Before the term meant unknown singing star catapulted to fame by a television competition, Julia Child was an American idol in the true sense. An author of a respected cookbook, she made a guest appearance on Boston Public Television in the early 1960's and came to change the world--particularly the world of home cooking in America--forever. It is impossible to exaggerate the enormity of what she accomplished.
Look, I'm an elder now. I can remember the American kitchen before Julia Child's advent, and it wasn't a pretty sight. It is difficult for young people to comprehend that in the 1940s and 50s, almost nobody in the country even knew what a whisk was. We had the eggbeater, a little hand-held contraption with gears and a handle that could work for whipping cream and beating egg whites. The eggbeater had evolved into the Mixmaster, an electrical version, which was helpful for beating batters that came from adding liquid to cake mixes. The joy of cooking from scratch was rare, and it was discouraged by industry and the mood and pace of the times.
When Julia Child first appeared on our black-and-white television screens, she was more than an amusing woman with a funny voice and odd accent. She was an expert teacher with an accessible manner who instantly connnected with the earnest if ignorant home cook. I'm sorry that the burlesques of her are so effective that at times they obscure the eccentric charm and talent of the woman who knew so much about French cooking and intuited how much we young wives wanted to learn about it. Before her, there were indeed cooking shows--usually local ones that flashed on the screen a recipe using condensed canned soups, etc., at the beginning, briefly demonstrating how to make a family casserole or similar concoction. Such shows were time fillers when there was little coming from the networks on daytime; nobody expected to learn how to cook by watching them. On public television Child reinvented the form, organizing ingredients and planning the steps of preparation, taking us slowly through the paces of creating a classic sauce and telling us how to use it in any number of ways to produce masterpieces of French cuisine. With her encouragement, we tried ingredients we'd never heard of, attempted techniques we had had no way of seeing before, and learned to love eating as well as cooking.
I could write a book about how much I and the world owe to Julia Child. I'm trying to restrain myself here from doing just that, because I want to write about the new movie, Julie & Julia, and encourage everyone to see it. I know the film will be a hit. Women want to see the superb Meryl Streep as Julia, and men will tolerate it because Julia's personality shines through in Streep's brilliant performance. The movie does not need my endorsement, and certainly Julia Child doesn't, but I do have a few points to make that film critics may have missed.
I read the book Julie & Julia a few years ago and found it most engaging. It involves a young would-be writer in New York who wants to brighten up her life and comes up with the idea of writing a blog about cooking every recipe in Julia Child and Simone Beck's opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She doesn't have an easy time of it, but she all but worships Julia Child, and at the end of the project she has a certain amount of fame plus a book contract.
Nora Ephron--who is the perfect writer to deal with this material, being a lover of cooking and an admirer of Julia Child (plus a writer of delightful, romantic screenplays)--includes the character of Julia Child in Julie Powell's story, interweaving the Childs' early life in Paris with young Julie's plowing her way through the cookbook in today's world.
Already the critics are saying that Mrs. Child in the person of Ms. Streep overpowers the movie and they almost suggest we could do without Julie Powell. On the other hand, I identified totally with the Powell character, a young woman who came to love cooking on a whole new level through her exposure to the work of the master. Julie Powell represents all of American womanhood, struggling to matter through learning the craft and art of producing unforgettable food.
It is extraordinary to get a glimpse of the life Julia and Paul Child lived in Paris, then returning to the more mundane existence of the young couple just making their way in a small, old apartment in Queens. The juxtaposition is perhaps a bit of a let-down. But to me, it was just the touch such a movie needs. It's like life--taking you down and up and back again, from lofty place to reality in a parallel universe. You know Julie is going to make it, just as you know young Julia is. The movie is not concerned with the heights either one reaches, but the journey they take.
No doubt this is a chick flick, with the husbands little more than accessories. But what delicious hunks these husbands are--Stanley Tucci as the ultimate dream spouse, loving, supporting, and cherishing his larger-than-life (needless to say, in more ways than one) wife, and Chris Messina as Julie's studly young man reconciled to taking a back seat for a while as his wife endures the tribulations of finding herself.
Many will go to the movie just to see Streep as Child and will not like much else about it. I implore you to take the "Julie" part of the movie seriously, as it is a testament to the impact of the real Julia Child, who was so much more than a sketch on Saturday Night Live. May you come to a better understanding of what the world was like before we all owned whisks.