My relationship to Julia Child, like those of countless generations, goes back to Saturday mornings on public television. I was never much into cartoons. But I was always first to wake up and tune into the Saturday morning lineup of cooking shows. It was a mixed bag. It was long before superchefs inscribed their names on packaged spice blends and spatulas. Cooking talents came and went. There was Joanne Weir with her poodle perm and her tales of a place called Tuscany. There was Rick Bayless with his shirtless enthusiasm for mole. There was that vegetarian cook with something called seitan. And then there was Julia. I had no qualms with Julia. She was knowledgeable, a little clumsy, and unlike the rest, she had a sense of humor. Gangly and slightly hunchbacked at this point, she had tremendous knife skills for someone so unassuming. And it made for terrific television.
At this point I had never had real French food. And it certainly had a mystique of its own. Crepes were a fancy specialty item covered in whipped crème and saccharin fruit topping on the menus of the local Chicago greasy spoons. And they had a pronunciation all of their own. And I squeamishly tried escargot for the first time at the Chicago staple The Bergoff on a special trip with my family “downtown”. But luckily, Julia was not my only introduction to the cuisine of elsewhere. A big part of my food education is much credited to the adventurous daddy-daughter dates I shared with my father. We drank real unsweetened hot chocolate on silver platters and devoured elegant whipped crème tartes with our pinkies up at Lutz bakery on the Northside. And I was the only adventurous spirit to join him on our first taste of Ethiopian together.
But back to Julia, as my family woke up those Saturday mornings, they would all roll in one-by-one. First my dad, “Oh, Julia! I love Julia Child!” he would say plopping on the couch next to me with his cup of coffee. Then my mom would wander in, “And then you put the chicken in the souuuuuup!” said in her best Aykroyd does Child shrillness. “I’ve been watching her since I was your age,” she would coo, crowding around the tv. Then finally my brother come in and sat down with a bowl of cereal. “Can we change the channel?” Some things never change. But majority ruled and we would all watch Julia together.
Although I never realized any of her recipes at home, thanks to Julia, I started developing a food vocabulary from a very early age. I knew what chervil was although it took me 15 years before I could actually taste it for myself. I encouraged my mom to buy parchment paper so I could pipe merinque like Julia. And meringue was most definitely best whipped in a copper bowl. And I learned that with the right technique, something as mundane as eggs could be an elegant affair at any time of the day.
In college, working at a theatre company in the middle of Maine for a summer, I brought along both ‘Julie & Julia’ and ‘My Life in France’ for a summer reading double feature. Although I did not hear an end of it from my coworkers and roommates, I started piecing together more of Julia’s extraordinary character. In a time with strict social constraints on women, she was a true trailblazer. Whether moving to New York after university to figure it out or working for the OSS long before stumbling upon French cooking in her 30s, her life was not the product of expectations, but guided by her own discoveries and passions. And all in all, it was pleasure to read that there was still a great amount of hope for tall girls with distinct voices like me. Although I cannot pinpoint exactly my choice of moving to France, I relished reading about Julia’s first serendipitous bite of sole meunière. And I subconsciously knew I had to try it for myself.
So when I finally did arrive in France, I had already been formerly introduced to the edible world of Julia Child. And I am still enjoying most every moment of it. I aspire to treat food with the same amount of patience, dedication and zeal as Julia. And in the spirit of Julia Child, I look forward to seeing where it takes me. So regardless if these sentiments are a little late, Julia Child is still one-hundred years and one day as memorable.
. . . . .