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Happy 100th, Julia! August 15, 2012

Posted by ourfriendben in wit and wisdom.
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Silence Dogood here. Today is the 100th birthday of my hero, Julia Child, who was born on August 15, 1912. (Sadly, she died at 91, but we celebrate her birthday every year anyway.) Julia’s larger-than-life personality matched her outsized frame (she was 6’2″ at a time when the average height for women was 5’2″). She exemplified exuberance and joie de vivre. Check out these great Julia quotes and you’ll see what I mean:

“Life itself is the proper binge.”

“Everything in moderation, including moderation.”

“Cooking is like love; it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.”

“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”

“The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”

“How can a nation be called great if its bread tastes like Kleenex?”

“Nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.” 

“I enjoy cooking with wine, sometimes I even put it in the food I’m cooking.”

“Drama is very important in life: You have to come on with a bang.”

And finally, this piece of practical advice (with which I totally agree): “Always start out with a larger pot than you think you need.”

You might want to commemorate Julia’s birthday by making something from her classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking or watching some episodes of “The French Chef.” But if, like me, you just can’t get enough of Julia, you could also take a look at some of these books (and, of course, the movie):

As Always, Julia (edited by Joan Reardon, Houghton Mifflin* Harcourt, 2010). This is a selection of letters exchanged between Julia Child and her American mentor, Avis DeVoto, between 1952 and 1961, the period in which Julia labored over the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Unlike Julia’s French mentors, Chef Max Bugnard and Julia’s friend and colleague Simone (Simca) Beck**, Avis was more of a Boston socialite than a cook. But her connections to major publishing houses proved invaluable to Julia, finally bringing Mastering into print and launching her career, and Avis was also a key part of Julia’s team when she added television to her repertoire. You might think that a 416-page exchange of letters wouldn’t be exciting reading, but when one of the correspondents is the irrepressible Julia Child, you’d be mistaken. I really enjoyed it, not just for Julia but for the picture of 1950s life that the letters unconsciously reveal.

My Life in France (Julia Child with her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, Anchor, 2009). My favorite book on Julia. This is such a delightful portrait of Julia during her “French years” that it ranks right up there with the great autobiographies (if you’re willing to stretch a point and can call a coauthored book an autobiography). If you want to read a more wide-ranging bio covering Julia’s entire life, the workmanlike Julia Child: A Life (Laura Shapiro, Penguin, 2009) is okay, but avoid the wonderfully-titled but mind-numbingly boring Appetite for Life (Noel Riley Fitch, Anchor, 1999). How anyone could make such a vibrant person as Julia Child boring is inconceivable to me, but the author managed it, and I should know, since I forced myself through all 592 deadening pages.

“Julie and Julia.” Watch the movie, skip the book (Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously, Julie Powell, Back Bay Books, 2009). The movie is fun, the book is nasty. In the movie, Ms. Powell comes off as a delightfully goofy, elfin type married to a super-gorgeous, sympathetic guy. In the book, she comes off as a self-pitying, ego-driven monster. Ugh! Of course, as everyone says, the movie’s scenes in Paris with Julia Child (Meryl Streep) are the highlights, but that’s because the movie’s creators wisely took them from My Life in France. It’s worth watching the movie for the views of Paris (and the Childs’ amazing apartment) alone. And if anybody wants to understand the finer points of great acting, watch the superb Meryl Streep as Julia discovering the sensual joys of French cuisine versus poor Julia Roberts as Elizabeth Gilbert desperately trying to pretend that she’s discovering the sensual joys of Italian cuisine in “Eat, Pray, Love.”

“Julia Child! America’s Favorite Chef.”*** This PBS documentary is an excellent intro to Julia Child, her life and long career. It’s fun to watch if you already love Julia, and a great way to meet Julia and understand America’s love affair with her if you don’t already know her. Includes the famous Dan Aykroyd parody skit of Julia on “Saturday Night Live.”

“The French Chef.” The original PBS series starring Julia Child is now available on DVD, and it’s every bit as hysterical and delightful, thanks to Julia, as I remembered when, barely more than a toddler, I used to watch, enthralled, every week with my siblings as Julia ran riot in the kitchen. I’ve loved Julia from that day to this. Bon appetit! I’m sure Julia’s numerous later series are also available on DVD as well.

Julia’s books. My beloved Mama swore by Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, volumes I and II, as did so many home cooks of her generation. I feel very proud to have a first-edition copy of the first volume in my own cookbook library. I also own a very battered used copy of The French Chef Cookbook, which gives all the recipes for those dishes Julia’s whipping through so energetically on the series, and Julia Child’s Kitchen Wisdom, a collection of Julia’s foolproof kitchen tips.

As a vegetarian and intuitive cook, I’ll admit that I have these more for sentiment than use, but as is well known, if you want clear, can’t-fail directions, precise measurements, and thoroughly researched guidance, nobody has ever bested Julia and no one has come close to equalling her until the advent of America’s Test Kitchen and its magazines, Cook’s Illustrated and Cook’s Country, with their thoroughly and precisely tested recipes and product reviews. Were Julia alive today, I think she’d really love them. And just imagine a Julia Child cooking magazine!

Julia produced many other cookbooks and TV shows during her long career, both solo and with such culinary luminaries as Jacques Pepin. And there are four new books on Julia that have come out this year and that I haven’t yet seen (as well as one coming out in 2013): Dearie, a biography of Julia by Bob Spitz (Knopf, 2012); Julia’s Cats (Patricia Barey and Therese Burson, Abrams, 2012); apparently she was a huge (pardon the pun) cat lover; Bon Appetit! (Jessie Hartland, Schwartz & Wade Books, 2012), a delightful-sounding biography of Julia for children; and Minette’s Feast (Susanna Reich, Abrams, 2012), a children’s book about one of Julia’s cats. (The 2013 book is Julia Child Rules by Karen Karbo.) And let’s not forget Backstage with Julia (Nancy Verde Barr, Wiley, 2008). Happy reading! And happy birthday, Julia!!!

               ‘Til next time,

                            Silence

* Julia’s devotees will recall that Houghton Mifflin first optioned, then stupidly rejected, Mastering the Art of French Cooking after deciding that it was too long and elaborate for American audiences. Maybe they’re finally atoning for that mistake with the publication of As Always, Julia.

** It cheered me up no end to discover that the reason Simone Beck was called by her nickname, Simca, was because of her fondness for a quirky little European car called the Simca. My own parents acquired a Simca—God knows how, in Nashville—early in their marriage, and I can actually remember it, eccentric and uncomfortable little thing that it was.

*** In her defense, Julia Child never referred to herself as a chef, a term usually reserved for professionals who are classically trained, serve apprenticeships under renowned chefs, and become the heads of professional kitchens in restaurants or hotels. Her TV team promoted her as “The French Chef” because they felt that, at the time, “chef” sounded French, perhaps a bit more savvy and chic than “The American Home Cook Who Loves French Food and Cooks It.” It always fascinates me when watching Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” when he bestows what he obviously considers the highest possible accolade by addressing someone he encounters on his travels simply as “Chef,” rather than by their name.

Comments»

1. William S. Scudder - August 15, 2012

Hear hear! As pithy as Ben, and other than my wife, my favorite cook.

Glad to hear your wife’s a great cook, William! I think it’s a gift, just like joie de vivre. Long may Julia wave!

2. narf77 - August 16, 2012

As an Australian I only recently discovered Julia Childs thanks to Meryl Streep. I see that she was quite an icon to everyone in the U.S. I love that she was an early Ben Folds in a glamerous world and that she had the unique ability to be able to be herself when television demanded a specific “look”. Might have to head over to Youtube and watch a few of her cooking episodes🙂 I hear that her take off of Dan Ackaroyd taking HER off on SNL is hilarious

It IS hilarious, Fran! But you have to see an episode of “The French Chef” first to appreciate what Dan’s riffing on!


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