Whoever coined the phrase, “The opera ain’t over till the fat lady sings,” was more likely referencing Brunnhilda’s final arias in the “Ring” cycle than any specific performer, but at the turn of the last century and no doubt before operatic divas were typically big girls with big voices.
Among them was Luisa Tetrazzini, a robust Florentine soprano whose career peaked in 1905-14. Tetrazzini dazzled audiences with her chromatic scales, staccato, trills and other such florid effects, and her skill and taste in the delivery of simple melodies was universally admired. The girl had class. Luisa’s great rival was Nellie Melba, an acclaimed Australian soprano with whom she had a bitter feud. (It’s a diva thing.) Escoffier, “the King of Chefs and the chef of kings” created dishes for them both; for Nellie the peach Melba, and for Luisa a soufflé Tetrazzini. While the peach Melba (peach and raspberry sauce over vanilla ice cream) has become a standard (as has Melba toast, also an Escoffier innovation for her during an illness), the soufflé Tetrazzini has been consigned to obscurity.
The dish Luisa is much more remembered for was according to James Beard (and though Beard had a natural bias towards the West Coast, I’ll trust him in this issue as opposed to the Knickerbocker supporters) made in her honor by Ernest Arbogast, the chef at the legendary Palace Hotel in San Francisco, where Tetrazzini resided for two years. Her contamporary Caruso was there during the Great Earthquake in 1906; he never returned, and who can blame him? Luisa’s enduring dish is turkey tetrazzini, a spaghetti dish usually involving our Foremost Fowl, and though we may never know what the original contained, in addition to string pasta and turkey, the tetrazzini usually has mushrooms and vegetables in a Velouté/Mornay sauce topped with Parmesan cheese and baked en casserole.
Even though it has now become such a pedestrian dish that you see versions of it in the lunch buffet at Kroger, for many such as me tetrazzini has become a default leftover turkey dish. Here’s a basic recipe from Fannie Farmer, but bear in mind the variations are endless. I use vermicelli rather than spaghetti, and instead of baking will often just ladle the turkey/sauce mixture over the pasta with a sprinkling of cheese.
Velouté sauce: Lightly cook 3 tablespoons of flour in 2 tablespoons butter. Add I cup good chicken broth, about 1/3 cup heavy cream, a quarter cup of dry sherry and generous dash of nutmeg. Stir until thickened. To four cups cooked spaghetti, add about three cups diced turkey (or chicken), one cup sliced sautéed mushrooms and about a quarter cup of sautéed celery. Mix with Velouté sauce and about half a cup of grated Parmesan. Place mixture in a casserole, top with more Parmesan and bake at 425 for about 15-39 minutes, until lightly browned. Some top with lightly toasted sliced almonds before serving.
On February 11, 1963, WGBH in Boston aired a cooking program focused on a tall, gangly diplomat’s wife who spoke as if she had a ping-pong ball lodged in her throat. Jacqueline Lee Bouvier Kennedy, the most glamorous First Lady since Dolly Madison, was living in the White House. The nation was in the process of disengaging itself from the dreary paranoia of the McCarthy Era, and Julia Child, the earnest, jocular woman on WGBH’s cameras, had just the sort of upwardly-mobile appeal that a cooler and less robust Martha Stewart would have some 25 years later.
Julia was no less of a shrewd businesswoman than Martha, though perhaps a bit less rash. A graduate of Smith College, Child worked in publicity and advertising in New York before joining the Office of Strategic Services during World War II. She served in the Far East before settling in Paris with her husband Paul in 1948. In Paris Julia enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu Cooking School. There she met her two French colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. No doubt on the insistence of Julia they opened their own cooking school L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes. The trio produced their groundbreaking first book Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961.
And groundbreaking it was, since this book literally plowed the hearth of the American kitchen, which had been packed into the Eisenhower casserole-and-grill era for almost a decade. The Brits were in the process of taking over our ears (“I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released a year after Julia’s first program), and the French, with the help of a little ole girl from Pasadena, were taking over our tongues. She had her critics, to be sure, most notably John and Karen Hess, who slammed her for—among other things— putting sugar in her bread to hasten the leavenings and for praising a Big Mac (no doubt under duress). But Julia was bigger than their niggling. She was a professional who became an icon. Over a decade later, Dan Ackroyd’s wonderful caricature on Saturday Night Live familiarized her to millions who had never seen her before.
She became the model for every cooking personality—male or female—who came after her, our first true celebrity chef. But she was not a flim-flam kitchen personality. Julia realized that she had to teach a generation of Americans to recognize cooking as something far more than an obligation. Julia transformed our kitchens into a place where art is possible.