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“It Doesn’t Have To Be Perfect”: Honoring the Julia Child Centennial

Published: August 11, 2012

Julia Child

Julia Child, born Aug. 15, 1912, would have turned 100 years old this week.

The incident has become legendary. People who know nothing else about Julia Child know what she said when the potato pancake she was cooking accidentally flipped out of the pan onto the kitchen counter.

With a truly French sangfroid, she advised, “If this happens, just scoop it back into the pan; remember that you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you.”

However, thousands did see her, and were both amused and reassured; even the great Julia Child, the author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, could make mistakes. But she didn’t stop cooking. She just kept going.

The story symbolizes how Mrs. Child democratized gourmet cooking. She wanted to remove the mystique of French cuisine and make it accessible so anyone could experience the art of the great chefs of Paris.

It was no easy goal in 1961. French cooking was popularly considered to be strange, fussy, exotic, and less satisfying than an American’s meat-and-potatoes dinner.

Enter Mrs. Child, who had fallen in love with the food of Paris and dedicated herself to exploring, mastering, and sharing its pleasures.

French cooking couldn’t have chosen a better champion in America. Julia Child was relaxed, confident, and just as unpretentious as she was knowledgeable. When Lewis Lapham interviewed her for the Post in 1964, he found her “an even more engaging woman than she seems on television.”

She stands over six feet tall (her dress size she describes as “stately”), her eyes are grayish green, her hair brown and her complexion freckled.

A tall and determined woman, cheerful, steadfast and pure in heart, [she] appears as The French Chef on a weekly television show that is as funny as it is instructive.

Although an excellent cook, she possesses none of the pretentious mannerisms so often associated with practitioners of haute cuisine. She moves around in front of the camera utterly preoccupied with the problem at hand, addressing the television audience as if she were talking to herself or to a trusted friend.

Julia Child's Kitchen

Julia Child's home kitchen is now part of the collection at the Smithsonian Institution.

Each of her cooking lessons has about it the uncertainty of a reckless adventure. She has a way of losing things—either the butter, or the carrots she so carefully chopped into small cubes or, on one memorable occasion, a pot of cauliflower. Sometimes she forgets to put the seasoning in the ragout; sometimes she drops a turkey in the sink. But to Mrs. Child these slight misfortunes are of no importance, merely the expected hazards of a long and dirty war. Smiling and undismayed, secure in the knowledge that her cause is just, she bashes on.

When, at the end of the program, she at last brings the finished dish to the table, she does so with an air of delighted surprise, pleased to announce that once again the forces of art and reason have triumphed over primeval chaos.

Since its publication in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking has sold over 2.5 million copies, thanks to Child’s television program The French Chef, which ran on public television for 10 years. It made converts of many a cook who might never have considered working through Mrs. Child’s massive collection of 542 recipes. But she also gained followers among Americans who rarely set foot in a kitchen.

A surprising number of [fan] letters arrive from people who know or care nothing about food but prize Mrs. Child chiefly for her ingenuous wit.

Julia Child

Mrs. Child gives a cooking demonstation to a public television audience.

 In New York’s Greenwich Village, for instance, a coterie of avant-garde painters and musicians gathers each week in a loft to watch The French Chef. …At first they assumed that she was doing a parody of the traditional cooking program, but even the discovery that she was playing it straight failed to dull their enthusiasm. In the garrets around Washington Square the introduction to the lesson on artichokes stands as the authoritative example of Mrs. Child’s humor and style.

The scene opened on an artichoke boiling in a pot of water and shrouded by a piece of cheesecloth, Mrs. Child, looming suddenly into view, lifted the cheesecloth with heavy tweezers and inquired, “What’s cooking under this gossamer veil? Why here’s a great big, bad artichoke, and some people are afraid of it.”

Of the other two remarks still quoted in the coffeehouses, the first concerned a chicken in a frying pan. “We just leave it there,” said Mrs. Child, “letting it make simple little cooking noises.”

The second had to do with crêpes suzette. As she put a match to it, she said, “You must be careful not to set your hair on fire.”

It’s not hard to imagine Mrs. Child, hair ablaze, telling viewers, “Now this is exactly what you don’t want to do,” before nonchalantly dousing the flames with baking soda.

It took courage, plus a sturdy sense of humor, for a Pasadena girl to master the cooking technique of Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Paris. But Julia Child (née McWilliams) was born courageous. At the start of World War II, she immediately tried to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps, then in the Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service, but was disqualified both times because of her height. So she volunteered for America’s early intelligence agency, the Office of Strategic Services. “She hoped to become a spy,” Lapham wrote, “but was sent instead to Ceylon as a file clerk.”

Her fearless determination proved invaluable during the 12 years she spent writing her cookbook and the ten years of filming The French Chef. It wasn’t all raw courage, though. She took great care to prepare for the occasional disaster on the program, preparing two sets of all ingredients just in case.

Julia Child

Julia Child poses for a portrait taken by Elsa Dorfman in 1988.

“In the 68 shows that Mrs. Child has so far filmed, the cameras have stopped on only six occasions, the most spectacular of these being the times when a soufflé fell and when a kidney flambé failed to catch fire,” Lapham wrote.

On the day he visited the set, she was cooking lamb stew. “She began with a finished stew in the oven, a half-done stew simmering in a pot on the stove, and the materials for a third stew arranged before her on cutting boards.”

But even the best-prepared chef will meet mistakes, and Julia would move on barely breaking her stride. “At the moment when Mrs. Child proudly picked up the stew and said with a flourish, ‘And now we put it in the refrigerator,’ Mrs. Lockwood [an associate producer] flapped her hands excitedly. ‘Of course I don’t mean the refrigerator,’ said Mrs. Child, unperturbed, ‘I mean we put it in the oven.'”

After reading Lapham’s Everyone’s In The Kitchen With Julia and watching the movie Julie and Julia, you can appreciate Julia Child’s two great contributions to the dinner tables of America. The first was acquainting us with a broad palette of exquisite tastes, which most Americans would never have experienced. The second was encouraging cooks to forget their fears and self-doubts, and boldly explore new worlds of culinary pleasures.

It makes you wonder how many other rewarding experiences in life are waiting for an intrepid pioneer to introduce them to America.

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  • Ima Ryma

    Julia Child made French cuisine
    For all a common sense food fun,
    Charm cheffing forth on page and screen,
    Taste medium, rare and well done.
    ‘Twas my proud privilege to serve
    This lovely lady in pursuit
    Of cooking the perfect hors d’oeurve
    In boiling water – what a beaut!
    Scene opened and camera zoomed,
    Capturing the delicacy.
    Into view, the grand lady loomed,
    And with her tweezers, she grabbed me.

    I knew she meant it as a joke,
    Calling me a bad artichoke.