Thursday, September 03, 2009

No beef with Julia’s kitchen: Her home’s new owner lacks the bone appetite

No beef with Julia’s kitchen

Her home’s new owner lacks the bone appetite

Lisa Landsverk and her daughters Rachael (left) and Teymura are among the new inhabitants of Julia Child's former house.
Lisa Landsverk and her daughters Rachael (left) and Teymura are among the new inhabitants of Julia Child's former house.
(Essdras M Suarez/ Globe Staff)
By Billy Baker Globe Correspondent / August 31, 2009

CAMBRIDGE, Massachusetts, USA -
They are known for their love of cats.  At least they had that much in common.

But Lisa Landsverk, the new owner of the grand Victorian home on Irving Street in Cambridge where Julia Child, the doyenne of la cuisine bourgeoise, lived, cooked, and warbled for 43 years, has brought a bit of her own personality to the place.

Take the painting of the cow.

“Nobody says when I grow up I want to be a hamburger,’’ the painting’s caption reads.
Yes, the matriarch of Child’s former kitchen is an animal-rights activist and a vegetarian. “It’s a bit ironic,’’ Landsverk said, in an understatement.

What’s more, Landsverk is not what you would call a foodie. She likes to make simple things for dinner: pasta, burritos, reservations. But in the month since Landsverk and her husband, Harvard Law School professor Michael Klarman, moved into Child’s former home near the Harvard campus, they have found themselves the accidental caretakers of what has become a bit of a destination for food tourists.

Due to a recent movie about her life, “Julie & Julia,’’ everything Julia Child is hot. The film, based on a 2005 book by blogger Julie Powell about her attempt to cook all 524 recipes in Child’s landmark “Mastering the Art of French Cooking’’ in a single year, has catapulted Child, who died in 2004, back into the spotlight.

Child’s 48-year-old book has shot to the top of the bestseller list.

With the Julia mania has come an odd sort of attention for Landsverk, a former lawyer, and her family.

There are the lurkers outside their windows, snapping pictures of the house; the person who left a stick of butter (Child’s favorite ingredient) on their fence post; and the reporter who knocked on their door to ask what it’s like to cook on the site of hallowed culinary ground.

“The truth is that we haven’t done much cooking since we moved into the place,’’ Landsverk said.

After a bit of hesitation, she agreed to allow the reporter in to change that.

The plan was simple: Make a couple of Child’s recipes and see how it feels. Landsverk added one caveat: Everything had to be vegan because she did not want to offend her animal-rights friends. So, no butter.

Landsverk chose ratatouille for an entrée - she liked Child’s assertion that the eggplant casserole “perfumes the kitchen with the essence of Provence’’ - and, for dessert, pêches cardinal, a compote of fresh peaches with raspberry purée.

Helping her were daughters Rachael Klarman, 20, a junior at the University of Virginia, and 8-year-old Teymura.

A son, 17, was off at Japanese camp, and her oldest daughter, 22, was still in Charlottesville, Virginia, where the family lived before the move.

Rachael Klarman admits she had never heard of the famous chef before the realtor touted the Child connection to the family.

But she has become quite enthusiastic about the former occupant, recently reading “Julie & Julia’’ and Child’s memoir, “My Life in France.’’

As she walked back from a supply run to Savenor’s Market on a sweltering afternoon last week - Savenor’s was a favorite of Child’s, and she carved her signature signoff, “Bon Appétit,’’ into the sidewalk outside - Rachael Klarman said she’s been inspired to do more cooking in the kitchen, so that Child “is not rolling over in her grave.’’

Child and her husband, Paul, bought the house in 1956 for $35,000 and moved in two years later.

Paul, an artist and foreign service officer, designed the kitchen to Julia’s strict specifications, including countertops that were 2 inches higher than normal to accommodate her 6-foot-2-inch frame.

The kitchen was styled along the lines of a workshop, with the pots and pans hung from pegboards around the room, favorite knives - she had 800 - on magnetic strips between the windows, and everyday utensils in jars above the Garland range.

The pale green space changed little in Child’s time, and was familiar to many from the three cooking shows she filmed there during the 1990s.

When Child moved out in 2001, her kitchen and its contents were donated to the Smithsonian, where they are now an exhibit.

The house went through down-to-the-studs renovation, and when Lisa Landsverk and her family bought the 6,000-square-foot home in February for a reported $3.7 million, the only sign of Child’s tenure was her wine cellar, with its simple pine racks and handwritten vintage labels written by her husband.

The current kitchen is modern and white with a few stainless-steel accents. The windows and doorways are in the same place as when Child lived there, but the room has been expanded; an elevator has been removed to create a sunroom with a small dining area.

Stylewise, about the only thing the kitchen shares with Child’s is that everything has a place; in the new kitchen, that place is out of sight. Everything is so neatly concealed that Rachael said it took them a while to find the silverware drawer (it was hidden inside a larger drawer on the kitchen island).

With the ingredients ready and the cookbook open, Lisa and Rachael began making their way through the ratatouille recipe. Immediately, they realized that this was not going to be a quick meal.

“That’s very specific,’’ Lisa Landsverk said as she read Child’s directions to cut the eggplant into 3/8-inch-thick slices.

“No, there’s more,’’ Rachael Klarman said as she kept reading. “She calls for chunks with three specific dimensions. That’s impressive.’’

“And she wants us to dry each slice with a towel!’’ her mother gasped with a smile on her face. “We’re going to be here all day.’’

As they made their way through the recipes, mother and daughter began to notice a curious aspect to their conversation. They never said “the recipe wants’’ or “the book says;’’ they said “she says mind the heat’’ and “she wants us to chill the purée.’’ In “Julie & Julia,’’ Powell describes feeling that Julia was by her side like “some great big good fairy.’’
Lisa Landsverk and her daughter weren’t quite as grandiose, but agreed on one thing: Julia Child had them engaged with their dinner.

More than two hours after the cooking began, the kitchen was a mess but the food was ready. Teymura, who is chatty and a bit sassy, tried to get out of eating the ratatouille (she’d been pining for pasta), but relented when she was allowed to use chopsticks. She took one bite and announced “It’s kind of good, but not that good.’’

Rachael Klarman and her mother were more hesitant in their assessment.

After a few bites, Rachael said, almost relieved, “It tastes fine.’’ Her mother was impressed by the medley of flavors, but criticized her own technique.

“I think I overcooked the eggplant,’’ she said. “I wasn’t minding my heat like she said.’’

Correction: Because of an editing error, a Page One story yesterday about the owner of Julia Child's house gave the incorrect last name for the owner's daughter. Her name is Rachael Klarman.

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