Julia Child and I went to Smith College. That's it, the only thing we have in common. I suppose you could also say we've prepared a few of the same dishes. That's because she created the recipes and I followed them slavishly, using her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and her later compendium, The Way to Cook.
The first meal I ever prepared for company was one derived completely from Julia's rendition of classic French recipes. My mother-in-law, Reggie, had given me her copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking when Eric and I moved into our first apartment. In return, I wanted to cook a meal from it for Reggie and my father-in-law, Joe. In retrospect, I realize that Reggie gave me the cookbook because she and Joe found the dishes too rich. But they were polite and appreciative that long-ago evening, as I served them French onion soup, beef Bourguignon, potatoes au gratin, spring-green peas, and chocolate cake. It took me a week to select the recipes, purchase the ingredients, and prepare the meal.
Julia Child was an inspired, creative cook, happy to let her recipes bubble up in the exuberant mess of her Cambridge kitchen. I, on the other hand, am an orderly cook; I need time to plan a meal and an exact recipe to follow. The best cooks regard recipes as starting points, adding and subtracting ingredients to fit their personal tastes. Over the years, I've rarely had the courage to substitute. Even using margarine in place of butter makes me nervous.
On one memorable occasion, I was preparing curried chicken for ten dinner guests from a recipe I'd found on epicurious. I duly spooned the requisite amount of Thai red curry paste into the skillet containing the chicken and other sauce ingredients. The result was a fiery mix I could barely swallow. I knew my guests would never survive it. I had to improvise. Fortunately, I had a lot of chutney on hand. Most of it went into the pan along with a few other handy items that I hoped would reduce the spiciness. Not only did my fix work—it was one of the most successful dishes I'd ever prepared.
This should have been the beginning of a brave new era, one in which I began experimenting with recipes and even created a few of my own. But, sad to say, I've returned to my rote-recipe-following ways. I hope my creative spirit comes through in my writing, because it's certainly nowhere to be found in my cooking.