Our Lady of the Ladle
In honor of Julia Child’s upcoming birthday, August 15, and the release of the highly anticipated film directed by Nora Ephron “Julie & Julia” opening today nationwide and already hailed “as the essential Nora Ephron movie,” with Meryl Streep doing the honors in another pitch-perfect performance recreating the legendary master’s joie de vivre and unmatched skill as a culinary animateur, a little bit on Madame Julia herself.
Rest assured, the publicity promises Julie & Julia to be the ultimate chick flick to end all chick flicks (although I suspect there will be quite a few sous chefs of both genders weighing in) with a dash of romance, a touch of resilience and unmitigated heft to that all important kitchen essential — food porn — rounding out the quintessential cooking movie of all time. (Don’t come hungry).
What Child did, of course, was learn to cook, at Le Cordon Bleu, where her romance with food and France deepened into true love. Child’s memoir and Ephron’s film celebrate not just the thrilling life of Julia Child, with its remarkable adventures and success, but the pleasure of finding the thing you are best at, and devoting yourself to it with abandon. If you make a mistake, learn from it, then forget it.
“I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots
of excuses and explanation over the food you make,”
“Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew,
or the lettuce has frozen,
or the cake has collapsed—
eh bein, tant pis!”
(Translation: “Well, so much worse.”
In short, get over it!)
The looming emissary of French cooking noted in her memoir, My Life in France, that upon arriving for the first time at Le Havre, as a “six-foot-two-inch, thirty-six-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian,” she feared that France was a nation “where the women were all dainty, exquisitely coiffed, nasty little creatures.” Spoken like a true Yank.
Say what you will about the lady, the endearing thing about Julia Child, (and she was endearing) was that she was also curiously quirky. From her towering frame to her lumbering way, her high pitched voice to her hair, she was an irresistible presence so broadly accessible that her mimics are legion.
Close friends of the culinary trailblazer describe her as human and superhuman all at the same time; a unique emulsification of high standards and nonchalance, rigorous work ethic and boundless joie de vivre.
Yet to distill the essence of the cultural phenomenon that was Julia Child, one has to consider the three key ingredients that made her a household name: a man, a meal, and a TV camera. Although her life-altering moment is usually credited to her first perfect lunch at the Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen, France, the real truth of the matter is that it was Paul Child who transformed her into the legend she was to become. As the romantically wise so well know, always look for the one who will bring out the best in you.
Julia and Paul met at the OSS where Julia was a spy (is there anything she couldn’t do?) and Paul, a designer of war rooms. (A talent that would serve him well in tracing the outlines of Julia’s polished copper pots and pans on a green pegboard in her cavernous clapboard house in Cambridge.) It was by all accounts an unlikely pairing to be sure. Paul Child was described as a “worldly intellectual with a poetic sensibility, an artist and photographer who relished wine, women, and song.”
Paul thought Julia unworldly, unfocused, and doubtless a virgin—“a hungry hayseed” is how she would describe herself—but also steady, game, a “classy dame,” and “brave,” he wrote his twin brother, Charlie, “about being an old maid!”
He was 42 to her 32, five feet ten to her six feet two. He was looking for a soulmate, but had counted Julia out. And yet their sure-footed friendship, forged over Indo-Asian food and shared danger, was climbing, slipping, into love. Which led to bed. And then, in 1946, when the war was over, marriage.
In a spiritual sense, however, the making of Julia Child—“Our Lady of the Ladle,” as Time magazine would dub her in 1966—happened over lunch. The famed lunch at La Couronne.
For Julia’s first meal on French soil, Paul ordered sole meunière, that simplest, purest, most implicitly French preparation of fresh fish. All it required was butter, flour, parsley, lemon, precision, history, and heat. “It was heaven to eat,” Julia wrote in From Julia Child’s Kitchen—“a dining experience,” she remembered in My Life in France, “of a higher order than any I’d ever had before.”
It was in 1961 that Boston’s fledgling educational channel, WGBH first aired The French Chef, nine months after the publication of Child’s momentous Mastering the Art of French Cooking (co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). It was an instant success—the first cult cooking show in America.
“It was the only time the word “instant” would attach to this embracing, warm, spontaneous yet methodical woman, who stood firm against the priggish, frozen, in-minutes cooking of midcentury America.”
As Nancy Howard Cobb noted in her wonderful post My Julia Child, “Julia Child was my Betty Freidan, the wisecracking, groundbreaking grande dame responsible for my culinary awakening. Singlehandedly, Julia raised my kitchen consciousness. Bird’s Eye begone. Duncan Hines be damned. The days of the obligatory chop were numbered.”
As the San Diego Union Tribune of August 25, 1988 reported:
“On July 26, 1962, at 8:30 P.M.,
Julia Child made her first televised appearance,
cooking an omelet on Boston’s WGBH-TV.
Cue cards held up by the producer told her to:
As Julia tells 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…”
When you think about it, really, was there ever a face and figure more ill-suited for the unforgiving medium of television than Julia’s? She was middle-aged, with a hairdo of short curls that David Kamp has called “unreconstructed Smith ’34.” She’s frumpy in a button-up blouse of stiff cotton, like a home-ec teacher, until you notice how tall and lean she is over the low counter, her slim hips girded by a tightly wrapped apron, a towel tucked into the waistband—rather swashbuckling.
As Laura Jacobs notes in Vanity Fair, “She’s like a knight without armor—not of the roundtable but of the dinner table—and she even has a coat of arms: the “Ecole Des 3 Gourmandes” embroidered badge (designed by Paul) that’s pinned to her blouse.”
To understand Julia’s captivation by French food, one need look no further than her philosophy on eating : “This is the kind of food that I have fallen in love with: not trendy souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat. It was classic French cooking, where the ingredients have been carefully selected and beautifully and knowingly prepared.
Or, in the words of the famous gastronome, Curnonsky,
‘Food that tastes
of what it is.’”
For Julia Child, French cooking was a guild art requiring a committed apprenticeship and years of practice. And it required courage too, or as she said to viewers after she muffed the flip of a potato cake, which fell in pieces on the stove top,
“You see when I flipped it
I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have.”
She proceeded to press the cake back together
and uttered one of her most famous lines:
“But you can always pick it up,
and if you’re alone in the kitchen,
who is going to see?”
Julia Child would have turned 97 on August 15. She died in 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday. What would she say to all this excessive adoration being thrown her way? Probably something as plain and sensible as she:
“Life itself is the proper binge.”