Topic: Profiles

Julia Child | Cooking With Flair

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A Yankee Classic from November 1979.

Julia Child in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen

Julia Child in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen

Associated Press

“When we were first married,” Paul Child says, “Julia was always hungry, but she didn’t know enough about cooking to do anything about it.” With him as her incentive, she took a crash program in learning French, and then immersed herself in cooking lessons in Paris where they were living. Since then she has been doing her own culinary thing with steadily increasing confidence and command.

Some say she could coat the most abysmal meal with a layer of cheese, put it under the broiler for a few minutes, and present it as if it were ambrosia fit for the gods. Likely as not, it would be.

In popularizing the art of good eating, Julia Child has demonstrated to millions of stay-at-home cooks that a certain devil-may-care attitude and dram of humor are nearly as essential as the raw materials all cooks deal with regularly. As with her traditional TV sign-off — a raised glass and a jaunty “Bon appetit” — Julia inspires confidence, even among those who have never felt an urge for culinary derring-do.

Julia Child has perfected the art of good teaching as well. She captures the attention with her energy and her somehow outrageous naturalness. Her husband calls her a clown, a ham even, and Julia doesn’t deny the charge. “When one is a teacher,” she says, smiling, “haven’t you found it so?”

Her recipes tend to be long because they are written with such precision, but they do allow more seasoned cooks to scan directions they do not need. Because of the method of theme and variations — an approach she carefully developed to communicate her information easily to others — many cooks claim her recipes are nearly foolproof.

“She’s a creative artist,” Paul Child explains, “dedicated to making an imprecise art more precise.”

An example of this is Julia’s Strawberry Souffle No. 29. She was determined such a dish could be concocted as a sweet dessert. Her recipe worked well enough for one of her televised cooking lessons. But soon after it was aired, a flood of letters poured into the studio. It seemed her recipe was not infallible. It might have had something to do with the moisture content of the strawberries, so Julia went back to her own kitchen and tried it again. It took 29 attempts before she was entirely satisfied.

Just as there are basics which must be mastered in order to succeed as a cook, there are some skills that are now performed better by mechanical aids. Although Julia Child makes her own bread, she prefers to use a dough hook attached to a commercial-size mixer to do the kneading. “Some people go on and on about how necessary it is to knead bread by hand, to get the feel of it through their fingers, up through their arms, and down their spines — as if their soul is more important than their taste. I use every mechanical aid possible to make cooking easy.”

But she also accents basics like careful shopping for economy and quality and keeping fresh foods fresh. (“Never refrigerate a tomato; it stops the sugar process. You can’t ripen a fresh pineapple; it will get softer but never ripen from the day it’s harvested; pick it carefully at the fruit store.”) And she does insist on presenting things with a flair.

In surely what must be an all-time film classic — as understated as the best of Charlie Chaplin — in the mid-1960s millions watched her show fascinated while she absently fondled a suckling pig under one arm as if it were some strange house pet, cleaning its snout and ears with a towel, brushing its teeth. And all the time, straight on camera without the glimmer of a smile, she talked about the steps it takes to prepare a whole pig for the oven. Her performance convinced us it is a common thing to do for a special occasion, that the satisfaction to be had from eating roast suckling pig will be staggering if one is only willing to follow her simple lead.

Ruth Lockwood, her producer now for the past 12 years, says, “Julia wants to show you how to do things properly. And if something goes wrong — which it does from time to time with all of us — she wants to make you feel confident enough to correct it. She wants to help other cooks eliminate the worry and fear of failure.”

One result of this demystifying process and of exposing the art of good cooking to a mass audience is that Julia Child has put fun and satisfaction back into the American kitchen.

“The kitchen should be the core of the home with a lot going on in it all the time,” she says convincingly. “The way to get people involved with each other is to involve them over food. Good eating and good company are marks of civilized living, don’t you agree? Without them we’d all be savages.”

For her work and pleasure Julia Child collects kitchen tools — a wall of heavy copper pots and pans, pegboards where each artifact hangs in its assigned place handy to an appropriate work area, drawers and cabinets organized with kitchen gadgets that combine the old and new. A food processor and a durable mixer stand at strategic points near electrical outlets behind the counter.

In the basement storage area there is even more. Now that her latest series of televised cooking lessons for Boston’s Channel 2 has been wrapped up, the familiar equipment has been transferred to the cellar, where it will be handy for another cross-country tour to promote her latest book, the one she’s working on, Julia Child and More Company.

She is a professional cook who has the right tool for the right job, but she is also an unselfconscious performer who does everything with a flair and never seems to be at a loss when the unexpected happens. In fact, she is so well fortified with technical cooking skills that she seems to welcome the unusual, and always turns it to her own advantage, as if saying to her audience, “This is part of it. It happens to everyone. Now let’s see what we can do about it.

“Of course there are slips, dishes that don’t come out as expected. But when you master the technique, you can learn to correct mistakes and even live comfortably with them. If the sauce is too thin, thicken it. If the Hollandaise is lumpy, dice up hard-boiled eggs to justify the lumps. If the mousse fails, turn it into a delicious soup.

“But the real key to cooking is never to apologize. Present your meal as it is. But present it with a flourish. It’s really a matter of self-preservation, isn’t it?”

Born in Pasadena, California, the eldest of three children, Julia Child admits she came to cooking relatively late. She grew up in a house similar to the one the Childs live in now. Her mother was originally from western Massachusetts, so it seemed natural for Julia to come East for her education. After graduating from Smith College, she was soon drawn to Manhattan. She dreamed then of writing for a national magazine, but took a job instead with a large department store. She says now it trained her to be a stickler for observed detail that was later reinforced when World War II broke out and she worked for the OSS in Ceylon and China. It was there she met Paul.

They were married after the war was over, and Paul Child accepted a State Department assignment in Paris. After six months of lessons at the Cordon Bleu to learn the fundamentals of cooking French style, Julia continued private lessons with several French chefs.

Her original success was co-authoring the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, two French women with whom she shared a cooking school in Paris. The massive book took ten years to prepare. When it was initially sent out to publishers, the manuscript was turned down. It was too long and did not follow a traditional pattern of presentation. Eventually in 1961 Alfred A. Knopf — still her book publisher — was far-sighted enough to take it on. It has been a cook’s bible ever since.

Then came television. And more cookbooks. She collaborated again with Simone Beck on Volume Two of Mastering. Since then on her own she has written The French Chef’s Cookbook, From Julia Child’s Kitchen, and Julia Child and Company.

Her latest series of 13 PBS programs, rehearsed and taped at Boston’s Channel 2, is “Julia Child and More Company.” It was particularly difficult for her. She worried she was running out of ideas, but insisted that each program meet her professional standards before it got her stamp of approval. The programs are tentatively scheduled to be introduced nationally in January 1980.

It will be her last for television. The venture involved 12-hour workdays, custom cooking in a production group surrounded by research staffers and assistant cooks, rehearsals with real food, critiques, still photographing, more run-throughs to perfect timing and minimize mistakes, and finally a weekly taping session. The staff worked from a loose script which left enough leeway to give her programs the appearance of spontaneity, yet each program had to be wedged into 28 minutes of air time.

Even as the series was being filmed, another phase of Julia’s work began. Her latest book, of the same title, will be published by Knopf before the release of the television series and in time for the Christmas trade. Now she divides herself between her kitchen and her typewriter, between Cambridge and New York.

In-some respects Julia Child’s 15 years of being work-oriented have taken their toll on her personally. They have not diminished her standards or her enthusiasm, but they have affected her stamina. Now, after 250 televised cooking lessons since 1963, when “The French Chef” was first aired in the Boston area and then went on to become a national passion, accumulating awards and an Emmy for Julia Child, the French Chef says she needs a rest.

The late Arthur Fiedler, for whom Julia once narrated a recording of “Tubby the Tuba” with the Boston Pops, always contended that the more you do, the more you can — that to rest is to rot. “But Arthur Fiedler was an exceptional human being. It was his way. I’m 66 years old. I want more uninterrupted time to spend with Paul. We enjoy each other’s company. I need to further my own interests and my knowledge.”

Hers is a common symptom among hard-working teachers who look forward to recess as eagerly as any of their students. Eventually Julia will go back to the classroom, but this time it will be as a student again. She wants to take pastry lessons from a chef in France. She wants to free herself from a strict work schedule, to have more time to experiment, to travel, to work up new ideas.

One of Julia’s dreams is to inspire her producers to continue cooking lessons on TV but with a series of notable and different cooks. It would continue what she’s started.

“Maybe there will be more professionally trained chefs because of me,” she says. “More and more women are getting into the business. In the United States there seems to be more interest in professional cookery among the young than there is anywhere else in the world.

“Taste is such an important — and neglected — part of living, don’t you agree?”

Read more about chefs:
Five Portland Chefs
Spring Recipes from New England Chefs
Chef Frank McClelland
Italian Chef Mary Ann Esposito

Comments
  • I can agree with Julia’s idea of using the dough hook for kneading bread now, but when I was in high school and always baking. I went to my grandmothers one weekend mad at my boyfriend, made up a lot of bread and the kneading and pounding on the bread dough really was a good anger management tool and the bread was a lot better too. Try it sometime; I haven’t made bread in sometime but since I am now unemployed it might relive my stress.

    Teri Gerrard

    Reply

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