The Julia Revolution

Juliachildretro.jpgMuch talk and much ink has been spent on Julia Child since the recent release of  Julie & Julia. Child is credited with revolutionizing how American women (and it was mostly women) cook when, in 1961, she and her co-authors published Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Gone were overcooked vegetables and instead happy husbands came home to the subtlety of fine sauces and careful preparation.

Well, maybe.

Julia’s influence is unquestionable when it comes to a kind of food revolution – she was the first-ever TV chef. Her weekly show, The French Chef, launched in 1963 and was a must-see even for those who would never dream of making their own Hollandaise. She took the sting out of kitchen mishaps, amiably showing herself to have committed a few just like the rest of us – as she famously put it: “You’re alone in the kitchen anyway.” Just patch it up and serve it with a smile. There is a story that she once, on air, dropped a turkey from the roasting pan and onto the floor then swept it up and dusted it off as though nothing happened.

While that event did not actually occur, it does sum up her humanity – she made cooking (even fancy things) accessible and easily understood.

But back to that first so-called seminal work – does anyone actually use it? We asked a number of chefs, home cooks, food bloggers and foodies whether Mastering is as relevant as the media has made it out to be in the wake of Julie & Julia.

Alas, it seems it is as much food-porn as all the other glossy picture books posing as actual “recipe books.”
“Will you be horrified if I confess to not owning a copy? Having read The United States of Arugula, I understand and appreciate what she means to North American cooking and eating, but, I’m not really a recipe follower,” says our own Signe Langford, author of the fabulous The Eater’s Digestblog. Well, that’s fine, Langford is a trained chef who can wing it in the kitchen with fantastic results.

But trained chefs sometimes need a reference, don’t they?

“I studied at the Cordon Bleu and even I find Mastering daunting,” says Ann Gallery, president of High View Communications which specializes in food PR. “But when you want to make a special meal and show someone you care, nothing says it like spending four hours in the kitchen over two days making her mouthwatering Boeuf Bourgignon!”

“I think the book is more for show than anything,” says Sharleen Moodie, a great food lover and home chef. “I think food trends have evolved a lot since it was published. We have friends that are really great cooks and they tend to use a fusion style with a lot of spices. Maybe it’s multiculturism but that seems to be the approach people are using.”

That’s something food writer Charmian Christie would agree with.

“I have never cooked from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, although I’m sorely tempted by her Boeuf Bourguignon. While MTAFC is a wonderful reference, it’s not the way I cook. Too much fat. Too many visceral organs, heavy creams and not enough “oomph” — I prefer Thai, Indian, Moroccan, Mexican and other, bolder cuisines,” says Christie. “Child herself simplified cooking in later years. Her The Way to Cook is more approachable and her Kitchen Wisdom is an even more practical guide for people who want the knowledge but don’t want to spend the time in the kitchen. Listen, Rachel Ray is popular for a reason.
“I believe the allure of Julia Child lies in her personality and enthusiasm — not her recipe for aspic.”

There is also the small matter of the passage of time. Child was, pardon the expression, a “house wife” meaning that she could pretty much fill her days as she chose. Her cooking career took off, but it started as a diversion to keep her busy. And, she didn’t have kids.

“I love my Julia cookbooks! I use them frequently but I do admit I don’t delve into them on a work night — I usually turn to Donna Hay or Franey’s 60 Minute Gourmet,” says Arlene Stacey, managing editor of Zoomer. “The great thing about Julia’s books is how she helps you to understand the process and it encourages you to experiment — if it works with chicken….why not…?”

Meanwhile, for Shannah Segal, a partner in a busy consulting company and mother of two young children, an actual recipe book is just not on the table.

“Sad to say, the somewhat encrusted kitchen laptop is mostly used to google ‘kid friendly under 10 minutes’,” says Segal. “I haven’t opened an actual cookbook in years. I do a lot with eggs.”

However, Child does stand for the proposition that learning how to cook is important for anyone who intends to eat. Avid cook Eva Quan sums it up best: “Even though we’re more aware of food – where it comes from, how it’s farmed, produced, distributed, sold – there’s a real disconnect between all the vast bits and pieces we’ve absorbed about food and our comfort in the kitchen. That’s why Julie Powell’s blog/book and the movie, Julie and Julia resonated so deeply. It was at once a deeply personal journey (well, more like a mid life crisis), but also a culinary bit of gonzodom.

‘I think that we’ve lost our way in the kitchen and Julia has helped us find our way back. Recipes teach us how to prepare a dish – Julia taught us how to cook.”

(December 2009)