Lessons from Julia

Today is the hundredth anniversary of Julia Child’s birth, and even Google is remembering her. (Although Google has a new home page every day anymore, so I’m not sure this is noteworthy.) What is there to say, really, that hasn’t already been said? When a few years ago I watched The French Chef on DVD, even after two decades of cooking almost every day and reading endless cookbooks I picked up a trick or two from nearly every episode. She was an effective teacher if one wanted to learn and an entertaining teacher even if one didn’t, and the instructional writing in her cookbooks is impeccable. Those aren’t compliments I give out lightly, and they ought to be enough of a commemoration.

In our hyperbolic culture, though, they’re barely noticeable. Witness Julia Moskin in the New York Times yesterday proclaiming the Apotheosis of Julia:

It was Child — not single-handedly, but close — who started the public conversation about cooking in America that has shaped our cuisine and culture ever since. Her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was published in 1961, just as trends including feminism, food technology and fast food seemed ready to wipe out home cooking. But with her energy, intelligence and nearly deranged enthusiasm, Child turned that tide. Julia Moskin, “The Gifts She Gave,” August 14, 2012.

Influential as she was, to say that she even “close” to “single-handedly… shaped our cuisine and culture” is to offer a heavy dose of disrespect to a lot of people. James Beard was already writing; so was Craig Claiborne (and wrote the review that propelled her book to popularity). Gourmet had been publishing monthly for more than a decade. And Julia had little to do with the growth of local, high-quality and organic produce; she was too interested in technique to demand only the highest-quality ingredients. We have Alice Water and several thousand hard-working pioneer organic farmers to thank for that.

But I’m more interested in the claim that she “turned the tide” and saved home cooking from forces that would have destroyed it. Moskin writes that when she was a kid in New York in the seventies, “Parents who did cook served meals of ‘wheatloaf’ and carob cake; those who didn’t were busy raising their consciousnesses while the children ordered in Chinese food.” Today, by contrast, “the “family dinner’ (preferably home cooked, from responsibly sourced ingredients) is widely considered a necessity, and even toddlers have favorite chefs.”

Moskin seems to be extrapolating wildly from the experiences of her own social circle, both in the 1970s and today. For the United States as a whole, she’s just wrong. Since The French Chef first aired, Americans have spent steadily less of their time, money, and energy on cooking. We spend less than 10 percent of our incomes on food, down from 17 percent half a century ago. In 1997, only 37 percent of families with children under 18 ate dinner together at home seven nights a week; by 2003 the number was down to 28 percent — considerably lower than in Great Britain or Canada. The average time we spend preparing food fell from 44 minutes a day in 1965 to 41 in 1975, 39 in 1985, and just 27 in 1995. And “cooking” has grown ever more trivial: in opinion polls, at least, dumping bottled dressing on a bagged salad counts as preparing a meal from scratch.

The notion that America has become a nation of foodies and cooks is simply a myth; there’s no evidence for it. Yes, a handful of foodies do wonderful things in the kitchen, and “celebrity chefs” flex and preen on television screens and magazine covers. An incredible range of produce is available in certain neighborhoods, at least, and food trucks roll up to the most popular farmers’ markets selling eight-dollar breakfast burgers. It’s possible to eat quite well in America. The fact, however, is that most Americans don’t. You’d never know that from food writers, but food writers, of course, organize their lives around food, and they spend most of their time with other people who do the same. They don’t see or notice the way the typical American lives and eats. They don’t want to. But they might spend Saturday morning with me and stop at the Food Lion on the way home from the farmers’ market, where I’ll buy flour and sugar from an aisle labeled “cake mix.”

Julia Child, of course, was not responsible for the numbers I cited above, let alone the cake mix aisle in the Food Lion. But it’s not clear she did much to stem the tide, either. Her training was professional; she tended to emulate the cooking of old-school professional chefs, and she dismissed the notion that “housewives” would be her audience. Even Moskin had trouble finding anyone who actually cooks many of Child’s recipes. Plenty learned how to make a decent omelet or hard-cooked eggs from her shows and books — to make simple things well, without undue fuss, and those are things one can do any old weeknight to get dinner on the table. Most of her written recipes, in contrast to her on-screen personality, are long, fussy, and precise, more daunting than inspiring. There’s nothing wrong with that; I respect her cookbooks, and I’ve found that instruction tremendously valuable on occasion. But they aren’t the sort of books likely to inspire ordinary people to cook — people for whom food is not and cannot be a hobby. Nor are they much help to someone who loves to cook but has a full-time job and kids.

The question we have to ask ourselves is which matters more: what we do rarely or what we do every day? This isn’t just a question about food. Consider, for example, our sending a few hundred professionally trained athletes to the Olympic Games to be faster, higher, stronger, while millions more sit on their increasingly fat asses watching them on television — a tendency a few of us combat by turning running or cycling into a semi-professional and often expensive hobby. A fraction grow fitter while the rest grow fatter; a fraction eat better while the rest eat worse. In culinary terms, Moskin’s friends with their chef-worshiping toddlers are one-percenters. And like the economic one-percenters, far too many High Foodies talk only to people like themselves, and assume that if everyone isn’t like them, it’s because they’re lazy or stupid. Democracy is about more than money.

But that sort of bifurcation is the tendency of America in the last fifty years, and it’s a tendency we allowed Julia Child to reinforce. A few take inspiration; the rest watch on television. That isn’t fair to her, and it isn’t good for us. There were two sides to Julia Child, after all: the “French Chef” who encouraged her audience to master the highest level of culinary technique, and the cook who was perfectly content with a well-roasted chicken and a good apple pie. For fifty years we’ve focused too much on the former. What we should have learned from her is simply this: that we ought to enjoy what we eat, to put something of ourselves into it, and to enjoy the company with whom we share it. That would be inspirational. The rest is fuss and feathers.