" in the Pacific Northwest or mid-Atlantic region, I can be pretty sure that I will never try that recipe.  Julia Child was so concerned that American women wouldn't be able to find the proper ingredients that she changed some of her recipes.  Luisa, on the other hand, tells us to go look outside.  In another state.  Really?  Once I find the elderflowers (20-25 large sprays), I should combine them with some other ingredients in my 5 quart earthenware crock.  Could I borrow yours?

While there are other examples that I could give of recipes with obscure ingredients, there are also lots that I want to try.  I will definitely make the Tomato Bread Soup, using Jim Lahey's No-Knead Bread recipe, as Luisa recommends.  I also need to make the Meatballs in Tomato-Chipotle Sauce.  My husband is always anxious to go over to one of our neighbor's houses during football games, since she makes meatballs just for him.  Now I can compete!  Of course, my neighbor is in The Typical Book Group, so she read this one too, but maybe she'll get frustrated by the elderflowers, skip a few chapters, and miss it.  And finally, I can't wait to try the Apple Tart.  I've made The Pioneer Woman's version, which she calls a "flat apple pie", a bunch of times, but it's never turned out for me.  Hopefully Luisa has the trick.

As for the story, it is a good one, and I might have even read it without the recipes!  Luisa  lives an interesting life with her nontraditional family and her lost and found love life.  She also acts as an unofficial ambassador to Berlin, making it sound like we all should go, if only for the elderflowers.  I am adding a link to Luisa's blog to the column to the right, so we can check in and see what she is up to.  It looks good to me!

Next up:  Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter

Still Listening to:  Caleb's Crossing by Geraldine Brooks

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