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My Julia Child Moment

By Joyce Maynard, "My Julia Child Moment," November/December 2013

Author Joyce Maynard's humorous essay on making Julia Child's Chicken Melon for a holiday party.


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The year was 1983, and I had just turned 30—my daughter 5 years old; her brother not yet 2. My husband and I were broke, our car was dying and we were having trouble in our marriage. Stretched to my limits on even a normal day, I had decided to throw a Christmas party for 50 friends.

As a person may do, when she’s young, I wanted to impress them with some very grown-up-seeming dish. So I took a cookbook down off the shelf that I’d never actually used before: one by Julia Child on the subject of entertaining.

I’ve always loved cookbooks that feature photographs. As I pored over the photographs in my Julia Child book, I was keeping my eye out for something that would look impressive on our holiday table. (Once, for my mother’s birthday, I’d made a salmon en croûte—the fish encased in homemade croissant dough, in the shape of a woman meant to resemble my mother.) The one that caught my eye: Chicken Melon. Although it didn’t contain any fruit, it was named this because it was made out of a chicken, but shaped like a melon.

The idea was to remove the skin from a very large chicken, or possibly a capon, keeping the skin intact as much as possible, in a single piece or just a couple of them. Once the chicken was parted from the skin, you took the bones out and tossed the meat into a food processor. Then you added various ingredients, including heavy cream, cognac and pistachio nuts. You whirled all this together until it formed a puree. Meanwhile, you lifted up your chicken skin, much as a tailor might who was tackling the project of sewing a wedding dress. Something spectacular and difficult, in other words. Only in this case, what you had to create, with needle and thread, was a casing for the chicken puree mixture that would conform to the shape of a sphere. Into which you’d spoon your chicken, cognac, cream and pistachio puree. Stitch shut. Then bake (basting regularly).

The hardest part was separating the skin from the chicken. You did this by lifting the entire chicken to your lips (the end where the egg comes out), creating a vacuum not unlike the embouchure of a great jazz trumpeter, and blowing. Blow hard enough, was Julia’s theory, and the skin parted company from the meat. (Back in 1983, people didn’t talk much about Salmonella. Or at least, I didn’t.)

I had created other foods for this event. Little cheese tarts. Bacon-wrapped grapes. Carrots and celery sticks, arranged in the pattern of a mandala around a bowl of hummus. But that Chicken Melon was the pièce de résistance.

Three hours before the guests arrived seemed like ample time for one Chicken Melon. And maybe if I’d been Dizzy Gillespie, it would have been. But hard as I blew, that chicken skin stayed put. If you’d walked in my kitchen one hour before our guests were due, you would have been met by the sight of an exhausted and sweat-drenched woman with a crazed look in her eye, holding aloft the nine-pound body of a capon and performing a rite that, if you didn’t know better, might have resembled the world’s most enduring French kiss.

Eventually, I got that skin off the bird, though not in one piece as Julia described. Instead, I was left with six or seven, which I patched together. I tossed that baby in the oven. Threw on my holiday sweater, with the Santa and the bells on the front. I was still zipping up my pants when the first guests knocked at the door. Soon the house filled with people. Then the great moment came: to serve the Chicken Melon. Our guests looked interested, if vaguely baffled.

“Good meatloaf here,” said one of the men as he bit into his piece, which—once sliced—did in fact bear a strong resemblance to meatloaf, if meatloaf contained pistachios.

“The flavor’s familiar,” he added. “I just can’t place it.”

“It’s chicken,” I said, mumbling something about Julia Child.

It took five hours to make. And 10 minutes for my guests to consume. The big hit was the hummus.
I never made another Chicken Melon. Or attempted to serve up a chicken in any form that did not resemble… a chicken. And here’s what I know, 30 years later. As good-looking as a dish may ultimately be, if it leaves the cook looking haggard and exhausted I’ll pass. I’m a good cook, but a casual one, these days. I’d rather be at the table with my friends, enjoying the meal and the conversation, than in the kitchen with a chicken to my lips.



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