I remember the first time I watched Julia Child – it was on Chicago’s local PBS station – WTTW Channel 11. It was a rerun of one of her classic cooking shows, I believe it was from the 1970s because I remember Child was sporting some mighty large lapels.
I was a small kid who loved cooking shows – I found them cozy and fun. I loved Julia Child’s trilling flute of a voice. I thought she sounded like one of the Muppets from Sesame Street – another show, I loved as a kid. I also remember Bill Cosby as Cliff Huxtable, parodying Child whenever he cooked on The Cosby Show.
As I got older, I began to appreciate Child more for her impact on American television and America’s love of cooking, than for her cartoonish voice. With her iconic tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child brought dishes like quiche lorraine, bouef bourguignon, and coq au vin to a mainstream audience of American housewives, who may have been intimidated by the idea of cooking foreign food.
Her TV show was a smash hit because she brought to viewers a very unpretentious approach to cooking – she dropped food, she would wipe her sweaty brow in frustration, she would lean her amazonian-like body against her counter in exhaustion. She was delightfully unfussy when teaching her audiences the finer details of cooking.
Later on in the 1980s and forward, Child’s stamp, while diluted by the onslaught of cooking shows, could still be traced back to her work. Another popular French cooking expert, Jacques Pepin, probably owes his whole TV career to Child – in fact, in the late 1990s, the two joined forces for a series – Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home and published a fantastic companion cookbook to the program. In it, though, you see the beginning of Child’s decline. Despite her being a master French chef, she was charmingly quaint, in a business that was progressively looking for more – more sexy, more ingredients, more trends…
When watching the Food Network, I always keep in mind and ask “Would Julia have a show on this channel?” And the answer would probably be no. Even though she could probably cook circles around the celeb-chefs that have their own shows, she lacks their glossy polish, and often her unconventional looks would count against her – now, chefs are required to be major babes like Sandra Lee, Rachael Ray or Giada Di Laurentiis; If not that, then they have to be personality-driven, regardless of their recipes, as seen by the maternal atmosphere of Paula Deen’s or Ina Garten’s show; we didn’t really watch Child’s family marching into the kitchen, smiling to the camera. We knew precious little about her life from her TV show – it was just about the cooking plain and simple.
A couple years back, Meryl Streep inhabited the spirit of Child in the hit movie Julie & Julia - a role that earned Streep an Oscar nomination. I’m glad this movie came out, because at least for a brief moment in pop culture, Child’s mammoth influence on television cooking came back into its deserved spotlight.
I still cook from my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I don’t really use her other books that are in my library – I read them like literature – I love her prose – but my dog-eared copy of Mastering has seen its way through a lot of meals. Some of the pages are splattered, and they stick together because of a particular sauce or gravy I was trying to make. There are grease spots dotting pages, and the cover’s bright, shiny green has dulled and faded. But it’s still the one cookbook I go to. I’ve made my famous ratatouille, and all the praise heaped on me, should at least in part, go to Child.
For foodies, Child’s reckless abandon when it comes to ingredients, also carries a subtext. I always thought, “A woman who cooks with that much butter must live life well.” And that’s what Julia Child taught us – how to love cooking – eating wasn’t simply something we did to survive, it was something we did because we enjoyed it so…It’s interesting because the only TV chefs that come close to this joie de vivre are the Two Fat Ladies – Jennifer Patterson and Clarissa Wright-Dickson.
And I know as I write this, I am aware that our nation’s obesity problem has grown to an epidemic. I know we cannot eat food that has pounds and pounds of butter, cream and milk. But that’s not what enjoying life was about – enjoying life was about knowing when to enjoy good food and how to prepare it.
As a fledgling, struggling, wannabe food writer, I look to Child as an imposing figure, despite her natural, at-ease demeanor. I look at her with some intimidation not because of what she knew how to do, but of what she was able to accomplish. She essentially created a genre of television that has spawned books, movies, contests, reality shows and even cable channels.
In paying tribute to Julia Child, I’m not just honoring her – but I’ll also honoring the rise of public television, the rise of the appreciation of cooking, and the rise of food writing. But I’m also paying tribute to a woman who was successful – more than anyone else – in imparting a very wise bit of advice for her viewers – enjoy life. So, to Julia, bon appetite!
There have been books by and about Julia Child – I have a mini-library, myself. Here is a select bibliography of works by Child. Click on the titles to purchase them from amazon.com.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. This is the grandadaddy of cooking books – very simple, easy-to-follow instructions and delightfully square and dated in its presentation. There are no glossy photographs, the few illustrations are well-done hand drawings. But the recipes are almost full-proof, and many of them are versatile, and you can build on them.
The Way to Cook by Julia Child. This is considered Child’s other classic – I don’t really cook from this too much, instead I treat this more like a coffe table book because of the crazy-ridiculous beautiful photography; that’s not to say that the recipes aren’t great – they are fantastic and there are photographs to help guide you through the preparations, which is very helpful. Also, the recipes are organized by technique, which makes for easy reference.
Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home by Julia Child and Jacques Pepin. I love this book – I think it’s great how these two titans of French cooking get together to do their respective takes on a recipe. The setup of the book is great because Child’s and Pepin’s recipes parallel each other so you get a great handle on how they differ. As with The Way to Cook, this book also offers some incredible food photography – an art in itself.
My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’Homme. This book made up the “Julia” part of the Oscar-nominated hit Julie & Julia. Child’s life in France was pretty exciting as her husband, Paul worked for the American Embassy, and there were some hairy moments when he was accused of being a Communist. Also her writing about taking classes and learning about her love of food is wonderful. It’s a great book that made me want to pack it all up and move to France.