I remember when my mom first explained what “backpacking” meant. I was probably around 11 or 12, and we had just passed a hostel. I was shocked to learn people, namely young people, carried their belongings on their back and traveled for weeks or months on end. I was enchanted by the idea, but resigned to the fact that I would likely never do such a thing.
That is, until almost a decade later, when two of my best friends were studying abroad in Europe. Leah was in Spain, and Leela was in France, and I was in the plain old United States. I had never been to Europe, and somehow we dreamed up the idea of meeting up in late May to backpack through the continent together. Later on, I convinced my mom to join me for a second leg of the trip, and soon enough I had a five-country-and-eleven-city cross continental trip laid out.
For the first three weeks, I traveled with two of my best friends from college: Leela and Leah. We hit Madrid and Barcelona in Spain; Bologna, Florence, and Verona in Italy; and Paris and Arcachon in France. Of course, every bit of it was amazing and fun and exciting. But there was something special when we got to France. Some sort of electricity pulsed through me, and it felt a little bit like a homecoming.
I loved the food—the breads, the cheeses, the desserts, the wines. Paris was, of course, magical. But my absolute favorite part of France, and of the whole trip with Leela and Leah, was staying with Leela’s grandparents in Arcachon, a small beach town outside of Bordeaux. Every meal featured fruits and vegetables grown right in the garden. Every meal was served with wine and fresh bread. Every meal was absolutely impeccable.
Staying in Arcachon and eating three home cooked meals a day was a culinary revolution for me. Before Arcachon, I was a pretty picky eater. I had begun to open up my tastes in the years leading up to the trip, but new foods still caused me a lot of anxiety. However, when you’re in someone else’s home for a week, you eat what’s served, no matter what.
Duck pâté. Potatoes. Couscous. Raclette. Zucchini. From the basics and beyond, I tried and loved it all. Not to mention, the care Leela’s Mamie put into each dish made all the difference. Made with love is something truly edible and delicious. Combined with Leela’s grandmother’s skilled hand and fresh ingredients, and each meal became something to aspire to. I had never experienced food like that in my life, and it’s something I’ll always be chasing after.
I’ve always enjoyed cooking—in high school I often made meals for friends and hosted dinner parties. Still, after coming back from Europe, something new had been sparked in me. The true depth, complexity, and meaning of food and preparing it affected me in new ways. In my post-France pursuit of that richness, I read Julia Child’s My Life in France.
Certainly, Julia Child’s memoir lacks a bit of flair and command over the written word—but that’s not why you read Julia Child’s memoir. You read Julia Child’s memoir to be transported and inspired, and the book did just the trick.
Reading about Child’s journey from being a bumbling American who couldn’t cook, to becoming the poster-child chef of French cuisine stateside was relieving. “No one is born a great cook,” she assures readers, “one learns by doing.”
Her philosophy to embark on cooking a dish with patience and passion and to always be gentle with oneself spoke to me as a beginner cook. She cooked because she loved making and eating good food, in the same intrinsic way I discovered I did.
That, combined with Child’s joie de vivre, makes her a culinary idol in my eyes. I hope to pursue not only cooking but life itself with the same Julia Child approach.
Julia Child’s Gougères
Because no one can do it better than Julia Child, here is her very own recipe, direct from Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Yield: Approx. 3 dozen puffs | Prep time: 30 min | Cook time: 15 min | Total time: 45 min
- 1 cup water
- 6 Tbsp butter
- 1 tsp salt
- ¼ tsp pepper
- 1 cup flour
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup grated Parmesan
- Preheat oven to 425 degrees.
- Start by making the pâte á choux, or cream puff paste. Bring the water, butter, salt, and pepper to a boil until the butter has melted.
- Remove from heat and immediately pour in all the flour. Mix well with a wooden spoon.
- Return to heat for 1-2 minutes until the paste begins to form together and leaves the side of the pot.
- Remove again from heat. Mix in one egg at a time. Wait to add the next egg until the previous one is completely absorbed. It will take longer for the egg to absorb each time. Once mixture is smooth, your pâte á choux is complete.
- Beat the cheese into the warm pâte á choux.
- Dollop the mixture into small rounds on a baking sheet (you may also use a piping bag for this).
- If you’d like, paint a bit of egg wash on each puff and sprinkle a pinch of cheese on top.
- Bake for 15 minutes or until golden.