IS Julia Child a saint yet?
I’m not on the Vatican’s mailing list. As soon as Child is officially beatified, however, I do hope either the Pope or the New York Times will tweet me.
Time magazine did its part for the cause back in 1966, putting the co-author of the 1961 bestseller Mastering the Art of French Cooking and star of TV’s The French Chef on its cover. The headline: Our Lady of the Ladle. Vanity Fair recently paid fealty with a story called Our Lady of the Kitchen, writing of Child’s first, life-changing dish of sole meuniere on French soil, “One could say it was another shaft of light, not angled upward as from a signal mirror, but piercing inward—an annunciation.”
Something about Child (her homeliness, perhaps) makes commentators want to top her jaunty curls with a halo. I wonder if they’re mistaking the seductive scent of clarified butter for the aroma of piety, for she was apparently a lusty lady who liked nothing better than a good time.
I’m old enough to remember Julia Child when she was just a wacky weirdo on public television, prattling awkwardly on about old-fashioned French cuisine. I was as amused as everybody else, but too young to get the profound enlightenment supposedly experienced by every American woman of her period. Raised on the Joy of Cooking, my mother’s generation had never been exposed to French recipes written in a language they could understand.
To hear the “experts” talk about her now, “Julia” drastically changed the lives of housewives wherever her books and TV series reached. Personally, I doubt that was the case in Canada. I certainly don’t remember going to my friends’ houses and suddenly being served homemade boeuf bourguignon -- or, in fact, homemade anything. Well into the 1970s, few of the houses I visited were even so food-savvy as to keep fresh garlic and lemons around the joint. My mother did, and so did the food writer mother of my best friend -- and that was it.
The more progressive Ottawa mums had probably stumbled over French onion soup in an upscale restaurant by the late 1970s, but the ’60s and early ’70s in Canada were largely still the Campbell’s Soup years. More elegant cooks might splash sherry into tinned consomme for “oomph.” Foie gras? Not in our back yards.
Yet one commentator babbling about Child on public television the other day, during a marathon showing of her TV series, said she made Americans realize that French cooking was “easy” and “accessible.”
What claptrap. Have you seen these recipes? Child might have made people understand that, say, an omelette was easy and accessible, but that wasn’t much of a bulletin. Fast food, this was not.
Child was an advocate of doing things properly, the French way, meaning that stocks ought to be homemade. Have a look at her rendition of Blanquette de Veau a L’Ancienne at cookstr.com, with its instructions on how to prepare the separate components of onions, sauce veloute, and cream and egg yolk enrichment, as well as the veal itself. Total time? Under four hours, promises the recipe -- though that doesn’t include the hours required to prepare and then simmer homemade chicken stock first.
It all sounds absolutely delicious, but this kind of cuisine is only available to a cook with plenty of time to concentrate. As one media type observed last week, Child’s thick, detailed volumes came into prominence as North American women were getting out of the kitchen and into the workforce in a major way. Elaborate meals were surely reserved for special occasions.
You have only to read Julie Powell’s engaging book Julie & Julia, or see the excellent new movie of the same title (vive La Streep!), to recognize the challenges posed by these recipes. By proceeding methodically and precisely, one could complete them, but, like a lot of great cooking, they were not for the distracted.
Rather than making French cuisine a breeze, as some suggest, Child’s recipes allowed women (and it was mostly women who cooked then) to understand that it was within reach for them to make food that was more sophisticated than their mother’s meatloaf. These dishes were, in modern parlance, “aspirational.” The concept of dinners that would thrill friends and family, not just fuel them, had dawned.
It has been widely observed that in these days of Food TV, many of us love to watch others cook; we also adore having our own showstopper kitchens. But, except for a small but vocal “foodie” subculture, fewer and fewer North Americans invest the time and energy it takes to cook well. I suppose it’s nothing new that we are deeply intrigued by things we can’t be bothered to do, but it does make one wonder what happened to all those Child disciples of the 1970s. Maybe they collapsed in a truffle-infused pool of fatigue.
Last Sunday on Detroit public television, several commentators remarked that people often ask aloud “Who will be the next Julia Child?” One of them responded, “There can no more be another Julia Child than there can another Abraham Lincoln.” I take his point -- this bon vivant was certainly an original. But are these two people -- one who preserved the American union through a civil war, helped end slavery, and was assassinated for his pains, and another who showed people how to make mousseline au chocolat -- honestly on the same footing?
It’s the relentless overstatement that gets my goat, the need to turn people who are just memorably good at something into demigods. I’d say “She was no Michael Jackson,” but then, neither was Michael Jackson.
Child sparked the initial interest in French food in America 50 years ago, and it looks like she will do so again. She was out of fashion for a time, but thanks to Julie Powell and filmmaker Nora Ephron, she’s regained her pizzazz. Mastering the Art of French Cooking is once again selling briskly. (We’ll see how many people actually have the leisure to cook these recipes, though mass unemployment will help.)
Julia Child was deeply devoted to her chief interest, and enthusiastically imparted that ardor to others. It’s not her fault that people wish to crown her like she’s a rib roast garnished for a festive occasion.