Julie and Julia is now out on DVD, and I recommend it highly as Julia Child would have felt right at home at the Weston A. Price Foundation.
A hearty eater who fancied butter, cream, goose fat, liver and bone broth soup, she once told Marian Burros of the New York Times, “If we ate the way nutritionists want us to eat, our hair would be falling out, our teeth would be falling out and our skin would be drying up.” That has certainly come true, for those recovering from today’s fashionable high soy, low fat or vegetarian diet kicks.
Like Dr. Weston A. Price, whose last words were “You teach, you teach, you teach,” Child had a deep desire to teach and to do that well. She refused to cater to either the “flimsies” who weren’t serious about food or to the “fluffies” who were obsessed with gourmet cooking. Child’s claim to fame is to have demystified French cuisine with clarity, common sense and good humor. She wrote ten books beginning with the coauthored Mastering the Art of French Cooking of 1961. When its first publisher rejected the manuscript for being too long and too much like an encyclopedia, she moved on to Knopf, which published it as written. It’s sold steadily ever since, and is moving up the bestseller charts once again with news of the upcoming movie.
Child also starred in 329 television shows despite being over 50 with a towering 6’2″ height, high-pitched, warbling voice and no sense of fashion. But viewers loved the way she would make a mess in the kitchen, laugh about it, improvise her way out of any situation and still drive her points home. In 1978 Dan Ackyod spoofed The French Chef on Saturday Night Life, depicting an inebriated Child as she chopped off her thumb and bled to death while still exhorting viewers to save the chicken liver.
Child’ grew into her power as she matured, rejected societal attitudes about age-related decline and didn’t hesitate to speak up about issues that were important to her. She actively warned against the lowfat, cholesterol-phobic prescriptions of dietitians, nutritionists and other members of the “food police.” Indeed, she said it would be the “death of gastronomy” if nutrition kept rearing its “ugly head” and puritan attitudes about food prevailed. As Judith Jones, her editor at Knopf, explained to Vanity Fair, “She wanted to bring this message to America – that were were still steeped in the Puritan attitude towards food, and what the food industry had done to make us feel that food was not for the modern woman.”
Child was an independent modern woman who considered food and sex to be life’s supreme pleasures. She enjoyed a 48-year old marriage to Paul Child, an artist, poet, diplomat, foodie and soul mate who was 10 years older and 4 inches shorter. In 1956, she and Paul sent out a Valentine card showing them together in a bathtub. (A reproduction of that card can be found in the current issue of Vanity Fair in the article “Our Lady of the Kitchen” by Laura Jacobs.) They met in Ceylon during World War II, when both were members of the OSS. Whether Julia was just a file clerk or, as it’s been rumored a spy, is unknown. What’s certain is that she wanted to serve our country and found a way to do so and see the world despite the fact that the Navy had rejected her because of her height. When the couple later moved to France, Julia’s first meal was lunch in Rouen that was not only “absolute perfection” but “an opening of the soul and spirit for me.” It featured sole meuniere, oysters and wine. That inspired her to attend Cordon Bleu cooking school and study privately with master chefs.
Though a skilled French chef, Child didn’t feel that food needed to be overly complicated to be good, at least if the cook included plenty of such essential ingredients of butter and cream and at least a little salt and wine. A wonderful recipe for spinach, for example, involved nothing more than cooking the spinach well and putting in “as much butter as the spinach could possibly hold.” As for more complicated recipes, Child insisted that any of them could be mastered if cooks would just follow the rules. She believed people should learn to cook and not just pick it up “on the fly.” Child felt that America’s overeating problems came from being vaguely hungry after eating packaged, processed and fast foods. She found it astonishing that more and more families had become too busy to eat meals together. Of food chemists who designed what she called “food pellets,” Child declared they were “probably not the kind of people you want to know. They have very little humor, and they wouldn’t be sort of juicy type people.”
Child, in contrast, was a juicy old bird, who was firm about the importance of enjoying so-called guilty pleasures without any guilt. Quips like “If you are afraid of butter, use cream” earned her the nickname “The Cholesterol Queen.” Eventually, of course, all that butter and cream caught up with her, and she died on August 13, 2004 just a few days short of her 92nd birthday. Although I would have guessed her secret to longevity was butter and cream, she gave the credit to “meat and gin.”