French cooking? How Julia Child invented modern life Whitetail started Julia Child made America mad for food and changed notions of class and gender BY KAREN LEARN Americans are obsessive about fancy food. At the pricier supermarkets, it’s hard to find the hamburgers among the p;ts, the buns among the pollute, the ketchup among the jars of mango salsa. Guests at Tony dinner parties twitter about whether one should wok in peanut or canola oil, and why a morel tastes better with a dash of rosemary. Books devoted to cooking, broken down by region, appliance, and heat source, occupy four aisles at the spinsterhood Barnes & Noble.
Food has become an integral part of high culture. A character proclaims in John Guard’s 1990 play, Six Degrees of Separation, “The restaurants! New York has become the Florence of the sixteenth century. Genius on every corner. ” Haute cuisine is embedded in mass culture, too: The corner coffee shop sells pain AU chocolate, and Burger King slaps sausage, egg, and cheese between two crescent-shaped rolls and calls it a “Croissant’s. ” It wasn’t always this way. In the sass, America was a meat-and-potatoes kind of country.
Women did all of the cooking and got their recipes from ladies’ gained articles with titles like “The 10-Minute Meal and How to Make It. ” Meatloaf, liver and onions, corned beef hash–all were considered hearty and therefore healthy and therefore delicious. For many women, preparing meals was not a joy but a requirement, like cleaning toilets and having (male centered) sex. Food was fuel; it merely satisfied a need. By the late ‘ass, though, America was in the midst of a major cultural transformation. The economy was booming, the old WASP aristocracy was beginning to crumble, and opportunities proliferated for a broad group of
Americans who had gone to college free of charge on the postwar GIG Bill. Upward mobility brought with it, inevitably, status anxiety, which expressed itself in the elaborate cultural signals people sent to tell one another that, in spite of this Brooklyn accent or that Mississippi Delta drawl, the bearer was a cosmopolitan. Arguably the most prestigious of these signals was the casually dropped remark indicating that one had traveled by ocean liner or airplane to France, visited a great restaurant, and discovered, somewhere between the vichyssoise and the flannelette De beau, that food wasn’t fuel, it was Art.
Enter Julia Child. In 1961, a 49-year-old housewife with negligible formal training in cooking published a sophisticated guide to the basic principles, techniques, and recipes of classic French cuisine, titled Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The first hardcover edition sold 650,000 copies, starting a minor revolution in an American culture still reveling in the convenience of canned soups, frozen vegetables, and TV dinners. Two years after Mastering, Julia Child took her message to an even wider public with The French Chef, broadcast on National Educational Television, the precursor to the Public
Broadcasting System. For dinner tables across the country, the program ended the reign of liver and onions–first for the aspiring professional classes and ultimately for much Of America. Affluent women clamored to take cooking classes; gourmet “specialty” stores like Williams-Sonoma (founded in 1963) cropped up at the local shopping center and, later, the mall; and three, star restaurants began to sprout in large cities. For the less affluent, there appeared chain knockoffs of French billionaires like Au Bon Pain.
College students took to studying for a bachelor’s degree in gastronomy; just recently, Boston University initiated the nation’s first masters program. Today, cooking is a national pastime. Unprofessional food connoisseurs have become a familiar social type with an appellation of their own-?bodies–and even homely Basking-Robbins serves up sorbet, which was once considered a sophisticated French dessert. Julia Child, now 85, can’t pass through an airport without being accosted by a throng of fans.
Her influence in creating today’s pop-culture milieu bears comparison to that of Alfred Kinsey and Elvis Presley in their respective fields. If Julia Child’s contribution has attracted less twice than that of the Kinsey Report or “Hound Dog”–the first Child biography, Nol Riley Finch’s Appetite for Life, is coming out only now–that’s because food is less controversial than sex or rock-and-roll. Yet Julia Child did more than change the way Americans relate to food.
She also changed the way Americans relate to women. Betty Friedman may have identified the feminine mystique, but Julia Child-with her ungainly height (6 feet, 2 inches), late marriage, gracelessness, childlessness, wit, and meteoric rise in the traditionally male preserve of professional cooking-?showed that omen could turn the mystique on its head. More important, she did so without declaring herself a victim of men, society, or the more pleasurable aspects of traditional femininity.
Indeed, just as feminists of the day were exhorting women to get out of the kitchen, she was welcoming women-?and men–back to an enlightened kitchen, a kitchen-UCM-art studio. And while men wouldn’t come on board for another couple of decades, many an overeducated housewife grasped at the opportunity to empower herself through cooking. JULIA MCMILLAN WAS BORN in 191 2 in Pasadena, cilia. , to a family of lath and social prominence. A few things about Julia-?she insists on being called Julia–were soon apparent.
She was going to be tall (they could never find baby clothes big enough for her), she possessed what are typically called leadership qualities, and she was not boring. As a mischievous tomboy, she led the other kids in neighborhood pranks; as a rebellious debt, she was the life of every party. Of course, her unusual height and enormous energy level didn’t hurt. Both also left her continually hungry and in search of good food. She rarely found it in her own kitchen, where the family maid served overcooked beef, gray lamb, and codfish balls.
At Smith College, where she enrolled in 1930, Julia wasn’t much of a scholar, but the mere fact that she earned a degree was a novelty; only 5 percent of the American female population went to college, and only a third Of those got through all four years. She dated only sporadically, her social options limited by her awkward height, and ended up graduating without a wedding band-?a true rarity in that era–or even a steady boyfriend. “l am quite content to be the way I am,” she wrote in her diary at the time, “and feel quite superior to many a wedded mouse.
Julia drifted back to Pasadena, where, in the midst of the Depression, she enjoyed a society life filled with parties and leisure. When she had had her fill, she took a job in public relations at a department store in New York. At the outbreak of World War II, she volunteered for the Office of Strategic Services (precursor to the CIA) in Washington, D. C. , hoping to become a spy. Instead, she was sent to Ceylon (now Sir Lankan) as an office manager. Yet the move was hardly regretted. In 1943, Julia met Paul Child, a painter turned ASS mapmaker.
Urbane and intellectual, a decade older and overall inches shorter than Julia, Paul initially had little interest in her as a romantic possibility. He saw her Southern Californian playfulness as great fun but was far more interested in petite, sophisticated types. Yet her ravenous hunger, combined with his love of good food–having been raised in France, Paul had an unusually sophisticated palate–led them to spend many an evening searching through Ceylon, and then China, for good fare. 3 They returned to the States, where it became clear Julia didn’t know how to make passable food in her own kitchen.
But in 1 946, “Paul married me in petite of my cooking. ” The Child settled into the fashionable Georgetown section of Washington, D. C. , and Julia set about learning how to cook, enlisting Irma Rambler’s Joy of Cooking to churn out standard middle-brow American fare–hamburgers, casseroles, and cakes. Fortunately for the future taste buds of America, Paul was soon transferred to France, where Julia had an epiphanies moment while dining on oysters, sole immunere, and Chablis during their first meal off the boat. “The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me,” she says.
She had found her passion, at a time hen women weren’t supposed to have passions. “l was considered some kind of nut because I did my own cooking and my own shopping. I couldn’t find anyone who shared my enthusiasm at all. ” So in 1 949, at the age of 37, she enrolled in Parish’s world-famous Cordon Blue cooking school and began taking classes with Max Bugbear, a disciple of the eminent 19th-century chef Augusta Scoffer. She was the only woman among a cadre of ex-Gals who wanted to become professional chefs. After six months, Julia left the Cordon Blue to study independently with Bugbear.
Her days were spent cooking; her sights practicing on Paul and dinner guests. She was introduced to Simons “Simms” Beck, a Frenchman who cared as passionately about good food as Julia did and who immediately inducted her into the Circle des Gourmets, an exclusive club of Frenchmen dedicated to French gastronomy. When American women living in Paris began to ask Julia for some cooking lessons, Julia, Simms, and her friend Louisville Borehole launched an informal cooking school–L’ Cole des Trots Gourmand’s–out of Cilia’s kitchen.
Simms and Louisville had published a little book introducing French food to an American audience. They wanted to write a bigger book but had lost their American collaborator. Julia happily volunteered as the replacement. As it happened, Cilia’s role turned out to be far greater than any of the three expected. Simms would send Julia a recipe. Julia would test and retest it until she got it absolutely foolproof. Juice would then write the recipe and the procedures necessary to make it. And Louisville at that point might add some flourishes.
Julia wanted to write a book that would give the home cook the most detailed instructions on how to make cuisine bourgeois using the sequences of haute cuisine and the ingredients of an American supermarket. She wished not only to inform readers how to choose and wash a piece of meat but also to suggest a sauce, vegetable, and wine to go with each dish. Previously, recipes had been very terse, both in France and the United States. “Many recipes today still don ;t tell you how far the chicken should be from the flame, how often to baste it, when it is done,” says Julia. My idea is, if you read one of my recipes, you really know how to do it. ” Meanwhile, Paul kept getting reassigned every couple of years. So Julia had to et up shop in Marseille, Bonn, Washington, and Oslo. After six years of research and over 700 pages on poultry and sauces alone, Julia turned in the manuscript to Houghton Muffling, which had contracted to publish it. But Houghton didn’t want to publish an encyclopedia and rejected it. Undeterred, Julia and Simms spent two more years completing a single volume of recipes and techniques.
In what would prove to be one of the major bloopers in publishing history, Houghton again rejected it, thinking it wouldn’t sell. Knops, a house far better known for its highbrow literary tastes than its commercial viva, gladly took it on. Nearly a decade after it was begun, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in the fall of 1 961. The response was swift and impressive. “Probably the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work on [French cuisine] was published this week and it will probably remain as the 4 definitive work for nonprofessionals,” wrote Craig Collarbone in the New York Times. L only wish that had written it myself,” said James Beard, the grandmaster of American cooking. Within three months the book had sold 20,000 copies and was in its third printing. This certainly had much to do with he book itself–its abundance of detail, its comprehensiveness, its clarity and precision. Yet the success also had much to do with the climate. The book appealed to the desire of the middle class to burnish its social status, and France–especially French cuisine–was seen as the height of culture and sophistication (six months earlier the Kennedy’s had hired a French chef).
Yet French cooking seemed mysterious and unattainable. Mastering was a “how to” guide to looking sophisticated; you too could eat like the Kennedy’s. As Julia puts it: “Had it come out five years earlier, it would have laid an egg. For women who had been using their college educations to choose wallpaper patterns, Cilia’s elevation of home cooking to the level of art provided a socially acceptable way to be creative, respected, and even moderately powerful. Much of the job market was still closed to women, and no one cared what they had to say about Khrushchev.
But a woman could command attention with a well-executed pt De canard en cropate or mousiness De Poisson ; Ia marchalet. A low-value feminine present/e thus was accorded some modicum of social status. That status didn’t carry women very far until after the 1 sass, of course, when they acquired other options besides serving three meals a day. Since then, our culture’s obsession with food (combined, again, with the forces of feminism) has lured more men into the kitchen.
Eating foods from other lands also helped make Americans somewhat less isolated from the world beyond their borders. This has been especially important in recent years, as changing immigration patterns have helped turn the trend from France and Italy to the less familiar cuisines of places like Thailand, Ethiopia, and Jamaica. Growing appreciation of the foods of these actions represents, at least in a limited way, an appreciation of different cultures. The broadening of attitudes toward food has also helped us appreciate our own culture.
Before Julia, the words “American” and “cuisine” were rarely used in the same sentence. Today, the nation celebrates hominy grits, corn timbale’s, and Boston baked beans as part of America’s cultural inheritance. What’s lately been termed “American cuisine” often blends ingredients and styles from different cultures, making the melting pot more than a metaphor. Yet for all the good it has bequeathed, the food revolution as not been without its downside. An unfortunate aftereffect was to encourage invidious distinctions be;en members of different social classes.
Julia wanted to demystify French cooking so that anyone–or at least anyone who loved to cook-could enjoy it. Despite her Seven Sisters upbringing her intellectual husband and friends, her association with Knops and educational television, Julia is in every way an annotations. She is first and foremost a teacher, eager to make something accessible, and her students are the country’s vast middle class. “Those who try to mystify are just trying to aggrandize themselves,” she says. Part of the reason Julia clicked, though, was that so many of her students were trying to rise above the middle class.
Mastering the pleasures of fine cuisine became not just a way to enhance one’s sensory perceptions, as Julia had proselytized, but a way to assert a snotty superiority. As Thorniest Evolve, the economist who coined the term “conspicuous consumption,” observed in his 1899 book, The Theory of the Leisure Class, “The superior gratification derived from the use and contemplation Of costly and supposedly beautiful products is, commonly, in great measure a gratification of our sense of costliness masquerading under he name of beauty. Many of Cilia’s pupils who learned to appreciate the finer points of foe grass and to choose the best wine to accompany it also learned to disdain the benighted propels who were still eating Ritz crackers and Cheek Whiz. Yet today, thanks to the demonstrating 5 effects of capitalism, exotic foods have trickled down to hoi polloi, who can buy a Wolfgang puck designer pizza at the supermarket, cappuccino at the convenience store, and sushi at the ballpark. Precisely for this reason, however, upwardly mobile types are liable to disdain these dishes in favor of ore esoteric fare like curry goat.