Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Julia Child and Me

July 26

It was awesome being a young wife when Julia Child was on the tube. Actually she taught me and millions of other women all we really needed to know about cooking and more than we ever thought about knowing about food and the French attitude toward it. I am among those whom she changed when she went about changing America.

I also thought at the time she had discovered the best possible use of television. Before her, the cooking segment was a staple on talk shows, with every guest bringing a pan and seeming to know a different recipe to cook an omelet. When much of television was local there was always a local cooking show. From our home high on a bluff in Montrose, and with the aid of elaborate aerial system on the roof of the two-storey house, we could pick up a weak signal all the way from New Orleans. One of the local morning shows from there was a black cook in Aunt Jemima garb and an adorable New Orleans accent demonstrating Creole specialities with such great seriousness that she was accidentally funny. When Mobile got a station there was a local cooking show, where basic dishes were prepared and a crawl revealed the ingredient list. It was standard stuff -- except the New Orleans lady, but she was a phenomenon who could only have come from that extraordinary city.

Julia Child brought expertise and a joy about food that our mothers -- at least my mother -- could never have known about. (Probably one reason this was a revelation to me was that my own mother considered cooking drudgery and loved processed foods. She was, as Anne Tyler said in Dinner at the Homesick Restaurant, a non-feeder.) But Julia, an amusing lady with an accessible style and an approach to the task at hand as nothing less than fun, could show how to truss a chicken or create puff pastry in a way that was challenging but doable. Here's the thing of it -- she had television, which she used as a teaching tool. You really can learn a lot you need to know about cooking from a book, but unless somebody is there to show you, there is a lot you are not going to be able to understand from a recipe. This is what our mothers and grandmothers and their mothers and grandmothers have always understood as they allowed their children in the kitchen to observe and help in simple ways until they were able to fly on their own. Why some, like my mother, never responded to this on the job training, I’ve never understood.

My mother said it was because, after all that work, the result was that people actually eat your product. There’s the definition of a non-feeder in a nutshell.

But Julia Child presided over a generous spread. At the end of her show she would demonstrate how to present the food you prepare, what side dishes and wine to serve with it, and she even made making mistakes look like part of the process. A very practical, American angle on on a daunting French art. Without her innovations in the art of presenting cooking on television, today’s cable food network would look very different, if it existed at all. And the preoccupation with eating and food would probably never have happened in America.

A friend has lent me a copy of Julie and Julia, a new book by Julie Powell a young writer and cook who took on the project of cooking every recipe in Julia Child and Simone Beck's tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and writing a blog about it. I’m just at the beginning, but it’s fun to hear her cooking experiences as well as her blogging experiences. Julia Child was an icon, an earth mother, and a role model as a human being, particularly a female of the species.

I was always impressed that, even though she had co-authored a cookbook, she did not have any measure of fame until she was in her forties. And she remained humble and helpful and happy to the last. That’s something we all can hope for.


jon said...

Julia was never part of my entertainment until I was over 40. But by then I was able to "get" her humor and enjoy her curious demeanor. I miss it. Her last shows were a sort of guest showcase to promote some cook or other while Julia observed and commented occasionally getting her hands into the mix. More than once I noticed her humor as a guest got toyed with a bit. She was always treated as the Alpha cook even in calamity.
Now about that on the job training....I wish I had gotten some. My cheffing may be like your mother's because I also say , "What is the big to do? You're just going to eat it."

Finding Fair Hope said...

Ah...another non-feeder. That's okay, if it weren't for you, we feeders wouldn't have anyone to feed.

Dana said...

Julia was not of my generation, but I remember seeing her on TV occasionally, but not being interested at the time. Too many things to do.

My mother taught me to cook at an early age, but I always thought of it as a chore. All I wanted to do was play or read. Now that I am a mom, unfortunately, I feel the same way about cooking. Well, not that I want to play, but cooking isn't fun to me. I am not good at it.

I wish I had had someone to make it fun when I was younger and maybe I would be a better cook. My kids are so picky and don't want to eat anything except what they like, which isn't much, and it discourages me until I don't even want to cook for them sometimes.


Finding Fair Hope said...

I think there's got to be a way you could learn to like cooking. Read Julie and Julia for a laugh or two, and then try to focus on some kind of food you like, Italian, maybe; learn the basics of it from some readable cook- and travel-books (with the hidden agenda of traveling to Italy someday) and start with the simple philosophy. Buy some different olive oils and some parmegiano cheeses and try them out...make your own tomato sauce. Cooking from scratch is so much more interesting than buying prepared stuff -- and your kids will like it too, especially if you bring them into the process. I'm just using Italian as an example because everybody seems to love Italian, but you could do Chinese or French or whatever they would be more likely to try. I guarantee it's not as hard as it may sound.