What Julia Child Has Taught Me

You may have noticed that for the past few weeks, the Interwebs have been buzzing with Julia Fever, a condition in which we remember and celebrate and observe the culinary influence that was Julia Child. Today, she would have been 100 years old, and I think that through her own legacy, and through the writings of Julie Powell and the subsequent film Julie & Julia, Julia Child’s memory and legacy live on well past her lifespan.

I don’t own Mastering the Art of French Cooking, though I love French food and love Julia Child. This is gaping hole in my culinary library, I’m aware, but so it is. Nonetheless, I’ve read Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, and Julie Powell’s memoir Julie & Julia, and for the past month, I’ve been dipping into Julia Child’s letters with Avis DeVoto, her pen-pal in America who helped her find a legitimate publisher for her cookbook. And along the way, in all of this reading, I’ve learned a few things from Julia Child.

1. Never apologize.

Julia Child says this in the film version of Powell’s memoir, but she also writes about it in her own memoir as well as in a letter to Avis DeVoto. She penned her memoir, My Life in France, towards the end of her life, looking back on an exciting, vibrant career as an innovator on the American culinary scene. But what is so striking about the memoir is her normalcy. She suffers insecurity and doubt and fear and excitement, and all of that comes through on the page. In one passage, when she is recalling a period in 1949, a time when she has just finished her seventh year at Le Cordon Bleu, she recounts a sauce gone wrong that she had to serve her guests anyway. She has this to say about her taciturn approach to serving a botched recipe:

I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as “Oh, I don’t know how to cook…” or “Poor little me…” or “This may taste awful…” it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not.

On January 19, 1953, she wrote a letter to Avis DeVoto, in which she hashes out logistical details of her manuscript. One topic they discuss several times in their correspondence is the state of the young American housewife, a woman who, to hear them tell it, cooks only casseroles (and bad ones, at that), a woman who is daunted by detailed recipes, a woman who is unsure what to buy and how and when. Julia adds to this discussion by saying the following:

I also think the young hostess should be advised never to say anything about what she serves, in the way of “Oh, I don’t know how to cook, and this may be awful,” or “poor little me,” or “this didn’t turn out…” etc. etc. […] I make it a rule, no matter what happens, never to say one word, though it kills me. Maybe the cat has fallen in the stew, or I have put the lettuce out the window and it has frozen, or the meat is not quite done… Grit one’s teeth and smile.

It occurs to me sometimes how much I apologize for the things I make, the things I serve, and even, outside the kitchen, what I write, how I spend my time, etc. Whether I am being criticized or not, I apologize in advance. I’m not alone in this, I know, but when I read Julia’s stern admonition not to apologize, not to put one’s guests (or audience) in the position of having to comfort and reassure me that things are all right, even if they aren’t, I try to buck up, as my mom says, and grit my teeth and smile. It didn’t turn out right this time, but next time, it will. I will learn, and try again, and get it right.

2. Be aware enough of the process that you can learn from your mistakes. 

When Julia first started her cooking show, she acknowledged that things didn’t go perfectly. Nevertheless, she didn’t like to stop to do a bunch of takes. As she said,

Once I got going, I didn’t like to stop and lose the sense of drama and excitement of a live performance. Besides, our viewers would learn far more if we let things happen as they tend to do in life – with the chocolate mousse refusing to unstick from its mold, or the apple charlotte collapsing. One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.

For a long time, in cooking and in writing, if I did something wrong, or something didn’t work, I assumed it was because I was terrible at it and it was outside of my ability. I was clearly a failure, and I might as well quit. But now, when the process is hard and I make a mistake, I figure out the solution. If my bread turned out as a dense hunk of flour-brick, I figure out what went wrong in the process or the recipe. If my character seems whiney (as one I’m currently writing does – she’s on my last nerve), then I figure out a way to make her active rather than passive, or I figure out a way to delay being inside her thoughts. I’m not bad at what I’m doing unless I simply refuse to do it.

3. We are our harshest critics.

When Julia first watched her own cooking show, she had this to say about it:

There I was, in black and white, a large woman sloshing eggs too quickly here, too slowly there, gasping, looking at the wrong camera while talking too loudly, and so on. Paul said I looked and sounded just like myself, but it was hard for me to be objective. I saw plenty of room for improvement, and figured that I might have an inkling of what I was supposed to do after I’d shot twenty more TV shows. But it had to be fun.

This quote has, for me, two essential elements:  first, the humanness of Julia Child. She was fantastic, larger than life, and in the years since her passing, she has become mythic in the culinary world, taking on an almost bard-like status for young and seasoned chefs alike. But she watched herself and thought critically about her size and the speed of her whisk and where she was looking… right down to her breathing. I find her so easy to relate to, picking at the things about herself that no one else would notice.

Set up for Julia Child’s brownies

But secondly, she adds on an important thing at the end:  “it had to be fun.” It had to be. Why do it if it wasn’t fun? When Julia Child was trying to find an occupation, she tried playing bridge, but it wasn’t fun. You know what was fun? Eating with her husband. Trying new foods. Tasting. So she took the fun thing she’d found and ran with it, carrying it into a long and fantastic career.

I think sometimes, we lose sight of the fun. We lose that original thing, that cluster, that seed, that made us do the very thing we struggle with, whether it’s art or music or writing or knitting or dancing or whatever. When you take it too seriously, when you pick apart your performance and your body, when you see it as nothing but a study in striving for perfection, the fun is gone.

For me, fun was driving home from school in college, playing out bits of dialogue for myself, talking them out loud, then heading up to my room with tea and a glass of water, and writing for hours. It didn’t matter that my stories were overly dramatic, my characters were flat, or my craft was elementary:  I was having a blast.

Julia Child’s Best Ever Brownies

The same goes for cooking. That’s the point of this blog, isn’t it? The fact that I decided to become a writer rather than a chef. Because when cooking was done with restrictions – timing, customer demands, mise en place, etc. – it wasn’t fun anymore. What’s fun is cooking barefoot in my kitchen, wearing an apron over my sundress, chatting with my girlfriend while I chop or stir. What’s fun is the eating, the tasting, the pairing together of flavors and wines and desserts. What’s fun is cooking out of love – love for food, for the people I’m feeding, for the craft of filling bellies and pleasing palates.

It had to be fun. Julia reminds me, today, to keep it fun. Not only the cooking, but the writing, too. That doesn’t mean there’s no hard work involved; Julia worked hard and got frustrated and dragged her husband along with her. But the work should be fun, or should lead to the fun.

In honor of these lessons, of Julia’s life and legacy and memory, I made one of her recipes today:  Best Ever Brownies, the recipe for which I found on the blog This Week for Dinner (since, as you’ll remember, I lack Julia’s book). The brownies are rich and fudgey and just barely set in the center, and on a rainy day when I don’t feel so well and I’m burying my nose in the Julia Child books I own, it’s perfect for snacking on, for savoring, and for remembering Julia Child and all the things she’s taught me. Happy birthday, Julia, and thanks for everything.

5 thoughts on “What Julia Child Has Taught Me

  1. Yes! This is why I texted you last night. All of the old episodes were amazing. I love how rough she is with a knife, how unapologetic for her trussing and trussing of the birds, the hard slap of the cleaver or sharp shears on the fins of a fisherman’s perch or gills or something usually considered delicate. She reminds me that food need not always be delicate, as any art form. There is a time and place for every mood, touch, sensation, etc. Pound that shit! Yay, Julia!

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