When I was small, Julia Child was still on television in The French Chef and, even though I never had an Easy Bake Oven or any interest in cooking – except for that one time I melted chocolate chips over a heating vent behind my parents’ bed – she played a memorable role in my childhood.
My mother was an unorthodox cook, coming as she did from a long line of Swedish Lutheran casserole makers but caught up in the ’60s hippie craze for oil-slicked, all-natural peanut butter, spinach flat noodles and homemade granola. Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking layered crepes suzette, cheese souffles, and boeuf bourguignon onto our bland culinary lives and probably saved us from a future of iceberg lettuce salads and goulash like we had at my grandmother’s house. (Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed iceberg lettuce with Russian dressing – ketchup, mayonnaise and sugar, in her version – as much as the next seven year old, but it wouldn’t have provided a broad foundation for culinary curiosity later in life.)
I didn’t make the connection between Julia and the boeuf that appeared occasionally at dinner and I was more mesmerized by the lurid, Technicolor photographs in the Better Homes & Gardens Cookbook than by Julia’s text-heavy tome on the same shelf, but Julia’s French Chef was my favorite celebrity (after Aquaman, of course). Given that our access to TV was restricted to PBS, this is like my uncle saying that I was his favorite niece during the years when I was his only niece, but that doesn’t diminish the attachment. I felt connected to her through my godmother, who was a producer at WGBH, the PBS affiliate in Boston, and I liked how civilized Julia’s life and kitchen seemed compared to ours, which was overcast by my parents’ marital strife and the endless unfinished construction projects they inflicted on our house.
Come to think of it, I led a pretty bifurcated life for a little kid. Boston’s restaurants, Julia Child’s crepes, the Boston Camerata, Gilbert and Sullivan productions, English riding lessons (for a little while anyway), private school and soccer practice were one part of my life, the part I desperately wanted to live in full-time. The other part was home with my mother’s hatred of the suburbs, her unstable health, the crying, the fighting, the moods, the impending divorce and the fearsome knowledge that that other life I wanted wasn’t ever going to be safe from the wild swings of my parents’ unhappiness. It was also increasingly clear that I was, in fact, not the misplaced child of either a.) gypsies, or b.) royalty, which was a significant blow. Julia was an unflappable, cheerful voice of domestic sanity piping out of the TV into our distinctly not sane home.
I had a warped time of it media-wise too. On one hand, there was the usual, we-make-our-own-mayonnaise-and-(mostly)-don’t-let-the-kids-watch-TV childhood of Sesame Street, Zoom and the Electric Company. (Mr. Rogers was deemed creepy and, as an adult, I have to agree. His simpering manner reminds me of those piano teachers on Law & Order: SVU who turn out to have stashes of kiddie porn hidden in their basements.) On the other hand, there were evenings of Julia Child throwing around omelettes and Monty Python tossing around livestock. Between the French Taunter and the French Chef, it’s no wonder I grew up a little weird.
In the early ’80s, my brother and I got hooked on Dinner at Julia’s. It aired on Friday evenings, and we’d rush to watch it on the TV in the corner of the living room. Why were two pre-teen kids so into the show? It included a segment where Julia would go on an outing to track down some component of that episode’s meal. Often, she’d visit a vineyard to sort out a wine pairing, tasting the choice with the vintner on-site or back in her dining room with her lapel mic two inches away from her throat. All the swirling and swallowing was picked up on the audio track. As a ten-year-old, I thought this was beyond hilarious. I know: we were super cool. Also, clearly, media-starved.
I was kind of hoping, when my brother graduated from Harvard in the same ceremony that Julia got her honorary doctorate, that she’d pull up with a personal message for me and her other loyal childhood viewers of my generation or at least swallow something loudly, but no such luck.
I still have my mother’s copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking nestled next to the Better Homes & Gardens binder and The Joy of Cooking. I’m ashamed to say that I’ve never cooked anything from it, but I’m glad to have it and know that, when the time comes to pull up with a souffle, Julia will be there to hold my hand as I ease it out of the oven in my also-hereto-unused Williams-Sonoma fluted souffle dish. At least I’m well-prepared for my future, theoretical French cooking efforts. That’s got to count for something, doesn’t it?
In the meantime, I’ll be over here munching on these excellent cookies I made from a recipe I found on the internet. Bon appétit!
Photo picked up from The New York Times, Julia Child on the set of The French Chef, 1963.