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Wednesday, October 24, 2012

"Bon Appetit": The Gospel according to Julia Child (Sunday, October 21, 2012)

            Poor Jimmy Carter. He nearly got done in before the 1976 election, when he told an interviewer from Playboy magazine that he had “lusted in his heart”. I guess the idea of “lusting in one’s heart” sounds nearly quaint today. Indeed, in the face of all the unbidden blood and buttocks that crosses our television screens on a regular basis these days, even Playboy magazine might seem almost quaint.

            But I know from whence candidate Carter spoke. For I, too, have known lust in my heart. Not of the usual carnal and erotic sort (necessarily). More of the culinary and epicurean kind, I suppose.

            Nor would it be any blond bombshell—some svelte and slender feminine trifle—who would lure we away from my Elizabeth (who is quite blond and svelte and slender and feminine enough for me to handle, certainly; though hardly a trifle).

            Rather, it would be a woman about eight inches taller than I am. And about 42 years older. And who is no trifle, either (though, no doubt, she made her share of them in the course of her life, I’m sure).

            I am referring, of course, to my heart’s mistress, Julia Child. The woman who, if truth be told, taught me how to cook:

            You see, as a teenager with basically no social life, on Saturday evenings, I started watching The French Chef  on Channel 2 —PBS today; we used to call it “Educational TV”. I don’t know what it was about her—do we ever with love?—but something clicked, and I was smitten, and soon was doing the family’s grocery shopping, and a lot of the cooking, which is where it’s been since.

            (When I watch reruns of the old French Chef episodes today—which I do, on a regular basis—I am always amazed at certain little things—measuring a teaspoon of salt in the palm of the hand; patting mushrooms dry with a paper towel before sauteing them; the certain way to chop an onion—that came right from Julia. I got so much of the technique of how to carry oneself in the kitchen; how to plan out the cooking of a meal; how to pick up a dropped chicken off the floor—directly from her.)

            So, when I was at Harvard between 1978 and 1981, and I discovered that her home at 103 Irving Street in Cambridge was just around the corner from the Divinity School, and I just happened to have an hour at lunchtime between classes, I decided to take a stroll more days than not—in the hopes that, one day, the esteemed Mrs. Child would be out in her garden, or bringing in groceries from her car, or something, and would see me, and take pity on this starving divinity student (I was much thinner back then) and invite me in for lunch, or tea, or whatever.

            Well, it never happened. I never got invited in for coffee. I never even met Julia Child. Or saw her in person. Or heard her speak. Or corresponded with her. Or sent her an email. Or “liked” her on Facebook. (Well, maybe I did do that. But she was dead by then.)

            But even though the paths of our lives never crossed, she bequeathed much to me (and to so many others) in the 92 years of her life. There are always valuable lessons to learn in life, and Julia taught us all quite a few of them.

            She was born in Pasadena, California on August 15, 1912—we just celebrated the 100th anniversary of her birth this past summer. Her father, John McWilliams, was a conservative Republican businessman; her mother, the former Julia Weston, was from an old Massachusetts family (after whom the town of Weston was named), whose father had served as Lieutenant Governor of the  Commonwealth, who had made his money in the paper industry.

            Julia graduated from Smith College in 1934, an unexceptional student, but well liked by all her knew her, and a center of social life on campus. She had majored in English, so after graduation, she made her way to New York, where she tried her hand (with limited success) as a copywriter for an advertising firm. When war came, she tried to enlist in the WACs, then in the WAVES, but was told each time that she was too tall—six feet, two inches tall, to be precise. So, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, the OSS—the precursor of the CIA instead. While she (probably) was not a spy, her work with the OSS was of an extremely sensitive nature, and she was granted Top Secret security clearance. In 1944, she was posted to Ceylon (Sri Lanka today), and there she met Paul Child, whom she would marry in 1946.
            In 1948, with the war over, Paul Child joined the U.S. Foreign Service, and was posted to Paris, where, of course, Julia accompanied him. She loved France—Paris especially—and later told the New York Times that her first meal on French soil, in Rouen in 1948, had opened her soul and spirit to the glories of life. But in time, she grew bored as a diplomat’s wife, and started to search out a hobby, an avocation, to help her spend her idle hours. “I was 38 years old,” she wrote later, “and had no idea who I was.” She tried hat making, but that didn’t work, so later, at her husband’s suggestion, at the age of 39, she decided to take cooking lessons—she had never really cooked before. “Before I enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu,” she wrote, “I had never cooked. I had only eaten.”

            After graduating from cooking school, Julia joined a Parisian cooking club, Les Cercle des Gourmettes, where she met Simone Beck and Louise Bertholette, who were working on a French cookbook for Americans. At Beck’s suggestion, Child joined them in their endeavor, in order to increase the book’s appeal to “real Americans”.

            For the next ten years, the trio would work together on their cookbook. The Childs were transferred—first to Marseille, then to Norway, then to Germany, finally back to the United States—and all the while, the “Trois Gourmandes” as they called themselves, would correspond with each other, revise recipes, search for a publisher, and hope for the best. Houghton Mifflin in Boston was interested; but when the trio delivered a manuscript that ran to nearly a thousand pages and covered only sauces and soups, it was back to the drawing board. A smaller, revised version then was offered, which Houghton Mifflin also rejected as being “too encyclopedic”, too expensive to produce, too involved and complicated for the typical American housewife.

            Crestfallen, Child thought that an entire decade of her life had been wasted. But then, at the insistence of her friend Avis DeVoto, she submitted the manuscript to Alfred A. Knopf,  whose chief editor was known as something of a Francophile and amateur cook. Eventually, the manuscript (still with its original title of French Recipes for American Cooks) made its way to Judith Jones, an editor for the company’s European division, who had been the one who rescued The Diary of Anne Frank from the rejected pile. Jones took the huge, onionskin manuscript home and began to cook from it. Randomly, she chose a recipe for Boeuf Bourginon, and fell in love.

            The title was changed to Mastering the Art of French Cooking; the work was published by Knopf in 1961; and, as they say, the rest is history.
            “This is a book for the servantless American cook,” the forward to the original edition begins, “who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, times schedules, children’s meals, the parent-chauffeur- den mother syndrome, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.”

            It changed the way Americans thought about food. As once recent commentator has put it, “It was Julia Child—not single-handedly, but close—who started the public conversation about cooking in America that has shaped our cuisine and culture ever since.”

            A few months after Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published,  Julia appeared on a book review program on WGBH Channel 2 in Boston called I’ve Been Reading. Armed with a hot plate, whisk, and pan, she proceeded to make an omelet on live television! Viewers were hooked; dozens wrote in, asking to see more of her. Russ Morash from Channel 2 asked her to tape three pilot cooking shows, and they were instant hits. America’s first celebrity cook was born. The French Chef debuted in February of 1963, and would run for over ten years (and forever in reruns).

            After that, there would be a dozen more cookbooks—five more television series (the final one, with Jacques Pepin, filmed when she was 85 years old), Emmy awards, honors and accolades, a Presidential Medal of Freedom,  a French Legion of Honor.  Her kitchen from 103 Irving Street in Cambridge was even placed in the Museum of National History at the Smithsonian Institution.

            When she died in 2004, just two days short of her 92nd birthday, the New York Times called her “French Chef for Jello-o Nation”; in a cover story, Time magazine had called her “Our Lady of the Ladle”.

            She taught some of us how to cook. But what were some of the deeper lessons she taught us?

            Julia Child taught us to follow our passion. “Find something you’re passionate about and  become tremendously interested in it,” she said. Find your calling—and stick with it—become better at it than anyone you know. And the world will respond.

            She taught us that we’re never too old to learn something new—or to do something new. In a world which worships youth, she was living proof that sometimes those who bloom latest bloom most beautifully. She was 39 years old before she had even started to cook; 50 years old when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was finally published; 52 years old when she made her television debut. Yet, she rose to the top of her field in all of these endeavors.

            She taught us to cultivate enthusiasm for life, for whatever we’re doing in life, right now. While observing her cooking instructor, the renowned Chef, Max Bugnard, in Paris in the 1950s, she had a revelation: He cooked everything with utmost zeal and enthusiasm. “It was a remarkable lesson,” she wrote. “No dish, not even a humble scrambled egg, was too much trouble for him. I was delighted by his enthusiasm and thoughtfulness. And I began to internalize it.”

            Julia taught us to take our time and pay attention. To those who do not cook, the recipes in Mastering the Art of French Cooking can seem so involved and complicated. Yet, on closer reading, they are as rational and well-thought out as can be. They take things step by step by step. But they can’t be rushed, and they have to be read, and then carried through, one step at a time. You have to engage with them, every step of the way. There are no cheap and easy short cuts. But the result will usually be worth the toil.

            In cooking and in life, Julia teaches us to slow down, and pay attention to what we’re doing. And if we do, then even the most unremarkable among us can do some truly remarkable things.

            Julia’s life story testifies that even the smallest things can have great consequences. The class taken on a whim. The hobby attempted. The meal shared. All things in our lives can have profound consequences, and can lead us to an exciting new stage of our journey.

            “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream,” she said: Pay attention to the quality of those things that go into our lives. Junk in—junk out. Or, conversely, time and patience and care and joy can yield truly wonderful creations. Not just in cooking, but in living itself.

            “How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?” she once asked. She warned us not to constantly trade convenience for quality. 

            “When it’s all so beautifully arranged on a plate, then you know that someone’s fingers has been all over it,” she said. Banish the pursuit of the (unattainable) “perfect” for the pursuit of that which is good and beautiful and true and achievable—if we dare. And realize that the good and beautiful, in life and in cooking, will always have our hand prints all over it.

            Julia Child once wrote that “Dining with one’s friends and beloved family is certainly one of life’s primal and most profound delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal.”  

            She taught us how to make the eternal real and taught us to taste deeply both the sweet and savory essence of life. She was the consummate anti-elitist, always 100% herself. She loved haute cuisine and fine wines, yes. But she also loved Pepperidge Farm goldfish, and hot dogs at Fenway, and French fries from McDonald’s (though not the hamburgers; those, she thought, were garbage).

            She loathed organized religion. But she believed in celebrating life. And here on the paths of everyday, perhaps that is even more important. She knew that in the sharing of this communion of being with one another, we share a feast of life with one another so simple, yet so profound, something earthly yet eternal, an opening of our souls and spirits to the glories of life.

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