This is a piece of kitsch for my kitchen, the first in what I plan will be a series of icons I'm calling "The Culinary Communion of Saints." (Pardon me, dear, your upbringing is showing...) Julia, of course, has to come first.
Almost no one has anything bad to say about Julia Child. (Except the Curmudgeon, and his argument is based on the law of intended consequences, not really on any failing of Julia personally.) Some argue that she is given perhaps a bit more credit than she is due, given that other chefs and writers had promoted French cooking before her. But generally the others wrote for serious home cooks and restaurant chefs. Only Julia reached young girls growing up in suburbia.
I watched Julia on rainy or cold Saturday afternoons, when television choices were limited to golf, the Creature Double Feature, and PBS cooking and woodworking shows. Julia was always my favorite; she was always everyone's favorite. After her death, the tributes spoke of her casual style, the famous mistakes, her charming willingness to try anything, her excitement in learning. She was a great cook and an even greater teacher. Many American cooks point to her as the major culinary influence in their lives, the person who open their horizons, told them that more was possible in home cooking than they had ever dreamed.
I certainly absorbed a lot of culinary information from watching her shows, and her can-do attitude was infectious. But as a ten-year-old girl in the suburbs, I wasn't attempting French cooking. Julia was very forgiving about ingredients, but the margarine and Wonder bread I had access to wouldn't suffice. When I cooked, I used the Fannie Farmer cookbook and made simple cakes and quick breads.
But Julia was still a role model for me. Not as a cook, but as a woman.
That may seem a strange thing to say, but it's true. You see, my Irish/Scottish, New-England-by-way-of-Canada, Catholic environment was a little, shall we say, repressive? Sensuality was frowned upon in almost all forms. I remember clearly the scorn with which my parents, and my mother in particular, held perfume, makeup, baths, incense, even things like brightly painted walls,
"fancy" food, the most innocent pleasures of the flesh. They had the Madonna/whore thing going in a big way. Good women were like my mother and her friends: overweight mothers, in printed loose dresses, who didn't dye their hair or wear makeup or drink. Almost all were nurses or teachers (a few had become real estate brokers), and almost all had stopped working permanently when their children were small. Their world was small, and they distrusted those whose worlds were not.
Like Hollywood women. I know it sound like a cliche, but cliches exist for a reason. I had an aunt who had committed two major sins: she had left New England to move to L.A., and she had had no children. My mother always talked disdainfully about my aunt's love of glamour, so I always assumed she was a great beauty, an Elizabeth Taylor or Rita Hayworth. I was stunned when I finally met her, a regular middle-aged woman, just in heels and lipstick.
So in my world, there were two ways to be a woman. You could be a mom, or you could be Elizabeth Taylor. The second was more appealing, but dangerous - you might risk your immortal soul. Also, it seemed to have some serious entrance requirements. Only the beautiful need apply, and even by the age of ten, a girl knows if she's likely to be beautiful. I was not.
But Julia! She fit no categories. She was no beauty, that was certain. She was big, not fat, but oversized, tall and broad. So where did she get that self-confidence? She had charm; she had wit. She had lived in France, which was of course the pinnacle of sophistication. She was married, to a photographer no less, one who worked with her on projects that were hers first. She wasn't a mother. She had a job, a really cool job. She wrote books and was on television.
And she was a sensualist.
It was obvious, the intense pleasure she took in food. She closed her eyes when she tasted a particularly delicious dish. She inhaled aromas. She drank wine. She patted chickens affectionately like she was patting her lover's bottom. She flirted with the camera. Once, when asked the secret of a long-lasting marriage, she replied coyly, "The three Fs: food and flattery." I hadn't heard that quote when I was ten, and I wouldn't have know what the heck she was talking about anyway, but it doesn't matter. What came through loud and clear was that this woman was utterly comfortable in her own skin.
I wanted to be just like her. I remember making a list around that time of the things I hoped to do in life. Living in France and attending the Cordon Bleu was one of the first things on the list. So far, I've only spent a few weeks in France, but I did go to culinary school. I live in the city, just a few minutes' walk from where Julia herself lived, and I take pleasure in good food and wine every day. I think Julia would approve. I will always be grateful to her.