Well, it’s happened, five years after her death and thirty eight years after it was first published, Julia Child’s quintessential French cookbook, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ has made it to the New York Times bestseller list.
To this day, it remains the only cookbook to explain how to create authentic French dishes in American kitchens with American ingredients. By teaching techniques of French cooking, Julia Child singlehandedly turned American housewives into gourmet cooks.
I used to race home from school to watch old reruns of Julia (as I called her) cooking everything from soufflé to lobster (yikes, that was awful, I must say). She was masterful and goofy, funny and wise, graceful and clumsy and I loved her and her cooking. I was hooked, something that many people who make their livings in kitchens will admit.
I remember meeting Julia for the first time. I was brand new to television and we were both at a national public television event. I was dying to meet her. As I stood in a hallway one day, lo and behold, Julia Child was walking toward me in all her height and eccentric splendor. She was with a young woman and as she strode past me, she said,’ Now remember, I want to meet that new young woman who doesn’t cook with butter.’
I wanted to scream, ‘That’s me!!!!’ But I didn’t. I walked up and introduced myself in a civilized way, completely starstruck. Julia was warm and cordial and asked if we could talk about her favorite ingredient. The young woman with her warned that she had about ten minutes to spare. Two hours later, (well after I stopped picturing Dan Akroyd’s famous portrayal of her…), Julia asked me if she should give up butter for her health. We both laughed as she realized that at 87 years of age, she was doing something right.
That meeting sticks with me because I remember being most impressed by her love of all food…of course, only good food. She had no time or patience for junk food of any kind. I often wonder what she would think of the swill we have peddled to us as food. Not much, I suspect.
And so now a movie has been made about her greatest recipes, based on a blog by a young woman whose life was going nowhere and decided to cook her way through Julia’s masterpiece cookbook. And now this same bible of cooking has finally become a bestseller.
It’s interesting to me that in a time when fewer and fewer people are cooking that Julia’s homage to great food has risen to such heights. And at a time when diabetes, obesity and heart disease are epidemics, people are buying a book that celebrates all the foods we now know do not serve our health.
Is it to own a bit of history? A bit of Julia? Is it because Meryl Streep so beautifully channeled our godmother of cooking? Does this new status for ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ mean a return to cooking from scratch?
And what about the ingredients so essential to Julia’s way of cooking. Butter, lard, organ meats, cured meats, all manner of heart clogging foods are falling out of fashion. They are, aren’t they? We want healthier fare, don’t we?
We can’t afford to cook the way Julia did. We don’t live in the innocent 1950’s when food was authentic and not manufactured, when butter wasn’t laced with growth hormones, antibiotics and steroids, when beef was grass-fed and thereby lower in saturated fat. We no longer live in the world where the cook of the house shops daily for the freshest ingredients and cooks from scratch. We live in a world of fast food, junk food, deep-fried oreos and 600-calorie coffee drinks. We live in world that is literally groaning under our collective mass and is slowly dying from the way we produce and manufacture food.
Julia learned her love of food and cooking when food was simply food and we cooked it and ate it. In our modern world, food is entertainment…we watch chefs working against the clock cooking food that we can’t even identify and where the new style of high cuisine is sous-vide, a method by which food is vacuum packed and then cooked at low temperatures for a long time in boil bags after which some searing or other ‘finish’ cooking used to complete the dish. Really, back to boil bags? And we worship the chefs using this new method, from Thomas Keller to Charlie Trotter.
When did we lose touch with all that Julia stood for: actually learning to cook and mastering that art? Whether you agree with her choice of ingredients or not…and I mostly don’t (and she would disagree with me that healthy food is necessary. She believed that all food, in moderation, was the key), we all have to respect what she stood for and the gift she gave us. She taught us that the kitchen wasn’t a scary place reserved for white coats and French accents. She taught us that anyone could cook.
It’s time to head back to the kitchen, dust off your copy of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking;’ adapt the recipes to create healthy meals and pay homage to our great Julia by mastering your own art of cooking.