To Celebrate Julia Child, Just Read Her

Aug 132012
 

Julia Child (Photo courtesy Knopf Publishing)

Julia Child would have been 100 this week, and festivities and tributes are everywhere (see list below).

I am one of the few in our industry who never met Child, despite an opportunity. I saw her hulking presence at the IACP conference, but I was too scared to introduce myself. I also did not cook my way through her books as a young woman, as French cuisine was not in my consciousness in my 20s and 30s.

But I have read Julia Child’s writing, full of gusto and conviction, and doing so always thrills me. Over her career, she wrote or co-wrote 18 books with sales totaling 6 million copies, according to this article in USA Today.

I own two of her books: The Way to Cook, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume II. I took the anniversary of her 100th birthday as an invitation to dip back into them and appreciate her prowess as a food writer. Here are three snippets that show her humor and good-naturedness, generous spirit, and practicality. Her ability to become your best friend, standing next to you in the kitchen, astounds me still:

1. From the beginning of the 1989 cookbook, The Way to Cook. It’s impossible not to fall in love with her immediately:

“In this book, I am very conscious of calories and fat…An imaginary shelf labeled INDULGENCES is a good idea. It contains the best butter, jumbo-size eggs, heavy cream, marbled steaks, sausages and pates, hollandaise and butter sauces, french butter-cream fillings, gooey chocolate cakes, and all those lovely items that demand disciplined rationing. Thus, with items high up and almost out of reach, we are ever conscious that they are not everyday foods. They are for special occasions, and when that occasion comes we can enjoy every mouthful.”

“With the probable exception of fresh foie gras, which appears only once, all the ingredients called for here can be found in any well-equipped American supermarket. It is obvious to anyone who is interested in food that you chose the freshest and finest — which does not mean the most expensive, just the best, whatever it may be. If you do not find the right quality for a dish you had planned on, change gears, and pick another recipe.”

2. And from Mastering the Art, which she wrote with Simone Beck in 1970, she’s so sensible and clever:

On pureeing soup: “If you prefer an electric blender or processor, pour liquid off solids and into a bowl; ladle a cup or so of the solids and a cup of the liquid into the container. Puree by turning the machine on and off every second or two to avoid that too-smooth effect of baby food, since you will usually want the soup to have some texture.”

You’ll find lots of tributes to Child this week, including a self-serving one, a new book, videos, and events:

One hundred restaurants around the country are celebrating her birthday with recipes inspired by Julia, from now through August 15. To find one in your town, see Julia Child Restaurant Week. And if you’ve yet to make a Julia Child recipe, here are a few to consider.

Bon Appetit, as Child would say. Try to not hear it as Dan Aykroid doing his Julia parody on Saturday Night Live.

What do you think of Child as a food writer? Are you surprised by how current she sounds, given how long ago she wrote these books? What can we learn from her writing?

 

[Disclosure: This post contains affiliate links, which means I can earn several cents if you make a purchase.]

 

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  52 Responses to “To Celebrate Julia Child, Just Read Her”

  1. I only was introduced to Julia Child in 2009 through the movie “Julie & Julia”. Somehow her TV series, The French Chef, never managed to reach our shores (despite our country loving all thing American).

    But since watching that movie, I latched on to her like crazy. Aside from watching “Julie & Julia” on weekly (Yes I seriously watch it at least once a week), I’ve read “My Life in France” and now am reading “As Always, Julia.” I adore how she is a sensible cook, considering different scenarios, which home cooks encounter on a daily basis. I also adore how she is not afraid of FAILURE. To paraphrase a Julia Child quote, you cannot be a cook if you are afraid of failure :)

    Cheers to failure and learning :) Happy 100th birthday Julia!

    • I wonder if some of her series is on YouTube now, so you don’t have to find it in Dubai.

      Yes, I love that about her too — that she just keeps going in a cheery way, despite obstacles and failures. She gives you the sense that it’s all so worthwhile in the end.

      • Some clips are on YouTube and I got to stumble upon some episodes and watch her in action. She’s just lovable! :) Meryll Streep did do a great job! She did justice playing Julia Child :)

        While I was growing up in the Philippines, we only had local cooking shows and a sprinkle of Chinese cooking shows like Wok with Yan. That was it. It was only when cable TV was introduced that we started to have an influx of western cooking shows like the Urban Peasant (I think he is the guy counterpart of Julia Child!).

        But despite only knowing her recently, she is like a grandma to me :)

  2. I read My Life in France just after we’d finished Well Fed… I was trying to decide whether or not I should leave my full-time job. Her sense of adventure, her ability to make the best of tough situations, and the way she charged ahead for what she wanted inspired me. Right around the time I finished reading her book, I gave my notice at my corporate job.

    The thing I find most inspiring about Julia (Can I call her Julia?!) is that she had so much… gusto. From her writing and her shows, she seems like she was very present — she enjoyed the moments. I love that and try to emulate that — with varying degrees of success.

    • How cool that her life inspired you to quit your job. And look how well it turned out, Melissa.

      Yes, gusto is the word I used as well to describe her writing. She does seem indefatigable, with a zest for life, and always full of fun. May we all experience those moments and learn to describe them in our work.

  3. I’ve only come to know about Julia Child’s life and work in the past few years but I have really come to appreciate and admire her work, her writing, her perspective. I haven’t tried many of her recipes but I look forward to exploring more of her books soon.

    • I’ve got links to some of her recipes in the post, Anna, so maybe you’ll find something to try. I’ve enjoyed many of her books over the years. I must have given away the book she did with Jacques Pepin to accompany the TV show. I particularly liked their differences on how to roast a chicken.

  4. I love this! I haven’t been able to find much of her on youtube, but this one video of her on David Letterman, which is a great video:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHX0pv8_JOE&feature=share

  5. Former Toronto Star Food Editor, Marion Kane had a friendship with Julia and has been prolific in her celebration leading up to this big day. Interested readers may want to check out the many treats she has placed on her blog. I have quite enjoyed the trip down memory lane. We in Canada are happy that Marion gave Julia a taste of the good things we have to offer here. (Well done, Marion!)
    http://www.marionkane.com/julia-child-100/intro.htm

    • Julia Child strikes me as someone open to travel and experiencing all kinds of new foods and talented cooks, so good for Marion for getting to spend a whole day with her in Toronto.

  6. My absolute favorite thing about Julia Child is her writing! Her memoir, My Life in France, is one of my favorite books of all time. What makes her recipes so special is the wit and personality that she managed to inject into them – a truly rare ability.

    • I think so too. Wouldn’t it be great if we could figure out her method and then apply it? Still working on that. My sense is that she wrote the way she talked, and she was an one-of-a-kind personality, so full of life. That’s kind of hard to duplicate.

  7. The writer who brought French-inspired food and ingredients to the UK is Elizabeth David and it’s her work that, as a Brit, I am familiar with rather than Julia Child. Like Didi, I only became aware of Julia via the highly entertaining film Julie and Julia. I have not delved into any of her writing or recipes – although your excerpts have made me resolve to change this.
    There is a current trend for a rather ‘breezy’ style of food writing. I’m not saying this is wrong but a wider variety of styles would be refreshing. Both Elizabeth David and Julia Child demonstrate that food writing can be serious and informed without being boring.
    I’ll make sure I reach up to that higher shelf of produce to celebrate 100 years of inspiration and gusto this weekend.

    • I only have one of David’s books, South Wind Through the Kitchen, but I always use an example from it in writing exercises to show use of the senses, place, and metaphor.

      “Breezy” is a good way to describe today’s recipe writing style. It has many imitators. When I read Child, I want more of how she does it! Wouldn’t it be nice if there were more imitators of her style?

  8. Great post, Dianne!

    I’m looking forward to Marion Kane’s presentation tomorrow night at The Cookbook Store in Toronto. Sad that I never got to meet Ms. Child in person but thrilled to be able to shake the hand of the person who called her “friend.”

    Julia didn’t teach me how to cook but she did teach me how to be fearless in the kitchen.

    Is there such a thing as literary non-fiction? If so, then Julia’s books are just that. They’ve stood the test of time. They are inspiring new generations of home cooks to “just get on with it.”

    • Yes there is definitely something called literary non-fiction, usually called narrative non-fiction. It’s said to have the same writing techniques as fiction, focused on dialog, character development, and the story arc. I don’t know if her work applies but it’s certainly literary and beautiful. Like you, I was struck by how current the examples seemed.

  9. I’m old enough to have watched her shows at their then current air time. I remember once, Julia was talking about cooking being an art not a drudgery and my mother’s response was “she wouldn’t say that after doing laundry, cleaning the house and then cooking for a family of eight” To some degree, I understood my mother but at the same time I comprehended the therapeutic nature that cooking had to offer…if one allows that offering.

    Because she was so down to earth and not an elitist snob, Julia set the stage for people to honor and tribute her.

    Denise Vivaldo, as everyone knows of her candid, outspoken nature, never had an un-kind word to say about Julia…that right there speaks volumes of the great icon of the Culinary World.

    • Yes, I have to say that when I am tired and it’s dinnertime, I agree with your mother!

      I love this description of her from Lidia Bastianich:
      She was wonderful to work with’97a force in front of the camera, but at the same time she was inquisitive and humble in her mannerism. She would openly ask the simplest of questions because she genuinely wanted to know, and those were the same questions the viewers had. She communicated so well with the viewer, without intimidating them with her wisdom and knowledge. What I learned from her was to speak to the viewers in a non-imperative manner, and to include them in the process. She showed me it is important to empower them, and make them feel comfortable behind a stove.

  10. I learned all the basics of cooking by reading and watching Julia. Her “The French Chef” series of PBS programs is a full cooking course. Now we can watch all 201 of those remarkable episodes on amazon.com. If you’re an amazon prime member you can stream them for free. I just introduced my 8-year-old granddaughter, JoJo, to Julia and she became immediately entranced by this strange-voiced woman as we watched her making V.I.P. Cake on my computer. “She’s funny,” JoJo shrieked.

    • Valuable information, Greg. Thank you. What a lovely surprise that when you introduced Child to your granddaughter, she appreciated her.

  11. Thanks, Dianne! I took your class, own your book in both paperback and e-book form and have heeded your advice on more than one occasion.

    I started http://themuddykitchen.com/ about a month ago and only yesterday had over 2000 unique views and more than 300 Followers. Most of all, I have heeded your advice that appreciating the community is one of the best things about having a blog.

    Thank you again – so far, it’s a blast!

  12. I learned to cook from Mastering the Art I while I was in graduate school. I loved the detailed instructions and felt upheld each step of the way. (I had no television at the time and didn’t seen her shows until the seventies). I cooked through Mastering the Art as a way of consolidating my relation to the only man I’d ever wanted to marry, and we did marry–in the living room of a friend who cooked us Child’s filet in truffle sauce for the wedding dinner. Julia Child is forever linked for me with the ebullience of the sixties in Berkeley.

    • So you weren’t eating brown rice and soybeans in Berkeley, Judith? Kidding. I know another couple who held lavish dinner parties cooking this kind of glorious French food in the 1960s, with lots of good wine. How romantic that you associate Child with meeting your husband.

      • The brown rice and soybeans came later–in the eighties, when I lived in a commune and cooked from Moosewood! Still I returned to JC again and again. My daughter, who would not eat JC fare when she was in high school is now hosting a birthday dinner for JC with all JC recipes. A sweet turn of events!

  13. What I love about her writing is how down to earth she is. Her style of writing is as if she is speaking to you and instructing you, in a loving, genuine yet authoritative manner. It’s timeless, and we can all continue to learn from her. I opened my copy of The Way to Cook this week and found inspiration for soups I am cooking for a client. I was also reminded I need to open this book more. I’d forgotten that something I have cooked for years, a sweet pepper saut’e9 which is great with roast chicken, is called a piperade. That would be a fun post, and it as relevant today for health-conscious cooks as it was years ago. The book I could not put down? My Life In France. Wonderful!

    • You’re the second one to say that here about which Child book you liked the most.

      I had the same response when I opened The Way to Cook to look for inspiration for my post. I was thinking it’s outdated, but then when I start looking through the recipes, I see so many dishes that are just as modern today.

  14. I grew up with Julia Childs on PBS. She is my hero. I have three of her earlier books and I so cherish them. They are very ragged and worn, showing their age, use and love. I can honestly say these books are very well loved’85 LOL

    • That’s the ultimate respect to show a book, Susan — to use it so much that it wears out. It’s a lovely compliment to her.

  15. As I didn’t grow up in the states I have never owned a Julia Childs cook book (in the uk we had Elizabeth David) but I do remember hearing her on the radio when I lived in L.A saying that one of the rules about hosting a dinner party was to never apologise. She said you can serve a boiled egg and as long as you don’t apologise it will be fine. I’m probably not giving justice to her quote, but I often think of that. It’s not what you cook but how you’ve cooked it and presented it.

    • Yes, I remember that too, and I thought it was such great advice that I adapted it. I like to use the same advice when I ask people to read in a class on food writing. They can’t apologize first for what they wrote. Everyone knows it’s a rough draft.

  16. […] I love this passage that Dianne Jacob reminded me of from her book, The Way to […]

  17. Like you, I took out my copy of Mastering… as I started thinking about how Julia influenced me and this upcoming 100 milestone and just adored the new intro she wrote for the anniversary edition. I am a picky reader who will put something down if even a paragraph loses my attention. Her writing made me feel like she was sitting in the room with me telling me the story. And then I read the original intro and that was just delightful as well – how she described the reader that the book was intended to reach – “this is a book for the servantless American cook…” How can you not just adore that line?

    And the more I thought about her, the more I realize that I’ve grown up with her since childhood, watching The French Chef and before I even knew what the word “influence” meant, she was influencing my life. It was only when I saw her come back to life through Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia that I finally chose a path for myself that includes my love for food and writing. Her enthusiasm and willingness to learn new things is still infectious and quite alive in her written words.

    • Hah! Yes, that’s a hilarious line, but in her day she might have been serious. I was once researching a story about setting the table, and looked through some older etiquette books, which all assumed the servants set the table.

      What a lovely tribute to her, Beth, as an inspiration for your career.

  18. I loved that she took the fear out of cooking. Cooking can be mysterious and sometimes scary. I loved that she showed when thing didn’t come out perfectly, and when there are mishaps in the kitchen. For a bit the cooking channel was airing some of her shows, I have a few on DVR.

    • It seems quaint today that things didn’t always turn out perfectly on her show, doesn’t it? I wonder if today’s hosts are raising the bar too high for people.

      • I think the shows where perfection is shown misses the teaching opportunity for when things do go wrong. That handicaps the new cook because they don’t realize that even if you follow the recipe sometimes things can go wrong. For example who hasn’t made a gravy that was too thick or even too thin. Tell people how to fix their food, now that would be educational. Teach them that certain ingredients can produce different results, and how to work with them.

        • There’s a new book idea for you, Stephanie, if it hasn’t been done. Seems everything has been done these days, but still, more cookbooks come out. For me, that’s what cooking is all about – fixing things and making adjustments. The more I cook the better I am at it.

  19. Thanks, Dianne, for another great blog! You continue to inspire me, just like Julia (you with my writing, Julia with my cooking!). It’s been a few years since we’ve spoken in person, but know that I love catching up with you through your blogs.

    Diane

    • Diane! I did not know that you have been reading my blog all this time. Thanks so much for the comment. I have fond memories of duck confit at your house, with a tart tatin made by me. Julia would have approved. Take care.

      • Oui, c’est moi, lurking in the shadows! And, I have fond memories of the same evening, as well as memories of a fabulous tajine at your place. We’re in Italy at the moment, checking out the food (among other things). i started a blog a few months ago (click on my name above) if you’d like to see what we’re up to these days.

  20. Hi Dianne, I’m going to be honest here. I’m probably one of the few food writers who doesn’t have a personal relationship with Julia. I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve never watched her shows or read any of her books. I do own “Mastering …” (don’t remember if it’s part 1 or 2, it’s in storage!) but have never cooked from it. I did watch “Julie and Julia” and someone even gifted me the DVD! French cuisine has never been a huge part of my world (I’ve had delicious French meals, just not cooked by me, and am quite the Francophile when it comes to travel, style, and decor) and growing up in Asia we didn’t have her shows on TV. But it’s fun to see how much people loved and admired Julia.

    • Thanks for your honesty. I’m not far behind you in these thoughts. I haven’t cooked from her books either.

      I believe she loved all kinds of food, though, particularly Chinese. She was just an expert in French.

  21. I never had the opportunity to meet Julia Child and her show was a little before my time, but her influence on American cookign cannot be denied. I’ve met a few big names in the industry (Jacues Pepin, Lidia Bastianich) but meeting Julia would have been like meeting the queen. I entered the food industry later in life than most, so I sometimes feel like I have to hurry to catch up, and, unfortunately, I sometimes miss the opportunities that others have enjoyed, such as meeting the great Julia Child. Well, she will live on in our cultural history.

    • Yeah, me too. I was too chicken when I had the chance. But we have her writing, and her PBS shows live on. She is very much in our consciousness, and always there if we want to learn from her.

  22. I haven’t read much of her own writing but now I must. I loved “My Life in France” and have been reading through “As Always, Julia” which brings out everything amazing and fascinating about her. I never had the chance to meet her although my former boss knew her quite well, but she was quite old by then and rarely travelled to France. (and your bit about being scared to talk to her at IACP – I was afraid to go up and say something to Ruth Reichl at the end of the IACP gala even though we were both alone and she smiled hello at me. Sadly we regret these moments later. Thanks for a wonderful post. And it is hard to NOT hear Dan Aykroid…

    • I’m sure there are many more of us who are scared to talk to people we admire. They just don’t admit it! And I read somewhere that Child played the Ackroyd parody during dinner parties at her house, so she must have loved it.

  23. I had the pleasure of watching her on t.v. growing up. I have only read one of her books, but I’m going to visit the library soon and revisit her work. I don’t think she will ever go out of style. Speaking of missed opportunities, I’m so glad I was able to make the lunch because originally I didn’t think I could. I would have missed meeting you. It was my pleasure you are such a wonderful writer. Hopefully again soon.
    -Gina-

  24. I loved watching her talk smack to Jeaques Pepin. There are few food personallities who can hold the respect of the people who really do cook, who work and live in the kitchen. Julia is one of those few.

    • Did you see the piece he wrote about how they cooked together, for the New York Times? It was beautiful, as was the video he did for her. I loved their chemistry together on that show.

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