“Who is Julia Child?” I heard that question while standing in line at a local bookstore. The response the questioner received from her companion was just as startling; “I don’t know. Some cook, I guess”
The pair of twenty-somethings was standing near a display of Julia’s cookbooks. That these two young ladies – who surely would have instantly recognized Paula Deen or Rachael Ray – were clueless about Julia Child is a sad and telling comment on our modern era of “instant celebrity.” But Julia had already made her enormous contribution to contemporary society and was well on her way to becoming a much-revered cultural icon years before these women were born.
In the first fifty years of the twentieth century, America had survived a world war, a crushing economic depression, and still another world war. Now that the Second World War was over and prosperity was roaring back, Americans were ready to put all the hardship behind them and move on into the modern world in a big way. For women especially, this meant no more slaving in the kitchens as their mothers and grandmothers had. It’s the 1950s! Everything we need to feed our families can be found in a box, in a can, or – wonder of wonders – fresh from the freezer! No more muss, no more fuss. Who needs to know how to cut up a chicken, how to mash potatoes, how to cook peas? Messrs Swanson and Birdseye have done it all for us and put it in conveniently compartmentalized containers right in our freezers. And should we desire to make “real” mashed potatoes or “real” macaroni and cheese, we have boxes full of them in our pantries and cupboards and all we need do is boil up some water. Throw off the chains of kitchen drudgery, ladies! The Jolly Green Giant has set you free!
Enter Julia Child, an American woman who discovered French cuisine while living in Paris and who subsequently set out on a mission to share her new-found passion with other Americans. Realizing that the “heat and serve” generation in America was going to need instruction and recognizing that there were no authentic French cookbooks written in English, Julia collaborated with a pair of French cooks and authors to bring about the tome of more than 700 pages that became “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”
Through over 500 personally tested and concisely written recipes, Julia de-mystified haute cuisine and made it available to average home cooks. An instant hit with upwardly mobile young women who wanted to seem trendy and sophisticated by preparing dishes they couldn’t properly pronounce, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” soon became an indispensable tool for the serious-minded cook who wanted to master not only French cooking, but cooking in general. The detailed, insightful, and most importantly, practical tips and techniques Julia imparted to her readers/students could easily be adapted and applied to nearly any cuisine.
But Julia’s influence in American kitchens had only begun. In a world without a twenty-four hour a day cable network dedicated to food, Julia Child became the first true “celebrity chef.” Her live-to-videotape program, “The French Chef,” which aired on National Educational Television (forerunner of PBS), was such a stunning success that markets around the country frequently reported running out of the ingredients for whichever dish Julia was preparing that week. Utilizing recipes from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” Julia not only brought her book to life, but did so in a delightfully entertaining way.
The gods must have thought it amusing to take a somewhat gawky 6-foot 2-inch figure and pour THAT voice into it. With a delivery and demeanor that sometimes left viewers wondering whether she had been sampling the sherry a little too much, Julia made learning to cook fun. Anybody could stand in front of a camera and prepare a recipe, but nobody could do it like Julia Child could. Even her mistakes – and since the program was taped live, there were more than a few – were turned into “teachable moments.” An apocryphal tale tells of Julia’s dropping a chicken (duck, turkey, leg of lamb) on the floor, picking it up, dusting it off and returning it to the pan with a cheery, “Remember, you’re alone in the kitchen, so no one will know.” The closest verifiable incident of this type occurred when Julia was flipping a potato pancake a bit too vigorously and some of the mixture slopped out of the pan and onto the stove or table, causing Julia to admonish viewers to “just scoop it back into the pan,” and continue cooking it.
It was Julia’s easy confidence in the kitchen that made such a tremendous impact on fledgling cooks and chefs. As she matter-of-factly made her way through dishes of varying complexity, she made the home viewer – the home cook – believe that he or she could do it, too. Many of today’s Food Network “stars” attribute their early inspirations to Julia Child. Although not the first televised cook – a distinction claimed by James Beard – Julia Child was certainly the most widely viewed and the most influential. By the time she died in 2004, just two days shy of her 92nd birthday, Julia Child had authored more than a dozen best-selling cookbooks, had hosted a dozen televised cooking programs, had been awarded numerous Peabody and Emmy awards, and had founded the educational American Institute of Wine and Food in Napa, California. She also received the French Legion of Honor and the U.S. Presidential Medal of Freedom, as well as honorary doctorates from Harvard University, Johnson and Wales University, and her alma mater, Smith College.
The late Nora Ephron's 2009 film “Julie & Julia,” a work based on Julia’s autobiographical “My Life in France” and on blogger Julie Powell’s recounting of her efforts to cook her way through Julia’s magnum opus “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” by preparing 524 recipes in 365 days, helped introduce Julia to a new generation. She is portrayed with uncanny aplomb by actress Meryl Streep, whose mimicry of her unique, warbly voice and slightly dotty mannerisms is so eerily accurate as to make one think that Julia herself is up there on the big screen. Although I agree with many critics that the movie should have eliminated the superfluous Ms. Powell and been simply “Julia,” it is, nonetheless, an entertaining film.
As a dedicated Italian cook I spare few opportunities to take potshots at the over-preening haughtiness of the purveyors of French cuisine, but Julia Child is bulletproof. I only wish she had discovered her passion in Naples or Rome instead of Rouen, but c’est la vie.
As to the two young ladies in the bookstore, I’d advise them to go ask their mothers or their grandmothers. Or maybe just pick up one of Julia’s cookbooks for themselves.
I usually sign off my little epistles with “buon appetito,” but maybe, just once, in honor of a great lady, it wouldn’t hurt to say “bon appetit.”