Saturday, August 8, 2009

Julia Child, American Idol

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.


Jerry Andersen said...

Am I the only one who remembers Dionne Lucas, my mom's favorite tv chef, who preceded Julia by about 5 years on tv? Maybe she was just a NY phenomenon.

Steve said...

Very nice post, ML.

Mary Lois said...

I have heard of Dione Lucas' cookbooks, but never knew she was a tv chef. Wikipedia says she can be seen as predessesor and influence to the mighty Julia herself. I never saw her shows, don't think they were beamed countrywide, but good for her anyway and good for you, New Jersey wit and blogwriter Jerry Anderson, for telling us about her. Now, everybody go over to Jerry's blog and read a few posts if you want to laugh out loud.

Florence said...

The movie is rather brilliant in Nora Eprhon's hand. She has managed to find a movie that can appeal to women (I doubt if the men will go unless dragged) of all ages. The story of Julie Powell is the story of our kids and modern young women. What is so wonderful about Julie and Julia is their commitment to do something and follow it through to completion.

They both did not set out to be rich and famous - just to do something they like fully and completely - for its own sake. They had a glimmer of knowledge that it was an important act but did not comprehend truly that they were
committed to the act of finding themselves.

When Sarah was looking at colleges, I remarked that it almost doesn't matter where you go as long as
you commit yourself fully once you get there.

Mary Lois said...

And Julia Child didn't know she was changing the world. Look at all the cooking magazines, the fine-dining restaurants, even the Food Network on tv today, that didn't exist until well after the end of the reign of Julia.

Interesting that she taught us how to eat as well as how to cook, and now the emphasis is more on eating than cooking! However, some of us were, like Julie Powell, yearning to learn how to cook something we could be proud of.

Jerry Andersen said...

Just got back from the movie and really enjoyed it. Wasn't dragged but went of my own free will with my wife. Liked it but I am surprised that none of you Hoboken types took note of the fact that the scene in the supposed Boston station is actually the dear old Erie Lackawanna in Hoboken with a Boston sign slapped up on it. Good to see Meryly sitting on the same bench I spend many hours occupying while waiting for some train snaffu to be straightened out. Didn't notice if it was in the credits.

Anonymous said...

I am really looking forward to seeing the film here in the U.K.
When I was cooking from Mastering the the 70's I had never seen Julia Child, it would have been so much easier to have had her voice in my head, and known her exuberant personality, I remember trying to 'bone' things, very tricky. I am absolutely not into that kind of cooking now, far too lazy. Watching the calories nowadays too!

Mary Lois said...

Thank you, Jerry, for reminding me of the train station scene, shot in Hoboken. I meant to mention it in the blog post but got a little carried away with other facets of the movie.

Glad to see a manly man like you can enjoy the occasional chick flick.

And, Anonymous British person: Julia Child made an appearance on the BBC in the late 1960s and the phone lines lit up. Viewers demanded to know why they were being forced to watch a drunken American woman talking about cooking French food.

We all have those dogeared old Julia Child cookbooks now, but seldom venture into the cream-laden, butter-filled land of yore. If we cook that way, now it must be judiciously, and very rarely at that--but at least we have our whisks.

Ted said...

What makes you think home cooking is a girly thing? My uncle, Tom Ferrolo, was a better cook than his wife, my Gooma Gaetana Salustro Ferrolo. He also sold his sauce and other great Italian stuff in his store under their apartment in Asbury Park.
I bet many male immigrant Italians in Hoboken brag about their sauce.
An interesting take-off on your blog would be just how did the human male go from hunter to chef?

Nan said...

Wonderful, wonderful, wonderful, Mary Lois! I loved every word.

Nan said...

Oh, and Tom is one man who can't wait to see the movie! We used to watch Julia in the old days, and I still have a chocolate mousse recipe he wrote down as she was making it. :<)

Mary Lois said...

Always thrilled when a fellow blogger enjoys my posts, Nan. Thanks.

And Ted, I didn't mean to imply that men don't like to cook. It's just that this movie is about Julia Child, whom many men find to be more a joke than a mother-image (as she was to me). I'm delighted that Nan's husband watched her shows with the same zest that so many of us Americans did in the early 1960's--and that he will, as Jerry Andersen did and some other guys have emailed me that they plan to, really enjoy this delightful movie.

I'd have trouble working up a blog post about the male's journey from hunter to chef--because I don't think it's really happened yet. Still more hunters than feeders out there, even though there are many men who are expert cooks, and it's often a source of great pride for Italian men. I suspect the same guys are pretty good at the hunt as well.

Elena-Beth Kaye said...

I saw the movie (which I LOVED a thousand per cent!) this afternoon, and this evening attended a party where a man was saying that he wasn't interested in seeing it so his wife was planning to go without him. I told him to SEE IT, and that if he went WITH his wife, then afterwards he'd be certain to "get some"! I think he might go...

Mary Lois said...

An interesting inducement to see the movie, Elena-Beth. Ahem. I wonder if you were right about that.

Unknown said...

Just got home from Julie & Julia (which I ADORED, so says the 54-year-old male!) and immediately Googled "julie & julia hoboken" -- looking for confirmation that the Boston train station scene was indeed filmed here. (There was no mention in the end credits... I specifically looked.)

Anyway, one of the first hits of my search led me to FMIH, which, in my humble opinion, must be among the best-written thing on the internet. I've just spent the past hour reading and enjoying and sharing your past posts. Thank you!

Mary Lois said...

Welcome to the blog, Mr. DeKok! Reviews like yours will keep me going for ages--I do hope you'll continue to check it out in days to come.

Cooking with Denay - Class Information said...

I remember Dione Lucas and I lived in Michigan. In fact I purchased one of her cookbooks in May of 1984, it was originally copyrighted in 1964 and I prepared almost everything in the book. The title is Dione Lucas Gourmet Cooking School Cookbook and it is a classic; personally I prefer it over Julia's book because it is truly a "how-to" cookbook and the Maple Cake is to die for...if you can locate a copy buy it and begin cooking from it immediately. The food is amazing! Okay Food TV Network let's start a new series on little know culinary stars of the past and include Dione...please!

Mary Lois said...

Sounds like a great idea to me, Denay! I had a huge cookbook collection before I moved, and have gotten rid of most of them--but now I'm going to search for the one from Dione Lucas.

You also my be interested in my food blog. Nice that you found me!