THE LAST bits of the poulet, pain, and pommes de terre had been savored. The candles were now half their True-shelf height. Won't you excuse us for just a moment, we asked, ("Although you can beat the meringue an hour before serving, and re-beat it at the minute, the beating takes but a few minutes in an efficient mixer and your guests should not mind a short wait.") With the kitchen door safely closed behind us, we dropped our unflappable-host-and-hostess grins and became panting haute cuisine speed freaks. Getting the ice cream out of the molds and onto the gateau genoise only took a moment, and we beat and we beat and as the laughter of the dinner party increased out beyond the doors, the egg whites refused to form their coveted stiff shiny peaks. We beat and we beat, and our guests' voices became louder and at the same time, somehow, farther off. There was music now, and singing.
We slapped the sad limp meringue on the ice cream and hardly had time to consider that putting a large round mold into a small square oven would not fail to take its toll on the dessert's overall proportions. We closed the door and prepared to wait out the three minutes at 450, but after about thirty seconds our Mr. Wizard-like curiosity overwhelmed us: ice cream in the oven? We flipped the oven door open nervously and found the meringue slipping slowly down around the knees of the melting mold. Out of the oven; onto the platter; half-eggshell filled with flaming cognac jammed onto the mold; lights out; into the dining room- and find twelve stoned happy guests dancing and singing in orgy, arms entwined, like a close-knit Borneo family celebrating the end of a promising mango harvest under a full moon. Our cognac flamed ("down the mountain slopes like molten lava") unheeded, the meringue sighed and slipped down a little more, the Truc candles sputtered and flickered, but we were happy. Our guests, after all, were happy.
JULIA CHILD is a fabulous American cultural phenomenon in the tradition of Tiny Tim, Gypsy Rose Lee, and the Philadelphia Mummer's Band. Even a single episode of "The French Chef," her TV instruction show (Wednesdays, 8 p. m., WGBH), leaves one with the overpowering image of a very eccentric, very competent, and very unselfconscious lady. She wipes up the debris scattered on her carving board after ten minutes of mushroom fluting, and a moment later the same towel is declared "impeccably clean," and suitable for use as a lemon strainer. She casually plops a dropped chicken back into a casserole, saying, "The guests will never know." And refined as her rapid-fire method of onion chopping may be, it is hard to watch her in action without fearing for her fingertips.
But Julia Child is not a put-on manufactured by an industry on the make for the scarcer and scarcer kuick buck. Her authenticity and expertise are unquestionable, and her enormous memory stocked with the hardcore of haute cuisine essentials marks her as a master chef. Julia Child is a great cook, a very funny lady, and a cult object; the publication of Volume Two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is accordingly a major event in high-calorie pockets around this country.
Volume Two is an unqualifiedly phenomenal book, and a worthy successor to Volume One. The book is divided into seven sections. Meat, chicken, and vegetables are covered in three chapters; a discussion of soups and desserts frames the volume; and special chapters on charcuterie (sausages, salted pork and goose, pates and terrines) and on baked items make the book especially well-rounded.
A Julia Child cookbook is like few others. Most recipes are accompanied by chatty scientific explanations of what's going on inside the food: "Because French bread stands free in the oven and is not baked in a pan, it has to be formed in such a way that the tension of the coagulated gluten cloak [coagulated gluten cloak!] on the surface will hold the dough in shape." And take her treatment of lobsters. She tells you how to determine their sex (the last pair of swimmerets on the male are hard, pointed, and hairless). She tells you how to kill them humanely. ("Using a sharp knife or lobster shears, cut straight down 1/2 inch into the back of the lobster, at the point where tail and chest join, thus severing the spinal cord and killing the lobster instantly.") For all who think that that's all there is to it, she adds disconcertingly, "To paralyze all muscle spasms, plunge the lobster head first into ... very hot water for 5 minutes, or until lobster is limp."
The jewel of Volume Two is the recipe for French bread. French people, it should be noted, do not bake their own bread: rather, they truck over to their local boulangerie in the a. m. with a couple of sous and buy it fresh. Mrs. Child and her co-author, Simone Beck, spent two years and 285 pounds of flour while working up a French bread recipe for Americans to use in their own kitchens. It takes seven hours, involves such diverse equipment as a folded bath towel, a razor, a hot brick, and dexterous fingers, but the result is so gratifying that the time spent duplicating the mind-boggling Origami dough-folding patterns required pays itself off in spades. What is more, there are few smells more sensual than a kitchen redolent of warm yeast, few sounds more lewd than a gasping piece of pressed dough, few instincts more carnal than those aroused between a cook and his fetal loaf.
MENTION the words "good food" to a standard group of Americans, and nine out of ten will begin to salivate in the privacy of their own mouths. A good meal, like sex, means many things to many people. To those who like to cook, making good food means having an unqualifiedly wonderful time. Cooking is creative, therapeutic, and chancy. It wins you friends and makes you the life of any party. Most important, with Julia Child, it isn't boring.