Julia Child would have turned 100 this month. Eight years after she died, Julia is bigger in memory than she was in life—a fact PBS is taking full advantage of, through a retrospective of Julia’s classic cooking shows. The woman Meryl Streep cemented our collective memory of in Julie & Julia embodies not just a life’s work, but an entire ethos, something essential about the DIY spirit of home cooking in the modern age.
She became the resolutely cheerful face of TV cook shows in the 1960s and ’70s, the era of Feminism, Black Power, and Gay Lib. And just like the engines of those social and political movements, Julia’s message was simple and optimistic: You have the power to take control of your own destiny. In her case, that meant wrenching fine cooking, politely yet firmly, out of the hands of experts.
French cuisine was one of the world’s most complex and professionalized, but Julia made Americans feel it could all be grasped as easily as improving a golf swing or mastering the perfect party casserole, if one applied the proper diligence. Remember that in 1961, the year Knopf published the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (which Child coauthored with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck), things like quenelles, beef bourguignon, and chocolate mousse were not for the untrained. America’s highest culinary aspirations were French, and the gatekeepers were totally dickish Euro chefs with contempt for housewives and other kitchen amateurs. First Lady Jackie Kennedy didn’t turn to some rootsy American chef to remake the creamed-chicken Eisenhower White House into some aspic-glazed model of chic, but one of those stiff-toque French professionals, Rene Verdon.
But just as upper-middle-class American women in the 1960s were discovering the female orgasm, Julia was helping them discover bouillabaisse—in both cases, all you really had to do was roll up your sleeves, keep your head down, and have the courage of your convictions.
DON’T MIND THE GREASE
That’s what’s striking about Julia’s first cooking show, The French Chef (1963-1973), compared to food television now: how human it was.
Not fun like The Pioneer Woman’s scripted day of fun with her mom and sister at the lavish Oklahoma ranch—you get the feeling some producer steps in after every take to tell Ree Drummond to make sure she keeps smiling. But the fun of the unpredictable: the infamous potato pancake fail, for sure, but really every minute Julia is on camera. The wheezing no Food Network producer would tolerate, the completely unvetted list of recipes she chose to demo. (Tripes à la mode—really?)
You look at French food on TV today—say Cooking Channel’s French Food at Home, with Laura Calder—and it seems as sealed in plastic as a sous-vide chicken breast. Nothing’s going to stink or soil the countertop, Calder isn’t going to sweat or grunt or stain her svelte little sweater dress with lard. Nothing will surprise you, or make you laugh. Calder is at the center of a predictable and depressingly passive universe.
And Julia, even in old age in the late ’90s, with shows like In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs and Baking with Julia, where she was not much more than a presiding spirit, bent over, at times cranky—even then, Julia was about winding you up to drag the stand mixer out and make a mess in the kitchen.
GO TO SUPERMARKET, BUY CHICKEN
A year ago I got to interview Alice Waters. We sat down in her study, in the maze of offices next door to her restaurant, Berkeley’s Chez Panisse, which was turning 40. I didn’t come away with any revelations—except when the famously controlled Alice busted out her imitation of Julia, in the same throaty, careening falsetto that Dan Aykroyd made Julia sound like in everybody’s imagination.
“You know, Alice,” Waters said, tilting her head with the prim authority of a teacher at a girls’ boarding school, “you can buy a chicken from the grocery store and make a perfectly marvelous roast bird.”
Waters was taking Julia to task for having had faith in ordinary ingredients, like supermarket chickens. At the time I thought, “Right? A supermarket chicken: What the hell was Julia thinking? To have any hope at all of making a decent roast chicken, you’ve got to first seek out a $40 farmyard bird, and then be careful not to ruin it.”
But thinking about it now, I’m not so sure Julia wasn’t right. Certainly Julia was smart enough, and had lived long enough, to know a good chicken when she tasted one. It’s not like she didn’t know the state of factory-raised poultry. But if somebody told you you couldn’t make a proper roast chicken without driving 10 miles and depleting your debit account and then cooking under the stress that comes with the imperative not to mess up precious ingredients, how often would you bother?
If Alice’s message was about empowering us to seek out authentic ingredients, Julia’s was about empowering us to elevate what we already have. That’s arguably a more human and forgiving message, less rigid, maybe even wiser. Children of the gentle revolution, bon appétit.
Photos courtesy of Paul Child