Today is Julia Child’s 99th birthday. She died in 2004, 2 days shy of her 82nd birthday, but she’ll always be in my kitchen and I always stop channel surfing when I come upon episodes of one of her cooking shows. Realizing what day it was (courtesy of Noah Fecks and one of my favorite tweeters, @thewayweate), I knew that I had to delay my intended post for today, to celebrate Julia and what she means to me.
I grew up a child of the 50’s and ‘60s. Grilled cheese was standard fare (with canned tomato soup) and many of the recipes that my mom made centered on using a can of condensed soup or frozen orange juice, or a packet of Knorr’s dried soup mix. We ate frozen vegetables and canned fruit. Salad meant iceberg lettuce, maybe with a carrot and celery cut up in sticks alongside or in pieces on top of the lettuce. I’m not blaming my mom, or making fun of her cooking. That was the order of the day in American kitchens of the time.
Julia Child changed all that – at least for me. She opened up food and cooking possibilities with a robust laugh and a confidence-building repartie that kept me engaged at the TV long before I ventured into the kitchen. In high school I just listened and watched. Once I got to college, I had little access to TV but the urge to cook gave me the chance to try what I had only watched and dreamed about before.
Just this weekend, I was regaling my family with tales of one of my Julia-inspired efforts to learn French cooking – my “flambée period.” As the name suggests, in junior year of college I decided that almost everything, from chicken stews to side dishes to desserts, should get the flaming treatment. (In that pre-computer age, closer to the Pleistocene than to the present, we didn’t know how to flame people.) Luckily I never started a major fire; the results were often humorous, sometimes disastrous, and occasionally better than edible. I finally moved on to less dangerous adventures, including homemade croissants that took hours to make and tasted not-nearly-as-good as ones from the local bakery.
I took a detour from the land of Julia and friends into law, but even when I was writing briefs, my idea of a good time was to pull out Mastering the Art of French Cooking and find a recipe that required kneading dough or stirring a pot of something delicious. In fact, when I started this blog, my very first post was an ode to her. I'm not a wannabe and I don't expect that I'll ever own every one of her cookbooks or work my way through every recipe in one of them. Her effect on me is enduring rather than all-consuming.
There are celebrity chefs galore these days. And there are certainly many more food bloggers, cooking shows, and cookbooks than I’ll ever have time to consult. But I doubt that I’ll ever come upon a chef, TV personality, raconteur, or cookbook author who will inspire me the way Julia Childs does. She gives me new perspectives on an ingredient or a dish (or introduces me to one), while making the cooking/baking experience an adventure in which success is assured if you have fun. Every time I taste what I’m cooking, or snatch a crumb off a tart as I move it, I’m channeling her. And when I let out a contented sigh if the recipe is turning out well, I thank Julia, for giving me the courage to try a new way of cooking.