Julia Child: Boutez en Avant

15 Jul 2009, Posted by Jennifer Iannolo in chefs & restaurants

Cooking is not a chore, it is a joy. Dining is not a fuel stop, it is recreation.
Julia Child

“Full steam ahead.” It is a phrase that would serve as a mantra for the ebullient woman that was Julia Child. This giant of character, spirit, and stature changed the meaning of cuisine for a culture with its feet firmly implanted in a quagmire of frozen dinners and canned, limp ingredients.

(Here is where I am supposed to say: “We have come so far!” But have we? More on that in a moment.)

As a child, I was enthralled with Julia. Since PBS was the station of choice for my allotted television time, I often watched in piqued curiosity as she bombastically wielded her instruments around the kitchen. And that voice. Knowing no better, and given the name of her series (“The French Chef”), I assumed she was indeed French, and that she and her countrymen all spoke in that funny pitch. I distinctly remember being alarmed to discover she was American.

Because of Julia, I would often tie an apron around my waist and stand on a chair at my mother’s kitchen counter, ingredients and cookbook at the ready, prepared to speak to my audience. The window, a perfectly-centered camera, recorded every one of my gastronomic sermons. Given that my only talent at the time was for baking Snickerdoodles, I can’t imagine that my proselytizing was of much use to my viewers.

After reading Noёl Riley Fitch’s biography of Julia, Appetite for Life, it is easy for me to say that I admire this spirited cook even more now than I did before. Aside from being a true bon vivant and culinary legend, she was so fantastically independent in her thinking and actions that to me, she has become a personal hero.

At a time when it was taboo to do so, she remained single into her thirties, determined to marry a man about whom she was passionate, and with whom marriage would be fun. Her husband Paul fit the bill admirably, and became her beloved partner in every way possible. She railed against conventions she found insupportable, and staunchly believed that individuals should be responsible for themselves, turning her back on a president (FDR) whose policies she felt had gone too far in enabling the complacent.

What I loved most in exploring her life, however, was discovering that she had little patience for “trendy” food. She wanted good, solid cooking, and held disdain for the entertainment spectacle the industry became in the later years of her life (though one can certainly say she kicked it off). That she stayed true to her principles, and refused to sell out lest her objectivity lose its credibility, is a testament to her character.

Her lack of pretense made cooking an inviting topic for those who might initially feel daunted by taking on such a field of exploration. She handled mistakes with humor, and insisted they were the only way to learn. What a dame.

So, fifty years later, what have we learned?

Well, as I look around me, I see that despite her efforts, and the proliferation of cooking schools, shows, and chefs who spread the gospel, there are still woefully few who cook in this country. When I say “cook,” I mean not from a package.

Yes, the packages have gotten prettier, and the ingredients better (in some cases), but how does that translate into culinary knowledge? If people were paranoid about cholesterol in Julia’s time, look at their reactions to carbs now. I would love to hear Julia respond to being chastised for making a cake laden with white flour and sugar!

Her mission was to ignite the passions of would-be cooks, to show them that solid skills opened a world of sensory possibilities. She “brought a new aesthetic to food, one based on the centrality of pleasure and taste” (Appetite for Life, p. 299); “she celebrated her appetite, the joy of the kitchen, and the pleasure of food, a pleasure conveyed in the way she patted the bread dough and caressed the chicken” (p. 301).

One can see the impact of her influence: We have passionate amateurs who take knife skills classes, install magnificent kitchens in their homes, and fully embrace the sensual experience that is preparing a meal. A young woman named Julie Powell, seeking a meaningful experience, took Mastering the Art of French Cooking and set out to prepare each one of its recipes within a year’s time. She now has a book and a movie, and has garnered a legion of fans who cheered her on every step of the way. Some of her dishes were successful, and others a disaster, but the process evoked something powerfully fulfilling within her. For what task, in today’s world, could be more challenging (and frustrating) than teaching oneself traditional French technique — from a book?

But there are not enough of her — of us. There are too many who dine out for the sake of being fashionable, rather than for the gustatory experience. Cooking has become a circus, with a superstar in every ring. Those devouring the spectacle do not participate — they are armchair travelers and cooks who live vicariously through a television chef, wearing their virtual toques. Julia called them “fluffies” (p. 476).

To offer an eerie comparison from her time period: Poppy Cannon, the can-opener queen, occasionally appeared nationally on CBS’s Home show, demonstrating, for example, how to make vichyssoise with frozen mashed potatoes, one sautéed leek, and a can of Campbell’s cream of chicken soup” (p.296).

That same show, circa 2005, now appears five nights a week on the Television Food Network, touting “Semi-Homemade.” Everything old is new — and mind-numbingly unappetizing — again.

Those of us who do cook, however, savor the exploration of a world of ingredients, seeking knowledge of technique, history, taste, or the myriad of wonderful sensations to be found in the realm of gastronomy. Our need to satiate our senses is a tribute to the spirit of Julia Child, who understood why it is preferable to take a small taste of something wonderful, rather than a bowl of something lackluster (or god forbid, fat-free). As Fitch so eloquently concluded, “[Julia’s] message was her philosophy of life: life is to be joyous, and joy comes from sensory pleasures shared with others” (p. 459). Amen.

Since this week marks what would have been La Grande Dame’s 93rd birthday, I will be sure to find myself a magnificent bottle of bubbly and offer a toast to her memory. For what you have brought to our lives, our country, and our cuisine, dear Julia, bon appétit.

Appetite for Life by Noel Riley Fitch, © 1997 Noel Riley Fitch (Anchor Books).

This article was originally published in August 2007.