This week marks both the birthday and deathday, if there is such a word, of Julia Child. The fact that no one in my culinary circle has mentioned either event upsets me. Where are the parades? Is anyone laying a wreath of Bay Laurel on her grave?
Some people old enough to do so talk of where they were when they heard of John F. Kennedy’s assassination. I am not that old, so I had to come up with my own where-was-I memories. Karen Carpenter? I was on my way to the newly opened EPCOT Center, the day marred by the endless loop of Superstar running through my brain. Jacqueline Kennedy? Don’t get me started.
The most vivid death for me was Julia Child’s. I remember exactly where I was and what I was doing. I was sitting in a traffic jam owing to a fallen tree, crammed into a rental car with five friends near Jemez, New Mexico.
It was a Friday in mid-August, 2004. We were returning from a hike in the mountains and a soak in the local hot springs where, the moment we shucked our clothes and hopped in the steaming water, a hailstorm hit us. And I do mean hit us. It was as though God had opened his comedy closet filled with ping pong balls right onto our heads. Hailstones the size of mothballs screamed down from 10,000 feet, striking us directly or ricocheting off rocks to pelt us in the face. The only safe place was a crag already occupied by a tiny, freakish man– a naked troll with golden dental work– who sat there safe and grinning at his good luck and our misfortune. The couple soaking below us held an oversized umbrella over their heads. Everyone seemed prepared except us. When the attack subsided, we dressed and slumped back to the car, some of us bloodied, all of us bruised.
We were singing stupid songs and fogging up the windows, going nowhere very slowly and laughing about the terrible afternoon we’d just experienced. I had written the word “buffalo” with my index finger on the windshield which, for some reason, was funny only to myself. As I considered explaining to my fellow travelers exactly why it was funny, a radio newscaster announced the death of Julia Child, two days shy of her 92nd birthday.
My first thought was a sad one– Now I’ll never get to meet Julia Child– egocentric, I know. I thought she’d had a good run of it, at least.
My attention turned to math, briefly. Two days shy of her 92nd birthday? Since, the day was Friday, August 13th– which would explain the afternoon we were having– that put her birthday at August 15th, my brother’s birthday.
My brother and I had had a competition going about who’s birthday was more significant, his or mine. I touted the fact that I shared my birthday with not only Sally Struthers, but our maternal grandfather and, what I thought was my trump card, Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy Onassis. I liked to throw in the fact that World War One officially started on that date for good measure. He countered with Rose-Marie and the fact that his day was a holy day of obligation in the Catholic church– the Feast of the Assumption (which, as my friend Bill loves to point out, is called Maria Himmelfahrt in German). Since nuns came to pin medals on his pillow the day he was born, he always claimed victory. He never mentioned the fact that he shared the day with Julia Child. I wonder if he ever new. I’d give him the crown for that coincidence alone.
We weren’t a Julia Child-loving family. No one to my knowledge watched The French Chef. I’d watch re-runs of the Galloping Gourmet, but only out of the corner of my eye because I was too busy building mazes for my hamster out of Lincoln Logs. To me, Julia Child was just some tall lady with a funny voice who cooked and everyone from Dan Ackroyd to John Candy made fun of. I’d always thought of her as some grande dame, her nose as far above the jokes and pokes as her 6′ 2″ body would hold it.
I’d bought The Way To Cook when I was in college, as did many of my friends, because I was serious about cooking. It was and is a serious cookbook– step by step and about as how-to as they get. But I only sought pointers, I knew nothing of finesse and had no sense of humor about cooking– I was too intimidated by it. I certainly didn’t think I’d find either in the work of Julia Child. Of course, I’d never seen her television program.
It wasn’t until several years later when I fell into a job working for Jacques Pepin that I heard she had a sense of humor. Pepin, fresh from taping a television show with Child, told us stories of how, when winemaker sponsors visited the set of their show, she insisted on serving beer. Other stories followed that fairly shattered the previous image I’d formed of her. She wasn’t the droning, Yankee bore obsessed with detail I’d made her out to be from her book and my own imagination. It’s hard to imagine that I never remembered seeing her on television before, but it’s true. The humor and charm that Pepin described surprised me, but it was her puckishness that left me wanting more of her. However unbearable the rest of my experience on Pepin’s show, I came away with that wonderful knowledge.
It wasn’t until last year that I was finally able to see episodes of The French Chef. My friend John received a DVD boxed set of the series’ best episodes for his birthday. An ace home cook and successful cookbook author in his own right, he kindly invited me over to his place for dinner and a viewing. We watched her on his kitchen television as we drank martinis and cooked or, rather, he cooked, I drank martinis. Most memorable were the episodes detailing how to roast a chicken and how to make a Tarte Tatin. Or how not to, I’d say.
Take a moment and watch her talk about chickens:
It was then that I felt I finally got her. Thank you, John.
Having participated in the production of a number of cooking programs before the onset of their cable television-induced proliferation and, therefore, banality, Child was a trend-setter. I think we can all agree upon that. What impressed me most about her program was its low- budget, public television feel. Child preformed each show– from start to finish– in one take. Along with her many successful dishes prepared on air were many flops, but all were taken in stride and with great sense of humor. Whether blaming her choice of apple for the failure of her Tarte Tatin or simply explaining, by way of each failure, what went wrong and why, she turned her gaffes into, if not always triumphs, at least into moments of sheer enjoyment. The knowledge that even Julia Child was prone to error on occasion gave courage to her audience, removing much of the fear involved in the making of, say, a Gateau Saint-Honore.
At a time when we, as Americans, generally deferred to the French in all matters gustatory, ignorant of or perhaps in part ashamed of our own culinary heritage, Child not only translated the French way of cooking into a language we could understand and into ingredients we could get our hands on, she served as an entertaining tour guide of French Culture along the way. And she managed all this without dumbing things down– least of all, herself.
In an age where cooking shows are all but shoved down our throats, where any annoying personality is set free to run amok inside our televisions, it can be said that no one can best the original or imitate the inimitable. For better or worse, the Food Network owes its very existence to her. Have they ever said thank you? I wouldn’t know, since I’m not paying attention– I don’t have cable and can’t really stomach cooking shows anymore, with a few exceptions. Nothing would say “we care” like a TV marathon devoted to her original, groundbreaking program. Perhaps WGBH in Boston has already taken the idea and run with it. All I know is someone should.
Granted, Julia Child was practically beatified by the likes of the James Beard Foundation, COPIA and even the Smithsonian Institute while she was alive, but I’m voting for full canonization now that she’s gone. I’d like a new holy day of obligation to supplant the one that no one celebrates anymore. Except Bavarians and my brother, were he still alive. Let’s build a cathedral, a Notre Dame de la Cuisine, say, in her honor– a place of worship where one can go to pray for, if not culinary inspiration or courage, at least deliverance from evil. Like the fact that Emeril Lagasse has his own band or the mere presence of that squawking Anti-Christ, Rachel Ray.