Julia Child at 100

At a sleepover in middle school, Dan Aykroyd introduced me to Julia Child, who would have turned 100 today. Aykroyd, of course, wasn’t at the sleepover but was parodying her on The Best of Saturday Night Live. I’ll admit we were far more entertained by Eddie Murphy’s rendition of Buckwheat , but what stays with me from the skit is my horror when “Julia” gets her hand stuck in a high-powered blender, making mincemeat out of the appendage. Truth be told, I’ve never really watched Julia on television (that was before my time), on YouTube, or even seen Julie and Julia (though the movie’s on my wife’s and my short list of Movies We’d Be Willing To Watch Together). But on the way to the Farmer’s Market this morning, here was Diane Rehms on NPR interviewing Bob Spitz on his new biography of Child, and I was riveted by the woman.

Julia, you see, was one of those rare individuals who finds his or her true calling: that life work which a person is simply born to do. It’s a part of one’s DNA, but–as a philosopher once said–man is the only creature that can fail to live up to his nature: a rock cannot but be “rocky” and hard; a dog, left to its own devices, cannot but eat all of the homemade caramels off the kitchen table when we’ve gone to bed for the night (damn you, Buffy); but a human can fail to be human: they can be cruel and inhumane (i.e. “not human”). Developing that idea further, a man or woman may not find or live up to his or her potential, even though it’s programed into his or her DNA: they may not become all they can be or find that work which is theirs alone to do. It’s the very drama of human life. And here’s Julia: the woman who, perhaps floundering for a while (she considered becoming a hat maker), finds her life’s passion in cooking, a passion she discovered at the French Cordon Bleu School where she learns to cook and where she is something of an unwelcome misfit. I think, as well, of the chef I met in the mountains of Colorado, a woman-accountant-turned-chef who’s culinary art taught me just what a steak dinner can be. Is it any wonder, by the way, that someone who is living out of their true calling is able to draw out the potential in others and even food itself?

The interview which aired today also confirmed my conviction that anyone can learn to be a good cook. Author Bob Spritz shares how his own mother was transformed from a mediocre cook by tuning into Julia Child’s show on Monday night and then preparing the same dish for Tuesday night’s dinner. I met up with a friend over beers this Sunday afternoon whom had just come from lunch at his grandmother’s, a woman whose ethnic heritage’s solitary culinary boast is Fish n’ Chips. The weekly family ritual over the years has been an act of love on behalf of a doting grandmother; eating her cooking, an act of charity. Like Spritz’s mother, this dear old lady–late in life–has really learned to cook, and she has cable television vis a vis the Food Network to thank, itself something–by the way–that owes its existence to Julia Child: the woman who paved the way.

Encouraging as well was Child’s philosophy of eating which coincides with my own: eat whatever you want, but do so in moderation. Butter, cream, fat, alcohol: all good in the proper proportion. Contrary to popular belief, moderation doesn’t decrease one’s enjoyment of a thing, but rather enhances one’s enjoyment of a thing. It is only in moderation that we are free to enjoy it as it is and for what it is. Only in moderation do we exercise dominion over the exquisite goods of this world instead of their exercising dominion over us.

And finally, as a new school year draws near, teachers would find in Julia the quintessential teacher. In fact, she herself understood herself precisely in these terms: as cooking teacher. She did what the best always do: she cared for people; she didn’t dumb things down but elevated one’s understanding of a subject; she inspired by sharing her enthusiasm for a subject matter; she encouraged. I’ll conclude, then, by sharing here the audio link to today’s Diane Rehms Show. You’ll enjoy, I’m sure, story after story of how Child did precisely these, and did them par excellence.

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