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Letter from Ireland: The spirit of Julia Child at Ballymaloe Cookery School

Chef Darina Allen demonstrates Julia Child's recipe for tarte tatin.

There’s a sense of the reality of Julia Child at Ballymaloe Cookery School, and then there is a sense of her spirit.

Both reality and spirit are embodied by Chefs Myrtle Allen and Darina Allen (Myrtle’s daughter-in-law), founders of the renowned Ballymaloe House and restaurant and the Ballymaloe Cookery School in Shanagarry, Ireland.

Myrtle Allen is more of Julia’s generation. She and Julia share common histories as pioneering women and authors in their countries’ culinary history, and both are grounded firmly in classical French cooking technique, adapted in their own ways to suit and appeal to their local cultures and ingredients.

Darina is like Julia as well, post-publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. That is, she is her country’s culinary celebrity, generous with time and energy, and involved the way sincere representatives are for their endeavors. With Julia, the endeavor was to bring the pleasures of French cooking and eating to the American public; for Darina, it is training new generations of cooks and shepherding micro-produced ingredients and products to the marketplace.

Both streams, one more historical and one more of-the-moment, merge this week at Ballymaloe Cookery School where Darina hosts a two-and-a-half-day course called “Homage to Julia Child.” Mornings, the students are devoted to executing recipes in Ballymaloe’s three student kitchens, while afternoons are full of cooking demonstrations led by Darina and her brother, Rory O’Connell, an accomplished educator and chef in his own right.

The historical reality of Julia’s recipes is evident, from the duck en croute to the tarte tatin, but it is their spirit that is executed here. That is, the recipes that are demonstrated and prepared are “shorthand” versions of Julia’s meticulous, multipage originals. The recipes are no less successful for the abbreviations, as they have been mainstays of the restaurant at Ballymaloe and at the Cookery School for decades.

And that perhaps is the most salient lesson from this course so far: success through repetition and a firm grounding in technique. Add healthy doses of humor and camaraderie along the way and your satisfaction – not to mention an exceptionally delicious meal – is secure.

Julia would have approved.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.


Book review: Cleaving by Julie Powell, sequel to Julie & Julia, has plenty of spice

Meat on display, and as a metaphor for life, in Cleaving by Julie Powell.

Julie Powell must certainly have considered cooking her way through volume two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking as the follow-up sequel to her wildly successful Julie & Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously.

Some writers would have done just that. It would have been a predictable next move, maybe, but one that came with a fair guarantee of readership by the legions of Julia Child fans – many of whom have been Child devotees since WGBH’s groundbreaking cooking series, The French Chef.

But instead of cooking her way through Mastering (Volume Two), Powell apprenticed herself at a butcher shop in upstate New York. It was a bold, creative, and decidedly unpredictable move, and I applauded her courage and lack of orthodoxy. Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession was my book club’s March’s pick, and we met last week at Cornerstone Bookstore in Salem to discuss it in detail.

I was, I rush to say, keen to discuss Powell’s descriptions of dismembering steer and disemboweling pigs with the group, fellow food lovers all. But, if speaking honestly, it must be said that we all were more interested in what else Powell writes about.

What else she writes about is sex.

In Cleaving, Powell writes candidly and in detail about her highly charged affair with “D.” She writes about her troubled marriage in a tone that oscillates between indifference and agony. She writes revealingly about the emotional and psychological troubles of a life she complicates to the extreme.

It was a racier book than anyone in our group had anticipated. What it had to do with Julia Child – the reason at least some of us voted to read the book in the first place – was tangential at best. And as discussion within the group began, thoughts of Julia or, indeed, of butchery in general, fell quickly by the wayside.

There was a little of this at the start: “I was amazed by what it takes to cut meat.” And this: “I liked the parts where she went to other countries and connected with people over the meat.”

But the tempo of the conversation picked up considerably when we turned inevitably to the subject of sex.

“I read the whole thing,” one member volunteered immediately.

“I finished it ahead of time,” said another.

“She hooked me right at the beginning,” said a third.

Sex manages to strike those chords. Not that we spent much time on the specifics of the acts, but we did delve into what the acts meant and how we related to them.

One woman related, with startling clarity, the merits of “a love that hurts.” Another zoomed into page 22, where Powell describes her grandmother’s lifelong feeling of pointlessness, something that was passed down from generation to generation, and her mother’s “bone-deep unhappiness or discontent.”

It wasn’t a pretty story but, frankly, neither is sex nor love nor life all the time. I found Powell’s book refreshing exactly because it did not have an ending all tied up in a bow. In fact, members of our book club disagreed on what exactly the ending of the story was. We read the same last pages, but our interpretations of those pages varied widely.

I say that’s a good thing.

Because a perfect thing, a perfect, pretty thing, is boring. Powell’s story, and how it strikes chords within our own, is life. It’s complicated. It has texture, and ridges. It’s coarse. And rough. Sometimes that’s just what you want. And sometimes that’s what you get, whether you want it or not.

Cathy Huyghe writes the WGBH Foodie blog. Read new WGBH Foodie posts every weekday, in which Cathy explores myriad ways and places to experience good food and wine.