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Buttery French Fare: Gone Appétit?

Sacrebleu! Could it be true? Has French cuisine and cooking become passe?

The question arises in the wake of just-opened "Julie & Julia," the Nora Ephron homage to Julia Child (Meryl Streep) that tells two delicious stories: how Child became one of the 20th century's culture-changing figures, and what happened when Julie Powell, a 21st-century admirer (Amy Adams), decided to make, and blog about, all 524 recipes in Child's seminal cookbook, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," in one year.

The movie food looks mouthwatering. But you can't help wondering: Who cooks like that anymore? Who eats like that anymore?

So much butter and cream and heavy sauces. So much effort and time. So many other ethnic cuisines to sample instead. After all, these days, people are "afraid of butter," Streep says.

"They don't (cook like that anymore) and we don't, but it's still a really good cookbook," Ephron says.

Why go to the trouble?

But why would busy and health-conscious Americans, even foodies, bother to bone a duck for Child's Duck en Croute or wilt over a hot stove making her Boeuf Bourguignon when it's so much easier to go out for Thai?

"Some of that has become dated - they don't eat that way (even) in France anymore," says food stylist Susan Spungen , consultant on "J&J" who helped make the dishes seen in the movie.

But French cuisine dead? Jamais, says Dorothy Cann Hamilton, founder (25 years ago) of the French Culinary Institute in New York. "It's not dead, in fact it's a trailblazer and will continue to be," she declares. French chefs in America are "doing the most modern, revolutionary and groundbreaking work anywhere."

In 1961 , when "Mastering" first appeared, the definition of "fancy" dining was a French restaurant. Nowadays, not so much. Powell says Child tapped into America's yearning for European style back then; now the world is a bigger, more interconnected place, where chefs and home cooks have access to global ingredients and cuisines.

"Even in France, where culinary heritage is fiercely protected, new ingredients are making their way into the finest restaurants," Powell says by e-mail. "Classic French cuisine will always have its place, but there is so much out there."

"French food has evolved, thank God," says Eric Ripert, who should know, being French and the chef/co-owner of one of New York's top French restaurants, Le Bernardin, which is routinely packed. He says contemporary French cuisine is lighter and healthier than in the days of "Mastering."

"We use cream and butter very little, almost non-existent, and flavor comes from infusions and vinaigrettes," Ripert says. "We are doing pretty fine, even during the tough economy. "

Still, Zagat's 2009 America's Top Restaurants Survey , which asks surveyors their favorite cuisine, found that Japanese now outranks French, which came in at No. 4 (with Italian and American Nos. 1 and 2).

"Japanese was not even in the lineup 20 years ago, but it's become incredibly popular since then," says Tina Zagat, co-founder of the influential survey.

Marisa McClellan, a Philadelphia food blogger who teaches cooking classes and has an online cooking show , says people who see "J&J" may be inspired to try out some of the less complicated recipes in "Mastering," but doubts it will send more diners to French restaurants. "With so many more options you might not want to eat that heavy or that expensive," she says. "People are looking for comfort food because of the economy and a lot feel that French food cannot provide that down-home, grandmother's-kitchen style of cooking."

So maybe French cuisine is not as dominant as it once was; nevertheless, something just as important remains: French cooking techniques. First codified more than 200 years ago and introduced to millions of Americans by Child, they remain crucial in preparing virtually all kinds of cuisines, and are taught at all culinary schools.

There's a reason most cooking terms are French: For instance, to braise, or cook with moist and dry heat, can be used on any protein in any cuisine, says chef Kirk Bachmann, vice president of academic affairs for the 15 Le Cordon Bleu schools in North America.

"She took something that was a mystery to the American audience and she made it approachable," he says. "She took that chicken and danced with it before she cooked it and she applied the techniques she learned at (Le Cordon Bleu in Paris)."

Whether most Americans realize it or not, French technique is the foundation of what we eat today, Spungen says. "You may have Thai ingredients but you cook with French techniques," she says. "It's so completely assimilated into American cooking in large part thanks to Julia."

Family wants more fans

Child's family and her many friends and supporters hope the movie will introduce her to a new generation of foodies. "It will make people want to eat French and want to learn to cook, because the act of cooking was as important to Julia as what you're cooking," says Susy Davidson, coordinator of the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

Amy Adams, for one, says she's been inspired. "Doing this film inspired me to cook a lot more and in a different way - cooking with my friends and really making things from scratch," she says. "There are recipes in ("Mastering") that really aren't that complicated. There are just a lot of steps to it, but if you follow the steps it's very easy."

Take the glorious Sole Meuniere that Child falls for when she and husband Paul arrive in Paris just after World War II. It's the dish she credited with providing her epiphany, her eureka moment when she knew she wanted to learn French cooking, says Tim Ryan, director of the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, N.Y.

"It's a dish of simple perfection, and that's what she was attracted to," he says, adding that CIA plans to put it back on the menu of the school's French restaurant to attract diners looking to try what they see in the movie.

Always in style

In truth, Child, who died in 2004 at age 91, has always been au courant. At the National Museum of American History, Child's collection of French copper pots and pans, plus items from the movie donated by Ephron, recently were added to the exhibit, Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian. Officials say it is one of the top three most popular exhibits (it's seen in the movie) at the Washington museum.

Powell says her book and the movie celebrate not just Child but "the capacity people have to be moved and changed by their love of food.

"Julia cooked the same way she lived - with both rigor and passion," Powell says. "She is a glowing inspiration, and if a new generation of men and women discover that, then the movie (and the book) will have done its job."

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