Ann Arbor, Mich., was an encapsulated sphere of a unique culture in the 1960s, a cradle of writers, artists, and musicians, with the cosmopolitan nature more of a large city such as New York than a small, Midwestern town. An intense cutting edge atmosphere existed throughout the arts and literary discussions; creativity emerged or was invited. It was during this time, the avant-garde art scene in Ann Arbor equaled New York’s, particularly with a performing arts group called “Once.” Also, the Ann Arbor Film Festival received acclaim before Sundance was founded. Electricity was in the air. I was fortunate to be there.

The University of Michigan filled the town with students from large and small countries around the world, many attending graduate school, moving in with entire families and introducing ethnic foods. I was constantly exposed and impressed with food, wine, art and sophisticated, smart, well-traveled people. I started exploring the magic of cooking.

My gourmet cooking friend Pat was my mentor. My kitchen became my universe. The electric cooking stove was replaced with a secondhand, large restaurant gas stove; an old butcher block and a big slab of marble, needed for making pie crusts and piroshkies, retrieved from a restoration business, supplanted a Formica counter. I read every cookbook I could find, finally working up my courage to purchase the two volumes of Gourmet. With all the different breads I made, I could never match Pat’s French bread. Any recipe I tried resulted in another white bread shaped like hers. Mine wasn’t a crisp, crunchy crust with a chewy, moist, holey interior that I coveted of Pat’s or when in Paris. Though I felt I might be treading on holy ground, I asked her to share her secret. After all, the worst she could say was “no.”

Pat told me to get Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” “That’s the recipe,” she said. I rushed out and bought both volumes, returned home to my kitchen, took the books out of the bag and quickly fingered through the index, determined to make great French bread. I turned to the indicated page, anxious to find the missing mysterious ingredient. I was horrified … the recipe stretched 19, single-lined, 12-point-type pages. Not only that, the ingredients were exactly the same I used for my so-called French bread. So what was the deal?

I was overwhelmed but undaunted. Dreading the 19 pages by myself, I ran to Pat. “Pat, please let me watch you make the bread,” I said. “I don’t think I could follow along 19 pages and work the dough at the same time.” Pat sighed.

“Marilyn, this takes all day,” she said. “I have a better idea. Julia is a friend of mine. She and I went to Smith, though she was ahead in years. I learned directly from her. Maybe it’s better you too should learn from the horse’s mouth.” Before I could answer, Pat had picked up the phone, called Julia, and signed me up for the next cooking class in Cambridge, Mass.

“Are you nuts, Pat?” I asked. Reality hit. “I can’t afford a plane trip to Cambridge let alone cooking lessons.”

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “Of course you can. Find an inexpensive plane ticket or drive, and I’ll talk to Julia for a discount. If you want to make authentic French bread, you’ll find a way.” And I did. I drove to Cambridge from Ann Arbor, leaving the children in my mother’s care.

Julia towered above the four of us taking the class. Wine? Oh yes. Red wine. She served us with her comments on the particular grape and region of France. Together, we all sipped the wine, as we frantically took notes and Julia juggled a wine glass, knives, whisks, wooden spoons, pots and pans, and demonstrated techniques for grating, chopping, whisking, beating, folding, grinding, puréeing, caramelizing, searing, and on and on. Easy. Effortless.

Considering the wine consumed and the closeness of the knife to her fingers, I shuddered when I heard the staccato noise of her large chef’s knife, reverberating like a semiautomatic gun, as she whacked into a large Vidalia onion. “If you can afford it, get only Sabatier knives,” she said, swinging the large knife in a circle above her head. Her familiar TV sing-song-high-pitched voice rang out as she chopped away. “Sabatiers have the correct balance because they’re made of carbon steel running through the handle and they are the only ones to give a sharp edge.”

My favorite moment in Julia’s kitchen occurred on this first day when she was demonstrating how to cut up a chicken for Chicken Bouillabaisse. Again wielding the Sabatier chef’s knife, she took a sip of wine from her glass, set the glass down, and said, “Now, don’t be shy … just hack through the breast bone …” And as she attacked it with the knife, the chicken went flying to the left, through the air, off the cutting table, onto the floor. “Oh dear,” she said. “Will someone please find my poulet?” One woman picked it up and returned it to Julia who took another sip of wine and proceeded. “Now, where were we … oh yes, cutting through the breast bone,” she said. Everyone laughed with her. Her affable manner, humor and relaxed spirit spread to us, a group of women who arrived serious and stiff, but were learning to relax and have fun as cooks in the kitchen.

French baguette making was the next day. Ah. Finally I was to find out the great secret. Some little special trick, maybe a pinch of this or that. Mai non! Flour, water, salt and yeast. I couldn’t believe what I saw on her breadboard. A sticky, wet glob poured out of a mixing bowl. Julia started working with it. The dough was stuck to her right hand in a stringy mess. She took a five-finger pinch of flour with her left hand and scattered it on the board and lightly touched her right sticky hand on some loose flour she had piled to the side. She picked up a large spatula (a wide, rectangular piece of metal with a wooden handle) in her left hand, with which she scooped up the sticky lump with the blade into her right hand and slammed it down onto the table. Plop! Why wasn’t she reaching for more flour? And then, as if reading my mind, “You have to work the dough as wet as possible, with little flour,” she said, in a breathless voice, as this process of scooping and throwing the dough down on the board continued, with sips of wine from the wine glass, now covered in flour-studded-globs. Little beads of sweat formed on her upper lip. Finally, the small, roundish mass started to take shape. It became smooth and lovely. I wanted to cradle it in my hands.

The smooth cushion was tenderly placed in a bowl for a four-hour rising; then re-worked. The second rising was two hours. With a rolling pin, Julia then rolled out the smooth, crowned dough and cut it into three equal parts. She rolled each piece with both hands, working from the center, to make snakes. These were placed on cookie sheets for the final rise — two to two-and-a-half hours. Then she painted egg white on the loaves, and placed the pan in a 450 degree oven for 30 minutes. (When I make the bread, I open the oven door from time to time and splatter drops of water on the burners; it helps make a crispier crust.)

Mind you, this made only three baguettes. Now I want you to imagine making 81 loaves. Oh yeah? Oh yeah! I did it. I must have been in a manic state.

This madness took place a few years later, after we moved to Maine. A barbecue birthday party was held at the Remsen Foundry in Rockport for Rico, one of the Foundry resident artists. Around 80 or more people were expected. I figured a long night of partying needed a lot of bread to soak up the wine. French loaves were rising every few minutes in every room of my house, including bathrooms. I had to keep an accounting and timing of myriad cookie sheets. Thinking back, I honestly don’t know how I did it. Maybe a glass of wine helped.

I arrived at the party, carrying in a huge basket, all 81 beautiful, golden baguettes, some still warm. A large side of beef lay on an open pit fire. Potluck salads and casseroles were spread out on long tables. The bread was a huge success. French baguettes were seen sticking out of back pockets of blue jeans as darkness filled the field, engulfing the party goers, into the late hours.

Back in Ann Arbor, right after I returned from Julia’s class, French bread became a staple in my kitchen, and more so when we moved to Maine because in 1970, there wasn’t any good bread to purchase. I made it each week for my family and sometimes to take to friends’ dinner gatherings.

I tried teaching my young daughter Genevieve to make the French bread because she liked to cook with me, making other breads and cookies, but not this one. “It’s too sticky, Mommy,” she said. “I don’t like that.”

For the sake of column space, I just touched on the procedure. Please read and follow Julia Child’s recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Vol. II, pages 55 – 74.

Marilyn Moss Rockefeller lives in Camden.