Therein lies the appeal of Julia Child, America's Lady of the Ladle. She was both practical and instructional, with culinary standards that could be achieved by any home cook who had the drive and the interest to create something good to eat, something made with real food, by real hands in real kitchens across America. High standards, however, were never sacrificed.
Julia's major contribution to home cooking, of course, was her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which remains to this day the best-selling cookbook of all time. Julia transformed the way recipes were conveyed to the reader by forcing the home cook to read through the entire recipe first before beginning, to assess the ingredients and to understand why they were being used. She also spent countless hours deconstructing complex French techniques and put them into a format that Americans would not only understand but gravitate to. She was a genius writer who revolutionized the way cookbooks were authored.
My first exposure to Julia Child was through Sesame Street. She was cooking with the Swedish Chef, making some sort of clattering mess while the Chef babbled on incoherently. I loved her immediately. Her strangeness, in part, is what seduced me: a 6'4" cook with broad shoulders and a deep, warbled cluck of a voice that could call even the furthest turkeys to her butcher block. When I finally did see old reruns of her program on PBS, the relationship was solidified. Her hilarity put me at ease, even as she wielded tremendous butcher knives against the breast of some poor, plucked chicken.
And now she is all the rage, with a new movie starring Meryl Streep as Child and Amy Adams as a culinary devotee, a sort of wayward soul looking for some purpose in her life who discovers Julia's recipes help her rediscover her drive and ambition. See my brief little review of the film, below.Meryl Streep as Julia Child. Incidentally, all of the food for the film was actually prepared by Susan Spungen, the former food editor at Martha Stewart Living!
Martha Stewart must also share some affinity with the Amy Adams character. She, too, tried every single one of Julia's recipes when she was a homemaker during the first few years of her marriage. Martha has regularly cited Julia as her foremost idol and influence. It's that blend of country-kitchen ease with uncompromising standards that must have originally appealed to Martha. In many ways, Martha has continued that culinary legacy with her own cookbooks and her own television programs. (Indeed, Julia laid the foundations for an entire generation of celebrity chefs.)
Martha and Julia knew each other and took part in each other's television programs on occasion. The most famous is when Julia joined Martha on her first Holiday special, making crocumbouche at Turkey Hill. Martha's, of course, was perfect: a towering, golden pyramid of sweets, blanketed in ribbons of spun sugar. Julia's was a little lop-sided and askew, a bit of an avalanche-in-waiting. But something tells me it probably tasted better.
Martha, too, took part in Julia's baking program and they both seemed to understand one another. Here's what Julia said about Martha in an interview with Michael Rowe of the Huffington Post:
Q: What do you think of Martha Stewart?
A: We know her. She's a very special person. And I think she's also a perfectionist. She came to our house when we were doing the baking series. She was very professional and pleasant to be with and she did a marvelous job.
Q: She has been parodied and lampooned somewhat mercilessly, alas.
A: Yes, and I don't know why. People are probably jealous of her because she is so good-looking and capable and anything she sets out to do she can do.
Below are some Julia Child must-haves, examples from my own little collection:
Anyone - and I do mean anyone - who calls themselves a home cook needs this book: "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." I have yet to make anything terribly complex from it, but I've made some of the basics. My former employer gave me her original copy, which was nicely used and smudged with butter stains. Beautiful!
A series of DVDs was released with ten episodes each of the old French Chef program, put together by WGBH, Boston's public television station. These DVDs are, by far, the most loving collection of Julia's best work on television, complete with a fully-illustrated booklet.
"Appetite for Life, the Biography of Julia Child " by Noel Riley Fitch is one of the best biographies I've ever read. It is loving without being overly sychophantic. It traces Julia's life from her childhood days as the rambunctious daughter of wealthy California merchants to her misfired attempts at professional journalism, all the way to France and back. It looks at some of her relationships (romantic and otherwise) and paints the portrait of an eternal optimist, despite some bouts of loneliness and depression. It's a fantastic book.
Julia Child's kitchen at the Smithsonian
I saw the film on the weekend and I'm very glad I did! Meryl Streep delivers her usual gold-star performance playing the incomparable Julia Child, and Amy Adams is endearing as a determined blogger and everlasting Julia Child admirer. The movie made me fall in love with the art of blogging all over again and certainly reconfirmed my love for Julia Child - and Meryl Streep...and food! When I got home we made an enormous dinner, slathered in too much butter, and toasted Julia and the joy of food!