A Julia Child gathering

N.O. area women gather to cook, eat in fun, French style

Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZStacey Bradford, clockwise, from left, Bonnie Lopez, Jennifer Creger, Anita Lesmond, Kristi Cannon and Amber DiMaggio share a laugh before eating the entree they prepared Jan. 19 at the monthly gathering of their Julia Club cooking club, Les Femmes Fabuleux, in Creger's Kenner home.
Advocate staff photo by ELIOT KAMENITZStacey Bradford, clockwise, from left, Bonnie Lopez, Jennifer Creger, Anita Lesmond, Kristi Cannon and Amber DiMaggio share a laugh before eating the entree they prepared Jan. 19 at the monthly gathering of their Julia Club cooking club, Les Femmes Fabuleux, in Creger's Kenner home.

Laughter and the aroma of roasting
chicken greeted guests to Jennifer Creger’s suburban New Orleans home.

Creger welcomed her guests with a high-pitched “bonjour” and a kiss on each check. She smiled when told she sounded like Julia Child, the cookbook author and television star who taught Americans how to cook classic French food and have fun doing it.

For one Saturday night every four to six weeks, she and the seven other women who belong to the Julia Child cooking club, Les Femmes Fabuleux, pretend they’re French while they drink wine, French, of course; munch on French cheeses and bread; and tackle recipes from Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” and other publications. Then, they sit down and share the meal.

They often find themselves imitating Child’s speech patterns, Creger said. “She has such a distinctive voice. We call her Julia because you feel like you know her once you read her recipes.”

The group always meets at the home of Creger, who set three rules: The house doesn’t have to be clean; think of the kitchen as your own; and if the recipe doesn’t come out, it’s the fault of the recipe not the cook. That last rule came in handy when, for example, they accidentally substituted cilantro for parsley. Or when they kept tasting the carrots that flavored a sauce and had none to serve with the meal.

Another rule was later added: You have to try everything unless you are truly allergic to an ingredient.

The inspiration for Les Femmes Fabuleux came from a challenge Creger’s pastor made in 2009 “to start a small group based on something we love to do. ‘Julie and Julia’ had just hit the movie theater, and we thought it would be a great idea to start a group of girls who wanted to do life together, sharing our love of food and desire for community. What better way to spend an evening than in the company of Julia Child and her ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking,’ ” says the group’s Facebook page which includes information on how to form a cooking club.

The comedy-drama “Julie and Julia” contrasts Child’s life in the early years of her culinary career with that of blogger Julie Powell, who aspired to cook all 524 recipes in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in one year. The cookbook, co-authored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, was originally published by Alfred A. Knopf in 1961. A second volume by Child and Beck was published in 1970.

Besides Creger, members of Les Femmes Fabuleux are Stacey Bradford, Amber DiMaggio, Kelley Hand and Emily Tharpe, all of Kenner; Bonnie Lopez, who now lives in Bay St. Louis, Miss.; Kristi Cannon, of Harahan; and Anita Lesmond, of River Ridge. Some only knew one other member when they joined the group, but now “we’ve become very close,” Cannon said.

“When we’re cooking, we talk about everything,” Bradford added as she found a bottle of cognac to flambé the main course, Poulet au Porto or roast chicken steeped with port wine, cream and mushrooms.

Oops, the dish didn’t flame, Cannon said. More cognac, she instructed Bradford.

“We’ve bonded over food,” Creger said.

For the first two years, Les Femmes Fabuleux members cooked only recipes from both volumes of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” but have since expanded to other recipes they find in magazines, newspapers, cookbooks and online. They also now feel comfortable enough with Child’s recipes to make changes to them. For example, the asparagus with bread crumbs and poached egg dish for their Jan. 19 dinner began as a broccoli recipe that didn’t include egg.

“We’re not allowed to comment on how fattening a dish is,” Lopez said. “We never lighten a dish.”

“Julia in lower fat …” Creger began.

“Was a 10-second discussion,” Lopez joked.

Meanwhile, the chicken dish wouldn’t flambé. “More cognac,” Cannon exclaimed.

“We do sophisticated food. We make everything from scratch and with fresh ingredients,” said Creger, who plans the seasonal menus, purchases the ingredients, makes the cooking assignments, and acts as sous chef or “floater” cook on cooking night. Each member pays $25 to cover the cost of ingredients. That goes up to $50 when husbands and boyfriends are invited for special events, such as Valentine’s Day or Christmas.

Creger took on the task of planning the menu because she said “that’s the thing that seems to intimidate people the most.” When their group got underway in September 2009, “some people felt they were less accomplished than other members but everyone has been able to fully participate,” she said. And everyone agreed they’ve become better cooks.

“I could do basics, but my cooking has definitely improved since I joined the group,” DiMaggio, the newest member, said. “I’m learning a lot of new things and now my family pretty much eats a home-cooked meal each night. My mom, who died last year, was a really good cook. My mom would be really proud.”

Child’s recipes are tough, they said. Their early endeavors left the kitchen as a wreck with every pot dirty.

The group’s members have their own stylized fleur de lis logo, which was designed by Tharpe, a graphic artist, and appears on their white chef’s jackets and aprons.

While they each have assigned tasks, the women jump in and help others so the meal can get to the table within a few hours of their 6 p.m. start. Lesmond, who’d prepared the asparagus, instructed DiMaggio on how to poach eggs and Bradford helped DiMaggio with the bread crumbs that topped the asparagus-egg dish.

Lopez prepared the dessert, Blackberry Lemon Gingersnap Cheesecake, at home because it had to chill. She and Creger assembled it shortly before dinner.

“In the beginning, we rotated desserts and brought them ready to eat,” Cannon said. “Emily (Tharpe) made the first dessert, a gorgeous fruit tart. She set the bar really high. She’s a great baker.”

“More cognac,” Cannon insisted when the chicken dish still refused to flame.

Creger, who grew up cooking with her parents in North Carolina and was exposed to a lot of different cuisines, “moved to Louisiana right from college and took a job in New Orleans. I’ve lived here since 1989. I met my husband, Dave, at a Bible study.” He helps the group with clean up and opening wine bottles.

Her interest in French cooking came from the movie “Julie and Julia,” she said. “I developed an interest in good food when I moved to New Orleans. I like to entertain, that’s the bottom line. I really enjoy entertaining and creating something nice for others to enjoy.”

The aromas in the kitchen began to take on a strong hint of cognac as the effort to flambé the chicken continued. Someone suggested Cannon and Bradford give up because the dish was quickly turning from chicken steeped in port to poultry steeped in cognac.

The women sat down at the dinner table, linked hands and said grace before sharing their meal, which was paired with the white Bordeaux recommended by Child.

“We’re eating at 9 p.m.,” someone noted.

“Yes, it’s pretty early,” another said as the group burst into laughter.