My first blogpost was about Julia Child and I celebrated her 99th birthday last year. As her100th birthday approached, I made a few of her recipes, joined a Julia Child centennial twitter party or two, and wrote a review of a charming book about her life, Bon Appétit, the Delicious Life of Julia Child. When I realized that the Smithsonian Museum of American History was celebrating the birthday with a grand re-opening of the Julia Child kitchen exhibit, I couldn’t resist going down (with my daughter, Eleanor) to join in the festivities.
The atmosphere at the museum was delightful – folks of every age and type were meeting authors of various Julia Child biographies, watching episodes of her TV shows, inspecting her kitchen and pouring over memorabilia in the revamped exhibit.
As I stood in line to get my copy of Bon Appétit signed by the author, Jessie Hartland, I noticed a young woman also holding the picture book. Seeing that we had both gotten the book signed for ourselves (neither one of us is anywhere near the age of the book’s target audience), I knew I’d found a kindred spirit.
I introduced myself and we immediately began chatting. My fellow-Julia fan, Lauren Ball, showed me the “birthday cookie” that the museum was distributing and we bonded over our shared enthusiasm for the amazing woman with the indomitable spirit and the size 12 shoes.
When I asked Lauren why Julia inspires her, she smiled broadly and listed her reasons: Julia made it in a male-dominated world of chefs, she wasn’t afraid to fail, she had passion and a drive for excellence and she didn’t take herself too seriously even while she was very serious about cooking and teaching Americans to appreciate food.
It turns out that Lauren is no slouch in the inspiration department either. Now a sophomore at UCLA, Lauren and a friend launched their own cupcake business while still in high school and she is currently developing a curriculum for a free course for UCLA students on how to cook easy and healthy meals. Lauren showed me pictures of her cupcakes, which were incredibly professional and delicious-looking. When I asked how to frost cupcakes so perfectly, she demonstrated by holding an imaginary pastry bag, advising me to practice, if I want my cupcakes to look that good. She pointed out that she made 7-8,000 cupcakes in the 2-3 years that she ran the cupcake business and (like Julia who famously roasted dozens of chickens before she felt she had got it right) had only mastered the techniques herself through practice.
To Lauren, Julia Child represents success – often against obstacles and over a long road. She appreciates the perseverance and passion that Julia had for food, teaching, and her dreams.
After we parted, I found myself thinking about how Julia Child’s life and work still resonate. When she first came on the scene, her books and TV shows were ground breaking. Today, television, bookstores and the internet are crammed full of cooking and food resources – to the point where you could literally never get to the end of the material. Yet Julia Child remains a towering figure – to younger fans, not just to those of us “a certain age” – and not just because of her height and shoe size. Why?
Julia Child didn’t just appreciate food; she reveled in it. When a dish worked out well on her TV show, Julia’s expression suggested triumph not just satisfaction. And if something went awry– whether food dropped on the floor or a publisher didn’t respond favorably to her offering, Julia kept calm and carried on – without need for self-help mantras or a pity party. Julia Child surely had disappointments and moments of self-doubt, but she never let them define her. And no matter what happened, she always managed to put the event in perspective, usually with a laugh and a witty remark.
Though her somewhat ungainly appearance and odd voice made for great comedy on Saturday Night Live, she was no Puritan. Well into her eighties, Julia Child enjoyed the company of good-looking young men, according to Bob Spitz, author of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. She turned down one suitor because she found him boring and after a stint in the OSS (a spy agency) during WWII, Julia refused to settle down to a post-war conventional life. In Paul Child, Julia found not only a husband, but a life partner and supporter. Although they lived in an era when women often gave up their ambitions for a husband’s career, Paul Child stayed in the background, working to make Julia’s rise possible.
Julia Child broke many of her era’s conventions. But she didn’t do it to be a non-conformist or to challenge society’s rules. She just did what came naturally to her. Although she did not find her path immediately, when she did, she took it.
So, whenever I am in a pickle, in the kitchen or outside, I know I’ll find my own path if I just say to myself “WWJD” – What Would Julia Do?