Thursday, August 16, 2012

WWJD: What would Julia Child do?

Some icons only symbolize one thing in the cultural imagination, like the Golden Arches or Gandhi.

With other figures, however, their meanings are more subtle and complex.

There are, for example, many Shakespeares. For some conservatives, Shakespeare is the ultimate Dead White Male, a part of the cannon. Liberals delight in Shakespeare's gender-bending comedies and the way he continually questions the right of any human being to be a king, stressing that the persona of the king is merely a role that people 'put on' like an actor. And of course, Jesus has been portrayed as everything spanning from the Prince of Peace to a righteous judge with a sword.

Julia Child is another one of those controversial figures. What you think of her says more about you than Julia Child herself.

For some people, Julia Child is the ultimate confidence-builder.  She convinced a generation of American cooks that yes, they could master the art of French cooking. That it was okay to laugh, drop things, and make silly jokes about chicken or wave an enormous whisk in the air.

For others, she is an unsparing craftsman whose highly elaborate recipes drove blogger Julie Powell to tears on repeated occasions when Julie was trying to cook her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking.  For them, Julia Child is the anti-Rachel, the anti-Sandra, the anti-shortcut.

For passionate advocates of healthy, from-scratch food, Julia is the first cook to really question the assumption in the 1950s and early 60s that 'better living through chemistry' and 'plastics' meant that food from cans, squirt bottles, and frozen trays was somehow neater and more sanitary than messy, delicious hunks of fatty meat, pungent spices, and unctuous, fresh cream that could actually spoil.

Those who decry food faddists point to Julia's distaste for organics and the fact she wanted French cooking to be accessible as possible.

She loathed 'nutritionism'  and seemed to revel in excess, but while she did joke that diet food was what you ate while the steak was cooking, she was a passionate, lifetime sportswoman and physical fitness buff and she also said  "small helpings, no seconds, a little bit of everything, no snacking. And have a good time.”

Even for feminists, the fact that she was a cook could be taken to interpret Julia as a doyenne of domesticity--she was devoted her her husband Paul. Yet she also had an early career as a spy, had no children, and her husband devoted himself to building her career during the latter phases of their life together.

She hated cilantro.  She loved Chinese food. She said that her perfect meal would be a steak and some gin. But she also said: "The truth has dawned that fresh vegetables are not only good for you, they can be the glory of any meal, when lovingly cooked."

I watched her on PBS as a child when I was sick and home from school but  I couldn't totally relate to some aspects of her life: I am 5'1 and don't have the metabolism to eat, even in moderation 'the French way' on a regular basis. I can't dominate people with my sheer physical size and brashness, like Julia with a cleaver. 

Even though they adored watching her as well, for my mother and grandmother, home cooking consisted of  taking the trouble to use a box of Spattini rather than reaching for the jar of Ragu. Country Time mixed lemonade and Jell-O pudding pops were some of the 'sick day' treats I ate watching Julia. Special meals at my house involved cakes bought from bakeries and we ate Thanksgiving and Easter dinner at restaurants.

I suppose my Julia is a woman who found her calling in her late 30s, who transcended the bounds of traditional femininity, spoke plainly and honestly, and was fanatically disciplined.

Because I was a vegetarian from age 23-36, I haven't tried many of her recipes. But I suppose I could do worse in the kitchen than ask myself: "What would Julia do? (WWJD).

Of course, like all cooks who talk to Julia, we are always talking to ourselves.  But I do feel certain, at all times, that she would have used real butter and it's been two years since I bought a stick of Earth Balance margerine. 

And come to think of it, so did, for all their idiosyncrasies, my mother and grandmother never bought Parkay, although I loved imitating the commercial so much...

As divided as we may be, butter unites--almost--all of us.


  1. I loved that Julia and Julie movie.

    And I was a flag girl in high school. :)

  2. I wouldn't swear to it, but I don't think I've ever watched any of her cooking shows. Maybe I saw an episode or two of the one with Jacques Pepin, but I don't really remember. This is probably why I have no confidence that I could cook anything French.

    Cooking requires real butter, but I put Smart Balance on my toast because I'm old.

  3. @Blonde Duck--a fellow 'band/color guard dork' Hurrah!

    @Flurrious--I think you would like her--even if you never cook one of her recipes, she is hilarious. It's worth Googling some of her old stuff...

    I am the same way--I cook with butter, but don't eat it much as a food. When it comes to buttering things, either I want lots or none at all, and one tablespoon easily morphs into half a stick.