It was late afternoon on one of my childhood Thanksgivings, and the cranberries were everywhere. On the kitchen table, peeking out from under the fridge, pouring out of the ice-encrusted bag lying slumped on the countertop. My mom handed me a colander, and five minutes later, the cranberries were swept up and soaking off their kitchen dirt in the sink. Feeling vaguely like we were getting away with something, I looked at my mom, who shrugged. “You’re alone in the kitchen!” she said in a high, fluty voice and kept on cooking.
Twenty-five or so years later, we were far from partners in crime. Coming hard on the heels of a difficult and contentious breakup, I couldn't deny that my relationship with my family had been challenged and changed. Almost two full years earlier, I’d heard through my women’s college grapevine that a friend of a friend had bought La Pitchoune, Julia Child’s home in Provence, and was opening a new cooking school. Immediately, I knew this was somewhere I had to go with my mother, the person who taught me to cook. But upon arriving at La Pitchoune, a mother-daughter retreat in the South of France felt a little more like a cosmic joke and a little less like a dream vacation.
We stepped into the kitchen, and it was like stepping out of time. The house is a delight: tiny and picturesque, swathed in vines and roses, and Julia’s kitchen, with that iconic pegboard wall of tools and overflowing stacks of produce gave me chills. The food revolution in America was sparked on a fairly miniature vintage stove and a by-no-means endless butcher-block kitchen island.
“Everything I have read from her personal papers shows that while she was quite adept, she was also relatively unfussy in her own preparation and well-known to make easy mistakes in the kitchen that she would just laugh at and solve quickly on her feet,” says Makenna Held, the current owner and custodian of La Pitchoune. That’s the ethos behind the next big plot twist: For a week, we’d be cooking without recipes.
Gathering inspiration from the rich flavors and traditional dishes of Provence and shaping it into dishes we could make without fear or fuss may sound like a glorious proposition, but it was one that knocked the wind right out of me. I’d never felt more directionless or unsure in my life, and suddenly, a tiny Frenchwoman in a chef’s toque demanded to know what it was, exactly, that I want.
Sure, she was talking about mixing garnishes into steak tartare, but my answer was sadly consistent—I have no idea what I want. I just want someone else to tell me what they want and then I’ll do that. Isn’t that enough? And somewhere, all 6 foot 2 inches of Julia Child whispered back, “No.”
So we started again, my mom and I, side by side in the kitchen. We flipped omelets, jerking hard on the pan to flip them into submission, embracing the occasional flying egg. We composed salads, broke down chickens for coq au vin, tasted champagne. We went to the market in seaside Antibes, where my mother fell and hurt her knee, and I was suddenly, shockingly reminded that while she’d always been there for me, she wouldn’t actually be here forever. And then even more slowly, we started cooking together again. My risotto quenelles held together when hers didn’t; she’s more fearless with mixing flavor and textures than I’ll ever be. Without a recipe, without a roadmap, with just history and hope to guide us, we stood in Julia Child’s kitchen and cooked and cooked.
Julia Child, who would be 106 years today, never actually dropped a chicken on the floor and put it back in the pan, as many fans of her beloved PBS cooking show The French Chef came to believe. During one episode, she did flip a potato pancake out of the pan and onto the table (not the floor), and that was when she uttered her famous line, but it’s what she said before that that’s stayed with me. When you flip anything, she said, “You just have to have the courage of your convictions.” In the house of one monumental woman, standing next to another one, I found my courage again.
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