"Give them not Hell, but

Hope and Courage."

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.

Monday, October 15, 2012

The Smiling Pope (Sunday, October 14, 2012)

 On that morning at the end of September in 1978, thirty-four years ago, a stunned world awoke to hear of the death of a pope. The world press announced that John Paul I had died suddenly during the night, barely a month—just 34 days—after ascending to the papal throne. At the time of his election on August 26, Cardinal Albino Luciani was little known outside of Italy. But during his brief time in the See of Peter, he had captured the world’s heart with his simple, unfeigned warmth and humility. He had already become known the world over as “The Smiling Pope”. And that would be his legacy.

            The election of the diminutive, soft-spoken Cardinal Luciani to the papacy on that late summer day in 1978 was a surprise to almost everyone outside of the College of Cardinals. As crowds watched the tiny chimney connected to the stove inside St. Peter’s, where the ballots of  each round of voting were burned, predictions of a long, drawn-out conclave seemed to be confirmed. If no candidate had been elected, damp straw would be added to the burning ballots to make the smoke turn black; white smoke would symbolize the election of a new pope. After the fourth ballot, however, the smoke that poured forth from the chimney seemed an ambiguous gray. Many assumed it was black, and so turned to leave. But when Cardinal Pericle Felici, dean of the College of Cardinals, stepped out of the great central door of St. Peter’s onto the balcony, all those present knew that, remarkably, a new pope had already been chosen on the very first day of balloting.

            “Nuntio vobis gaudium magnum. Habemus papem,” Cardinal Felici announced in Latin: “I announce to you a great joy. We have a pope.” After Luciani’s name was announced, the new pope was led out onto the balcony—a small man, perhaps five foot three inches tall; eyes twinkling behind round spectacles; his hair sticking out beneath his skullcap, slightly disheveled; and bearing already the unmistakable, slightly impish smile that would become his trademark.


            Luciani had taken the first double name in the history of the papacy: John Paul, the First,” he said-- because, he added, “there will soon be a ‘Second’.” He had chosen the name in honor of his two immediate predecessors, John XXIII, who had first named him a bishop, and Paul VI, who had named him a cardinal. It was a sign that Luciani would continue their policies, including the reforms of the Second Vatican Council.

             “I have neither Pope John’s wisdom of heart nor the preparation and culture of Pope Paul,” the new pope told the crowd gathered to hear him. “But I am now in their place, and so I must seek to serve the church. I hope you will help me with your prayers.”
            For his papal motto, John Paul I chose a single word: Humilitas. Humility. Not because he personally excelled in that virtue, he said; but because it was the virtue he most wanted the church to exemplify during the time of his pontificate.

            Luciani moved quickly to do away with some of the pomp that had surrounded the papacy. At his coronation (which he renamed his “installation”), he refused to wear the traditional Triple Crown, worn by popes for centuries. Instead, he put on a simple bishop’s miter. He shortened the ceremony, and moved it outside into St. Peter’s Square, so more could attend and see it. He refused to be carried in the sedia gestatoria—the portable throne of the popes, and instead walked to the ceremony himself. (Later, he would reluctantly agree to reinstating the sedia gestatoria because his short stature made it impossible for the assembled crowds to see him.)

             He never moved too far, it seemed, from his simple origins in the mountains of northern Italy:

            Albino Luciani was born of October 17, 1912—100 years ago this coming Wednesday-- in the small town of Canale d’Agordo, between Venice and the Austrian border. A frail infant, he was baptized immediately by a midwife, who didn’t expect him to survive the night. Throughout his childhood, he was sickly, suffering from bronchitis, pneumonia, and other respiratory ailments.


            His mother, Bortola, was a nurse’s assistant; his father, Giovanni, was a bricklayer, who spent much of each year away from the family, as a migrant worker in Germany and Austria. His mother was a devout Catholic—“very sweet, but very severe,” her son later described her-- who led her children in daily prayers. His father was an ardent socialist, who would often speak of the needs of the working class, and discuss with his children the events of the day. Both wanted their children to study, to learn, and to rise above the poverty into which they had been born.

            Early in life, young Albino became enthralled by the holy simplicity of the Capuchin friars who would visit the area, and soon had decided upon the priesthood as his calling. At first, however, his father, good socialist that he was, refused to sign Albino’s application to the seminary at Belluno. But in time, he relented. “We must make this sacrifice,” he agreed. But then, pointing to the crucifix on the kitchen wall of their humble abode, Giovanni Luciani told his son: “That Jesus of yours was a worker, too, you know. He remembered the workers, and died for them. When you become a priest, you must be like him.”

            Albino was ordained to the priesthood in 1935, and spent two years in the parish before returning to the Belluno seminary as the vice-rector in 1937. When Mussolini and the Fascists took power in Italy, the Luciani family joined the opposition. When the war came, and Mussolini allied himself with Hitler, Albino’s younger brother, Edoardo, went underground to fight with the anti-fascist partisans; his sister, Antonia, served as a partisan courier in northern Italy. For his part, Albino also assisted with the partisans efforts from his position at the seminary in Belluno. “He wove the threads of Catholic resistance in our town,” one resident said after the war. He hid Jews escaping from persecution in Rome within the walls of the seminary. He served as a go-between in negotiating the release of local men from both Fascist and Communist prisons.


When the war finally ended, Albino continued his work at the seminary. But during a visit to Belluno, the patriarch of Venice, Cardinal Angelo Roncalli, realized that Luciani was a priest of extraordinary gifts. When Cardinal Roncalli became Pope John XXIII in 1958, he attempted to name Luciani bishop of the diocese of Vittorio Veneto, in northern Italy. Luciani demurred, citing his lack of qualifications and his poor health (he had already been hospitalized twice for tuberculosis). Pope John reassured him, and guaranteed that the mountain air in Vittorio Veneto was just the cure that Luciani needed!

His warmth and total lack of pomp soon won the hearts of the people of his diocese, priests and laity alike. To everyone, he was simply Don Albino (Father Albino), and when he visited parishes, he would dress as a simple priest, a custom he would continue throughout his career. Sometimes, he would go unrecognized by those around him because of his unassuming ways.

Driving to an early morning Mass one cold and rainy morning, he spotted a woman and her young son hurrying along, heads bent against the wind. When he asked where they were going, the woman said “To church,” where her son was scheduled to serve the Mass for the bishop; but now, she said, she was afraid they were going to be late.

When the procession later entered the back of church with Bishop Luciani, now vested, he spotted the woman in the congregation, and whispered to her, with a smile, “You see, we all got here on time.”

But there were problems at Vittorio Veneto, as well. In 1962, two priests got involved in a scam that cost numerous small investors their life savings—over 2 billion lire, tens of thousands of dollars.

Bishop Luciani called a meeting of his 400 priests, and announced that the diocese would repay every lire the priests had stolen. There would be no civil immunity for the priests, either, he emphasized; they would be punished to the full extent of the law (and both went to jail for several years). To repay the debt, he would sell all objects of worth in the diocesan treasury; one of the buildings owned by the diocese would be sold, as well. “In this scandal, there is lesson for us all,” he said. “We must be a poor and humble church.”

When Bishop Luciani became patriarch of Venice in 1969, his concern for the poor continued. He sold a gold cross and chain that had been given to him by Pope John in order to donate the money to an orphanage for handicapped children that was threatened with insolvency. As president of the Italian Bishops’ Conference, he proposed that wealthy dioceses in the West should donate 1% of their annual income to poorer dioceses in developing countries—not as charity, he said, “but as something owed, to compensate for the injustice being committed by the consumer world against the developing world.”


Visiting hospitals around Venice on a weekly basis, Luciani would charm the patients with his smiles and jokes; but the honor guard of doctors, nurses, and administrators who insisted on following him around the hospital irritated him greatly. In time, Bishop Luciani figured out that if he came to the hospitals on Sunday evenings, there were fewer people around, and he could see patients unbothered by his retinue.

His door was always open, and his telephone rang constantly. When a priest called him at lunchtime, and was told by the nun who answered the phone to call back later, Luciani reproved her gently. From now on, he was to be interrupted for all calls, even at lunch, he said. If any Italian calls someone at midday, instead of eating lunch himself, the cardinal pointed out, it must really be an emergency!

But even with his busy schedule, Albino Luciani found time to study and to write. He wrote several books, the most famous of which was Illustrissimi, imaginary conversations with personalities from literature and history, including Charles Dickens, Mark Twain, and even Pinocchio. In his letter to Mark Twain, Luciani’s deep humility shines through:

“Just as there are different books, there are different bishops. Some are like eagles, who glide at great heights with magnificent documents; others are like skylarks that sing the praises of the Lord in a marvelous way; finally, others are poor wrens that, on the lowest branch of the Church tree, only squeak, trying to express some thought on the broadest themes. I, Mark Twain, belong to the last category. I am just a poor wren.”

But many felt differently. Visiting Venice in 1972, Pope Paul VI publicly placed his red stole around Luciani’s shoulders, a gesture many interpreted as a sign that Paul wanted the patriarch of Venice to be his successor. The next year, Paul named Luciani to the College of Cardinals.


When the 1978 conclave searched for a successor to Paul, the quiet, unassuming Luciani, a man of deep warmth, great learning, impeccable pastoral skills, and moderate theology, soon emerged as an obvious choice. He was “God’s candidate,” Britain’s Cardinal Basil Hume said later. “Once it had happened, it seemed totally and entirely right… We felt as though our hands were being guided as we wrote his name on the paper.”


In accepting election to the papacy, an overwhelmed Luciani added to his colleague cardinals, “May God forgive you for what you have done on my behalf.” He would do what was required of him, he said. But he confided to close friends that he knew that his reign would be a short one.


Indeed, a little more than a month after his election, Pope John Paul I died in his sleep. The official cause of death was listed as a heart attack. But there was no autopsy, and conflicting accounts soon led to rumors, and conspiracy theories, and persistent charges that he had been murdered. Some said he was killed by liberals because he was too conservative; others said he was killed by conservatives because he was too liberal. Others said it was because he was going to expose deep corruption in the Vatican Bank. Others said that he was just a weak, sick man whose body gave out under the pressures of an overwhelming and demanding position.  


“He was shown to us, not given,” a German archbishop named Joseph Ratzinger—later Pope Benedict XVI-- said in a homily following the death of John Paul I. He was like a comet who flashed briefly across the sky, lighting up the world and the church, if only for an instant, said Cardinal Carlo Confalonieri.


On the day of John Paul’s funeral, St. Peter’s Square was all but flooded by a steady, torrential downpour that just would not let up. The assembled thousands-- world celebrities, heads of state, common men and women-- were soaked to bone by the rains of heaven. The untrammeled grief of the people of Rome reminded many observers of the mourning that had accompanied the death of the beloved John XXIII.


But even in its mere 34 days, the papacy of John Paul I had touched the world deeply. His had been the smile of a saint. He had touched the world, and had given us just the barest glimpse of the sorriso di dio—the very smile of God. A smile we need to hold deep in our hearts in these difficult and troubled  days.