Happy hundredth, Julia
That Julia Child, the 100th anniversary of whose birth is tomorrow, taught America how to cook and eat, as is commonly stated, demonstrably untrue. We were cooking and eating long before Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published, in 1961. Amelia Simmons, described by her publisher as “an American Orphan,” wrote “American Cookery” in 1796; it contained the first recipe for Indian pudding ever to appear in print, and must have been as exotic to Back Bay cooks of the 1790s as coquelets sur canapés was to Julia’s readers in the 1960s.
What Julia Child’s accomplishment was–and here is her greatness–was to render home cooking an act worthy of ordinary people, with some inborn leaning toward creativity. In actuality, that’s most of us, but we didn’t know that, as a country or as individuals, until Julia taught us that it’s okay for anyone–man, woman or young adult–to don an apron, enter the kitchen, and create something interesting and delicious and worth talking about, as part of a larger celebration of the art of living.
Americans younger than, say, 40 today can have little idea of what enemy territory “the kitchen” was throughout most of this country’s history. The “man of the house” was utterly out of place there, except, possibly, to grab something out of the fridge, or icebox, or pantry. It was “the little woman,” “barefoot, pregnant and in the kitchen,” who presided over the room in which the family’s food was, usually, indifferently prepared. If you were poor and female, you did your own cooking, with whatever you could find: cheap bread, offal, lard, molasses, corn, greens. If you were rich, you hired a cook, always a woman, and presumably ate more meat than the poor had access to. Either way, “cooking” as pastime didn’t exist. The technology of cooking constantly improved, but its sentiment hadn’t changed much since Cave Man days: cooking was what had to be done to render raw food edible.
“American Cookery” was yeoman’s work, as befitted a struggling New England wife, working over a wood fire. In France, roughly coterminously, Brillat-Savarin (1755-1826), set the cookbook onto a higher plane, bringing a philosophical elegance to Amelia’s simple mechanics. The coiner of the famous phrase, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you what you are,” he took what already was recognized as gastronomy–the true sport of Kings–and expressed it in literary form. M.F.K. Fisher was a lineal descendent of that tradition. Julia Child, emphatically, was not. Although she was born to wealth, she had (or seemed to have) an inclination against putting on airs. Not for her the literary tone of Fisher’s The Gastronomical Me (Auden wrote that he did “not know of anyone in the United States who writes better prose”). Julia Child wrote, as she expressed it in “Mastering”’s foreward, “for the servantless American cook,” who, if she was not exactly in a hurry to prepare the evening’s dinner, nonetheless did not have the time to delve through long stretches of novelistic writing (“Grandmother, with that almost joyfully stern bowing to duty typical of religious women, make it clear that helping in the kitchen was a bitter heavy business forbidden certainly to men…”) in order to learn how to make strawberry jam. In “Mastering,” Julia devotes a single paragraph to jam (for filling crêpes), advising the cook to use prepared preserves, if necessary. Julia, always breathless, got to the point as fast as she could, even if the point (e.g., how to make a soufflé) required 7 pages to be made.
I met Julia Child a couple of times. She was exactly the same person you see on T.V. Happy hundredth, Julia, and may you always find something interesting to eat.