Vadim rolled his own cigarettes. He had broad shoulders, six-pack abs, and a chest tattoo that read "Rock & Roll." He was the lead singer in a rockabilly band and had a hot rod he planned to fix up. I met him when I took a part-time job as a cashier at Savenor's Market, a specialty foods shop in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was the head butcher.
Yeah, butcher. Hot, right?
I took the job because it was around the corner from the college where I was getting a (super-useful) degree in poetry. I spent my days with non-tattooed guys who went to Bright Eyes shows and did not smoke, thankyouverymuch. I spent my evenings pining for the smoldering bad boy in the butcher's apron. Vadim had a girlfriend, but that didn't stop me from falling madly in love.
All of this played out under Julia Child's watchful gaze. In life, Julia had been a regular at the shop (we were just around the corner from her house), stocking her Cambridge kitchen with foie gras and lamb shank cut especially for her by the owner, a now-deceased sort-of-legend in the world of butchery. Black-and-white memories of the two of them in front of piles of standing rib roasts were hung everywhere. She had signed her initials in the sidewalk just outside the door, and Vadim and I lingered there after closing time, smoking and flirting, tracing "JC" with our shoes.
Eventually, Vadim left his girlfriend. We spent one very short month dating before getting an apartment together a few blocks from the shop. My parents were horrified in a general sense — I was too young, and he was too everything. But my mother was determined to foist some sense of domestic propriety on the situation, and so on their first visit gifted me Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
She signed it "Best of luck, Mom."
But Vadim was a culinary school dropout and cooked constantly — decadent, multi-course meals with trays of Island Creek oysters, roasted pork belly, and shad roe. Locally foraged mushrooms and perfectly crisp, farm-fresh Brussels sprouts. Homemade sausages and rillettes. There were cheese courses, wine pairings, and plenty of duck fat. We went to restaurants where the menus were as complicated as the silverware. I didn't know a fish knife from a butter knife, but I was grateful to be along for the ride.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking sat on a shelf in the kitchen, unopened, for the duration of our relationship.Which wasn't long, as it turned out. He was a good butcher, and a lousy philanderer.
I moved out and got my own place.
I'd lived alone before, in a series of tiny studios around Harvard Square, where the radiators were too loud, the windows leaked, and mice had tenants' rights, too, but this place was different. It was a converted attic with cathedral ceilings, a gas fireplace, and a sleeping loft. It was bright and airy, all day long. It was Adulting, and I was going to win at it. Broken heart be damned.
I filled the space with colorful linens, my friends' art, and books. Among the shelves was the good-as-new copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking my mother gave me, and I decided that part of this whole "fresh start" thing meant learning how to cook. I dusted off Julia's book, opened it up to a random page, and promptly felt extremely insecure. I had one knife, a couple of spatulas, and no Dutch oven. "Julienne?" I thought. As in, Moore?
I thought about Julia Child — about those smiling photos. What did I know about her, really? Not much, except that she was tall and worked for a US spy agency during WWII, a fact that always struck me in its practical absurdity. I thought about what I'd ever seen her cooking, and the only thing that came to me was an old SNL sketch from the '70s that features a young Dan Aykroyd parodying "The French Chef." I'm a vintage SNL junkie, and it's one of my favorites. In the sketch, hilarity and blood loss ensues, but it starts with a lesson on roast chicken.
I found Julia's recipe and bought an air-chilled, free-range chicken on one of Vadim's days off (we had staggered our schedules), grateful for my employee discount.
And I made that damn roast chicken recipe over and over and over again, until I perfected the crispy skin, the golden thighs, the juicy meat. I roasted the bones and turned it into soup for myself when I was sick. I made sandwiches and riffs on chicken salad. Do you know how long a college student can subsist on the leftovers from a single roast chicken? It's a long time. I made it for all the boys I dated after Vadim — when I decided they were worth it. I learned how to nourish myself, in style.
Then I bought a used, bright-red Le Creuset Dutch oven from a coworker. I started reading about French culinary culture. I bought more cookbooks. I traveled to Paris, alone, to eat fresh baguette and stinky cheese. (When Vadim caught wind of this and sent me a message saying he had always planned to propose to me on the Eiffel tower, I was not wistful.)
Vadim quit, and I became the shop's cheesemonger. People were always asking me what wine to pair with their Valençay Affiné or Twig Farm Tomme, so I applied to be a server at one of the fancy restaurants Vadim had taken me to, hoping to glean some knowledge. I got the job, dropped out of college, said farewell to Savenor's, and dove headlong into wine. Now, I'm a food and wine writer with a busy restaurant consulting business. It all started with Julia's roast chicken and a broken heart.
It took me longer to figure out that bad boys are rarely worth the trouble, but I've eaten well along the way.