Thursday, August 13, 2009


No question about it, it is a Julia Child summer. The day I’m posting this is (Aug. 13) exactly 5 years after her death at almost 92. America has rediscovered and fallen in love again with the culinary Demi-goddess. The book, the movie and just about every publication on the market right now has some “Julia” story to tell or some take on the phenomenon.

…not my first admiring commentary

In the face of such a barrage of “all things Julia,” I will also add my thoughts to the din, but will defend myself slightly by noting that this is not my first admiring commentary about the great lady. My first recorded statement concerning her was in the cookbook that I co-authored in 1980’s, not the current summer of ’09.

“Serve your mistakes…”
A Texas Family’s Cookbook was published way back in 1985 by Texas Monthly Press. In the preface, among other ramblings I wrote, “Due to such step-by-step books as Mastering the Art of French Cooking and to the work of other modern culinary pioneers, Americans began to embrace French cooking. We were able to attempt, successfully, beautiful French classics, and we learned not to be disheartened by failures. To paraphrase Julia’s attitude on her television show, she told us things like ‘Serve your mistakes-they’ll never know.’ This led to a vastly broadened appreciation of French cooking.”

…few assumptions and lots of explanations
Most French cookbooks of the time (before 1960), were written by French chefs in French, then translated into English, and assumed much expertise on the part of the reader. Then, in 1961 came the publication of volume 1 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. This book was a detailed approach to the art of cooking with few assumptions and lots of explanations. Also, it had beautiful illustrations by Julia’s husband, Paul Child. It was followed by a second volume of the same title and, in early 1963 by the famous “The French Chef “cooking show on Boston’s public television station.

TV cooking show as entertainment…
Every celebrity chef cooking show and personality today owes their existence to this seminal event. Long before the term “foodie” became a familiar part of our day to day conversations, Julia had sown the seeds. Absolutely and without question in my mind, Julia created the “TV cooking show as entertainment genre,” that we take for granted in today’s world. Even the less than sentimental Anthony Bourdain wrote…” the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us – teach us – and in fact did…”

…her innate generosity
It was not just her cooking expertise, amazing confidence and colorful personality that has secured her place in the public’s imagination, even though those gifts should not be underestimated. Her talents were enormous, but it was another aspect of her character that made her more than the sum of her parts- her innate generosity.

…enthusiasm and encouragement
There were no “chef’s secrets” that Julia tried to conceal, no elitist celebrity distance that she sought to maintain. Her enthusiasm and encouragement to other aspiring chefs and authors is legendary.

…culinary “gospel”
As a young cook in the early 70’s seeing her shows had certainly been inspiring and fun. It was her books; however that were for me culinary “gospel.” I never considered cooking all the recipes in her books, but I knew friends who did or at least claimed that they did. Many times, I found myself consulting volume I or II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for some dish or technique that I had claimed as part of my repertoire and was required to prepare professionally. More than once, I found myself up in the wee hours of the night perfecting a recipe, being guided step by step by Julia Child.

I was as excited as though I was meeting royalty…
I have never forgotten it either and always felt a great sense of personal connection with her, as did thousands of other fans and cooks. So, when the chance came to actually meet her in Seattle in the mid 80’s, I was as excited as though I was meeting royalty, a rock star or great entertainment figure, which in a very real sense, I was.

…the book had been well used.
My book had just been released and I wanted to present her with a copy. I didn’t imagine that it would be of any real use in her kitchen, but I did hope that she would be pleased by my thoughts expressed in the Preface about her contribution to American cooking. Of course, I took my old battered and food stained copy of Mastering the Art for her to sign, which she and husband Paul, graciously did. She also noted that the book had been well used. That signed copy remains one of my career treasures to this day.

…not even my own name.
Upon receiving the gift of my book to her, she politely asked that I sign it, as well. Just for the record this was one of the first times I had autographed the book, as it was newly published. I sat down and opened the book, took pen in hand and sat there. If I had made any mental notes about what I was going to write at that moment it was lost to me entirely. In a lifetime of food service and catering, I have certainly met my share of celebrities. This though was somehow different. I was star struck, I couldn’t think of a thing, maybe not even my own name.

…being from Texas and all
The Childs waited patently with the statuesque (6ft. 2) Julia towering above Paul and smiling at me. I think that after a few minutes (she must have had plenty of experience with this sort of thing) it dawned on her what my situation was. Then, in that distinctive and singular voice she came to my rescue, saying in a stage whisper, “You know Joseph being from Texas and all; you could sign your books with Bon Appetit Y’all!” With that suggestion she relieved me of the autographing angst and gave me a theme and a story to last the rest of my life. This is a story that I have told at the conclusion of my cooking classes, programs and demonstrations for many years and I always will.

Thank you Julia and Paul and Bon Appetit Y’all!

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Pilgrimage to the Blue Ridge; a Promise Kept

“…Remembering speechlessly we seek the great forgotten language, the lost lane-end into heaven, a stone, a leaf, an unfound door.”
- Thomas Wolfe

I’m not a native son of the southern mountains although I am an enthusiastic adoptee. A huge part of the area’s attraction for me (and everyone else) is the magnificent mountains, ridges and foothills. In my younger (and slimmer) days, I seemed to find plenty of time to hike, camp, fly fish and generally spend quality recreational time in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, National Forests, state and county parks. Along the borders shared by Tennessee, Georgia and North Carolina, there are some absolute paradises for outdoor enthusiasts.

“getting away”
Now, for the last 14 years or so, my wife, Gail and I have owned a few acres with some beautiful features. Sometimes, when we plan getaways and we have found ourselves noting that many of the enticements offered are already available to us. Privacy, quaint cottage, wood burning fireplace, babbling brook, and winding trail through the woods; really everything but a mountain view is literally in our own back yard. I have written about this before, but not for one minute do we forget that we are indeed blessed. Still, there is something about “getting away” and even just strolling a little in a beautiful setting. of the last remaining virgin forests
Recently, upon a return trip from Atlanta, I found myself with an extra day in which to wander along some remote roads in northern Georgia and North Carolina. This included the magnificent Cherohala Skyway, which stretches some 40 miles from Tellico Plains, TN to Robbinsville, N.C. Near Robbinsville, one can find the Joyce Kilmer Memorial Forest. A moderately strenuous walk will bring hikers to one of the last remaining virgin old-growth hard wood forests left in the southern mountains. These giant trees over 400 years old surely must inspire some kind of poetic descriptions in even the most un-literary of observers.

…the luxury of time
Many other trails and quite walkways abound and most have few visitors. Being as I had the luxury of time (which I rarely allow myself), I took advantage of the lovely weather and just walked. When described it sounds very simple; trees, birds, cascades of musical water; just quietly experienced. With that quietness, I found myself trying to remember the last time I had spent much time on a mountain trail, much less on one by myself. Ten years? However long it has been is way to long, and I solemnly promised myself that at least every couple of months that I would fit in a day or two in the wilderness, just to experience a little solitude.

…one of the most scenic roads in America
So, about 2 months later, I made good on that promise with a brief trip to Asheville, NC and a leisurely ride up the Blue Ridge Parkway. In the state of North Carolina alone, the Parkway includes 469 miles of almost indescribable beauty. The Blue Ridge Parkway meanders along the crests and ridges of the southern Appalachian Mountains through four National Forests. This gorgeous drive ranks as one of the most scenic roads in America.

“jet setters”
However, to begin my mini vacation, I made a quick excursion to Asheville, N.C., which is a vacation Mecca unto itself. Surrounded by the spectacular Blue Ridge Mountains, Asheville is the largest city in western North Carolina. Downtown Asheville is home to more flashy Art Deco architecture than any other Southeastern city except perhaps Miami Beach. The city and Buncombe County have been appreciated as a peerless resort area since the 19th Century, when George W. Vanderbilt and friends made it a destination of the “jet setters” of his day.

…unimaginable world of wealth and luxury
Of course, no description of Asheville is complete without mentioning his Biltmore Estate, a 255-room mansion completed in 1895 and modeled after several 16th Century French chateaux ( ). To describe the mansion, designed by architect Richard Morris Hunt, as “America’s National Treasure” is no overstatement. Self-guided tours take visitors through an almost unimaginable world of wealth and luxury. The vast Estate grounds are the result of the genius of landscape architect, Frederick Law Olmstead, whose other notable project was New York City’s Central Park. Also located on the 75 acre Estate is the Biltmore Estate Winery, Inn, gift shops and restaurants.

Asheville was the birthplace of one of the truly great figures of American literature, Thomas Wolfe. It is also the location of the Thomas Wolfe Memorial and one of his boyhood abodes, “The Old Kentucky Home.” This was a boarding house operated by Wolfe’s mother and known as “Dixieland” in Wolfe’s towering masterpiece, Look Homeward, Angel. The novel was first published in 1929 and has never been out of print. Asheville is called Altamont in the novel and Wolfe’s portrayal of the town’s residents was deeply resented at the time, although now that is all in the distant past.

…curious rituals
Indeed, the mountain town is bursting with possessive civic pride concerning all things Thomas Wolfe. Wolfe’s writing is not without its critics, but it was my admiration for the man’s work that drew me to Asheville on a kind of literary pilgrimage. I was drawn to curious rituals like touching his writing desk, rocking on the front porch of his home and reading his work sitting on a park bench near his grave. Did I think that a tiny fraction of inspiration might be transferred to my own modest efforts at blog writing?

…don’t laugh
No, don’t laugh; it was really not anything so grandiose or pretentious. I do think the experience held a deeper meaning for me that others have experienced and expressed so eloquently and forever beyond my skill. Pat Conroy, author of Prince of Tides, wrote “I kept catching myself holding my breath as I read Look Homeward, Angel. I had not recognized that the beauty of our language, shaped in sentences as pretty as blue herons, could bring me to my knees with pleasure-did not know that words could pour through me like honey through a burst hive or that gardens seeded in dark secrecy could bloom along the borders and porches of my half-ruined boyhood because a writer could touch me in all the broken places with his art.”

…suitable spot for dinner
It was in my post Thomas Wolfe reverie and musing that I began a search in downtown Asheville for a suitable spot for dinner. I had not made any reservations and had none of the culinary intent that so often accompanies my travels. My favorite spot for local Barbeque (North Carolina Barbeque vs. Texas is a whole different blog) was not open on Sundays. However, as exciting and creative a place as Asheville has become, there would certainly be something to rouse my interest, I reasoned.

Sure enough, just a half block off Broadway at 85 Walnut Street, I came across a small colorful sign advertising a Tapas and Wine Bar named Zambra, which according to their website is “Arabic for flute, a wild bird, Flamenco danced at a family gathering, a Moorish festival...” In a short time I found a convenient parking placed and entered the restaurant hoping for the best.

…the very definition of eclectic
The interior was cool and dimly lit with some pleasant yet unobtrusive jazz playing in the background. The décor is the very definition of eclectic with a mixture of exposed pipes, arches and other touches of Spain. I was seated in a small alcove with comfortably cushioned furniture complete with brocaded pillows. Although the setting was perfect for a romantic encounter, it also gave just enough privacy to not feel uncomfortable seated alone in the middle of a crowded dining room.

…pretty ambitious
The restaurant offers a Menu de la Noche as well as a separate list of specials. All in all, there were over 3 dozen listings of options, which I thought pretty ambitious for a small kitchen. They also presented a wine list with over 200 bottles, which has won several Awards of Excellence from Wine Spectator Magazine including the most recently announced awards.

…just as delicious as it was intriguing
I love to eat and prepare Tapas myself, so I was excited to get started with a glass of nutty Amontillado and study the menu. The Sopa del Dia, which was one of the chef’s daily creations, caught my eye. My well informed waitperson, Pamela Wellman offered me an encouraging description. The dish proved to be just as delicious as it was intriguing. What arrived was a chilled pear soup with a drizzle of ancho and maple glaze, topped with a dollop of whipped cream with walnuts. Pamela was quick to assert that regardless of the description, the soup was “not too sweet.” She was right and in fact I thought the combination was first rate and really a perfect match with the sherry.

Now, I was in a convivial mood and the soup had established confidence in both the kitchen and my waitperson (which is always a good thing)! I thought that their House marinated Olives with Preserved Lemon was a logical choice and I particularly enjoyed it being served warm. My “small plate” entrée was Pan Roasted Veal Sweetbreads with Turnip Puree, Plums, Pea Shoots and Ancho Foam. The sweetbreads were delicate and tender and I was thoroughly pleased. For the novelty of it, I did indulge in Root Beer Flan for dessert and although interesting, I would still have to leave it in the “novelty” category.

…a gem worth discovering
Pamela, my waitperson confided in me her thoughts concerning the range of the kitchen’s creativity. Her view is that it stems from not only the skill of Chef Adam Bannasch, but also from his willingness and encouragement of the rest of his team to indulge their creative ideas as well. It works; Zambra is a gem worth discovering.

…mind boggling views
Continuing north of Asheville, the grandeur of the Blue Ridge continues uninterrupted for many miles. The mind boggling views alone are worth the trouble, but there are dozens of interesting diversions, as well. Art and craft enthusiasts will enjoy the Folk Art Center at Milepost 382. The striking facility houses exhibits, demonstrations, workshops, special events and a craft shop.

…highest point east of the Mississippi
Many of the scenic overlooks along the way have access to primitive trails and there are many improved sites with visitor’s centers, as well. One high point (literally) is Mount Mitchell State Park, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi and ideal for an easy walk to the lookout tower and a great picnic spot. Further along the Parkway is Linville Falls, which includes not only the dramatic falls themselves, but a moderate 1.6 round-trip to view them. Cool, beautiful weather and the chance to see the blooming rhododendrons made my promise to do more hiking an easy one to keep.

…Yadkin valley wineries…another promise to keep
This mountain road does seem to go on forever, but my journey ended up in the little village of Blowing Rock, NC. This is a very picturesque place with interesting shops, restaurants, festivals and loads of charm. It is also the gateway to the Yadkin Valley Appellation. The Yadkin Valley is North Carolina’s first federally recognized American Viticultural Area with 24 wineries and several hundred acres devoted to grape growing ( However, it was obvious to me this trip was at its end. The considerable allure of the wineries would have to wait until another time, perhaps when my wife would be able to enjoy the wine tasting with me, as well. As much as I enjoyed my couple of days of hiking and solitude, I did note how often I thought of her and the fun we would have on the next trip sharing my new discoveries and delights. Now, there is yet another promise to keep.