On the set of Julia Child & Company circa 1978. Photo credit: James Scherer for WGBH . --Thirteen/WNET New York's AMERICAN MASTERS Pays Homage to Julia Child in Julia! America's Favorite Chef Airing Wednesday, August 18 at 8 P.M. on PBS
Updated: September 16, 2012 6:04AM
Julia Child would have been 100 years old today. America’s doyenne of French cuisine for four decades remains a household word, arguably the most famous cook the United States has yet produced.
How has the food world changed since Child died eight years ago, and what would she think of it?
America has become yet more health and weight conscious, with a rising sense of panic over the so-called “obesity epidemic.” Even local governments are getting into the act to ban foods they consider unhealthful, immoral or fattening.
“I’m against anything that deprives people of the pleasures of the table,” Child said in a 2002 interview with Larry King. She loved foie gras, and repeatedly listed it as one of the dishes she’d want at her ultimate meal. So we can guess what she’d think of California’s recent (and Chicago’s erstwhile) ban of the delicacy.
“We don’t care about nutrients, we care about taste,” Child said during one of her TV shows with Jacques Pepin. In The Way to Cook (1989), she wrote: “Because of media hype and woefully inadequate information, too many people nowadays are deathly afraid of their food, and what does fear of food do to the digestive system? I am sure that an unhappy or suspicious stomach, constricted and uneasy with worry, cannot digest properly. And if digestion is poor, the whole body politic suffers.”
She reiterated again and again that the best way to good health is “small helpings, no seconds, a little bit of everything, no snacking. And have a good time.”
Americans today focus more on where their food comes from, and are more attuned to organic, seasonal and locally grown foodstuffs. Child would likely have applauded, though asked about organics in 2002, she replied, “Well, I’m more interested in having really fresh, really fresh good food. I think organic is wonderful if everybody can do it,” but she didn’t think it was feasible to go all organic.
Culinary trends are all over the map just now. Pioneered by French chemist Herve This, science-based “molecular gastronomy” continues to be a force at the high end, while “gourmet” burgers expand in the middle range.
The seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Child authored in 1961 with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, noted, “The French are seldom interested in unusual combinations or surprise presentations.” Child once commented on Cuisine Nouveau, molecular gastronomy’s 1990s precursor, “It’s so beautifully arranged on the plate —- you know someone’s fingers have been all over it.” So we can guess what she might think of meat glue and spherified vegetable juice.
Yet she was neither a culinary Luddite nor fixated on French food. No food snob, Child liked McDonald’s, Burger King and In-N-Out Burger. She enjoyed Spago, Wolfgang Puck’s temple of California cuisine. Her later books included many American recipes, and Volume Two of Mastering features original recipes for ingredients such as “broccoli, which we have treated freely a la francais although it is almost unknown in France.”
Child’s ideas about cooking techniques evolved through the years. The 1983 edition of Mastering lauds the food processor, “which has made amazingly light work out of many formerly long and arduous cooking procedures,” and offers revised recipes making use of it, along with changes to embrace pre-sifted flour, nonstick pans and other innovations.
In The Way to Cook, Child wrote, “I wouldn’t be without my microwave oven, but I rarely use it for real cooking. I like having complete control over my food — I want to turn it, smell it, poke it, stir it about and hover over its every state. ...” Child used her microwave for defrosting and melting chocolate and butter and even baking potatoes (she loved baked potatoes with lots of butter).
For all she embraced labor-saving devices, she was a stickler for process. She deplored “elimination of steps, combination of processes, or skimping on ingredients such as butter, cream — and time.”
Acknowledging in The Way to Cook, that “More and more of us have less time to shop and cook. ...” she advised doing all the steps in stages. “You want a beef stew, for example, brown the meat one morning while having breakfast or preparing tonight’s dinner, then simmer it in wine and aromatic vegetables during another meal.”
Although she adored Chinese food — her culinary interests first awakened when she worked in China during World War II — Child disliked cilantro, so many of the Thai and Mexican dishes popular now would not have appealed to her. “It’s an herb that has a kind of a taste that I don’t like,” she said in 2002.
She would certainly hate the way these cuisines have displaced French food in America, where haute cuisine has been disappearing from restaurant menus and food media alike. Not even the surge that the 2009 film “Julie and Julia” gave to Child’s books has kept the cuisine Child so loved at the forefront of the American palate.
With her passed an era. Here’s to Julia. Bon appetit, wherever you are.
Leah A. Zeldes is a local freelance writer.