The thing you learn with Potage Parmentier is that “simple” is not exactly the same as “easy.” It had never occurred to me that there was a difference until Eric and I sat down on our couch that night and took our first slurps of Julia Child’s potato soup. Certainly I had made easier dinners. Unwrapping a cellophane-swathed hunk of London broil and tossing it under the broiler was one method that came immediately to mind. Ordering pizza and getting drunk on Stoli gimlets while waiting for it to arrive, that was another favorite. Potage Parmentier didn’t even hold a candle, in the easy department.
First you peel a couple of potatoes and slice them up. Slice some leeks, rinse them a couple of times to get rid of the grit – leeks are muddy little suckers. Throw these two ingredients in a pot with some water and some salt. Once the leeks and potatoes have simmered for an hour or so, you mash them up with a fork or a food mill or a potato ricer. All three of these options are far more of a pain in the neck than the Cuisinart – one of which space-munching behemoths we scored when we got married - but Julia Child allows as how a Cuisinart will turn soup into “something un-French and monotonous.” Any suggestion that uses the construction “un-French” is up for debate, but if you make potage parmentier, you will see her point. If you use the ricer, instead of being utterly smooth, the soup will have bits – green bits and white bits and yellow bits. After you’ve mushed it up, just stir in a couple of hefty chunks of butter, and you’re done. JC says sprinkle with parsley but you don’t have to. It looks pretty enough as it is, and it smells glorious, which is funny when you think about it. There’s not a thing in it but leeks and potatoes and butter.
One interesting thing to meditate on while you’re making this soup is potatoes. There’s something about peeling a potato. Not to say that it’s fun, exactly. But there’s something about scraping off the skin, and rinsing off the dirt, and chopping it into cubes before immersing the cubes in cold water because they’ll turn pink if you let them sit out in the air. Something about knowing exactly what you’re doing, and why. Potatoes have been potatoes for a long, long time, and people have treated them in just this way, toward the end of making just such a soup. There is clarity in the act of peeling a potato, a winnowing down to one sure, true way. And even if you did push it through some gadget you got at Crate and Barrel afterwards, the peeling was still a part of what you did, the first thing.
...So I had made this soup, this Potage Parmentier. And it was good – inexplicably good. We ate it sitting on the couch, bowls perched on knees, the silence broken only by the occasional snort of laughter as we watched a pert blonde high school student dust vampires on the television. In almost no time we were slurping the dregs of our third servings. (It turns out that one reason we’re so good together is that each of us eats more and faster than anyone either of us has ever met; also, we both recognize the genius of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) After the gynecologist appointment, when I was standing in the Korean deli staring at produce, I’d been thinking, “I’m twenty-nine, I’m never going to have kids or a real job, and my husband will leave me and I’ll die alone in an outer borough hovel with twenty cats and it’ll take two weeks for the stink to reach the hall.” But now, three bowls of potato soup later, I was, to my relief, thinking about nothing much at all. I lay back on the couch, quietly digesting. Julia Child’s soup had made me vulnerable.
Eric saw his in, and took it.
“That was good, honey.”
I sighed my agreement.
“Real good. And there wasn’t even any meat in it.”
(Eric is a sensitive 21st-century sort of a guy, but a Texan, nevertheless, and the idea of a dinner without animal flesh gets him a little panicky.)
“You’re such a good cook, Julie. Maybe you should go to culinary school.”
I’d started cooking when I began dating Eric – to impress him, more or less. In the years since, though, the whole thing had blown a little out of proportion. I don’t know if Eric felt pride that he had introduced me to my consuming passion, or guilt that my urge to satisfy his innocent liking for escargot and rhubarb had metastasized into unhealthy obsession. Whatever the reason, this thing about the cooking school had developed into one of our habitual dead-end alleys of conversation. I was too deliciously idle after my soup to get ticked off about it, and just snorted quietly. Even that indication that he had my ear, though, was a tactical error. I knew it as soon as I’d made a sound. I squeezed my eyes shut, feigning sudden sleep or deafness.
“Seriously. You could go to the Culinary Institute! We could move out to the Hudson Valley, and you could just spend all your time learning to be a chef.”
And then, no sooner than I’d cautioned myself against it, I made Tactical Error #2: “They won’t let me in without professional experience. I’d have to go peel potatoes for two-fifty an hour for six months. You want to support me with all your big bucks while I do that?”
Giving in to the enticing prospect of emasculating my husband. Always, always a mistake.
“Maybe some other school to start, then – somewhere here in the city?”
“We can’t afford it.”
Eric didn’t answer. He sat quietly, on the edge of the couch, with his hand on my shin. I thought about kicking it off, but the shin seemed a neutral enough spot. One of the cats jumped up onto my chest, sniffed my breath, then stalked off stiff-legged, her mouth open in faint disgust.
“If I wanted to learn to cook, I’d just cook my way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
It was an odd sort of a statement to make drip with sarcasm, but I managed it anyway. Eric just sat there.
“Not that it would do me any good, of course. Can’t get a job out of that.”
“At least we’d eat good for awhile.”
Now I was the one who said nothing for a moment, because of course he was right about that.
“I’d be exhausted all the time. I’d get fat. We’d have to eat brains. And eggs. I don’t eat eggs, Eric. You know I don’t eat eggs.”
“No. You don’t.”
“It’s a stupid idea.”
Eric said nothing for a while. Buffy had ended and the news was on – a correspondent was standing on a flooded street in Sheepshead Bay saying something about a broken water main. We sat on the couch in our stuffy Bay Ridge living room, staring at the screen as if we gave a shit. All around us teetered towers of boxes, the looming reminder of our upcoming move.
When I look back on it now, it is as if I could actually hear the taut creak of a fisherman giving out just a tiny bit of line when Eric said: “You could start a blog.”
I cut my eyes over to him in irritation, a massive white-skinned shark thrashing its tail.
“Julie. You do know what a blog is, don’t you?”
Of course I didn’t know what a blog was. It was August of 2002. Nobody knew what a blog was, except for a few guys like Eric who spent their days using company computers pursuing the zeitgeist. No issue of domestic or international policy too big, no pop culture backwater too obscure; from the War on Terror to Fear Factor, was all one big, beautiful sliding scale for Eric.
“You know, like a website sort of a thing. Only it’s easy. You don’t have to know anything about anything.”
“Sounds perfect for me.”
“About computers, I meant.”
“Are you going to make me a drink, or what?”
And he did. He left me alone. He was free to, now that he knew the hook was sunk.
Lulled by the calming music of ice clattering in the cocktail shaker, I began to ponder: this life we had going for ourselves, Eric and I, it felt like the opposite of Potage Parmentier. It was easy enough to keep on with the soul-sucking jobs; at least it saved having to make a choice. But how much longer could I take such an easy life? Quicksand was easy. Hell, death was easy. Maybe that’s why my synapses had started snapping at the sight of potatoes and leeks in the Korean deli. Maybe that was what was plucking deep down my belly was, that sounded whenever I thought of Julia Child’s book. Maybe I needed to make like a potato, winnow myself down, be a part of something that was not easy, just simple.
Just then Eric emerged again from the kitchen, carrying two Stoli gimlets. He handed off one of the glasses to me, carefully so as not to spill from over those treacherous martini lips, and I took a sip. Eric always made the best gimlets – icy cold, very dry, with an almost-not-there shade of chartreuse lingering in their slightly oily depths.
“Okay,” I said, taking another sip as Eric sat down beside me. “Tell me again about this blog thing?”
And so, late that evening, a tiny line dropped into the endless sea of cyberspace, the slenderest of lures in the blackest of waters:
“Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” First edition, 1961. Louisette Bertholle. Simone Beck. And, of course, Julia Child, the woman who taught America to cook, and to eat. Today we think we live in the world Alice Waters made, but beneath it all is Julia, and no one can touch her.
Government drone by day, renegade foodie by night. Too old for theatre, too young for children, and too bitter for anything else, Julie Powell was looking for a challenge. And in the Julie/Julia Project she found it. Risking her marriage, her job, and her cats’ well-being, she has signed on for a deranged assignment.
365 days. 524 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer borough kitchen. How far it will go, no one can say….
It wasn’t much – nearly nothing, in fact. Not even so much as a recipe for potato soup. A few words strung together, is all. But together, out there, they seemed perhaps to glow, only faintly. Just enough.