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Julia Child and the Sex of Cooking

     One more thing about Julia Child, please.  It strikes me she is the feminist we will remember.  The French Chef, like the Statue of Liberty, will stand a long time for American values that she had a lot to do with transforming.  Emerging 40-plus years ago, just ahead of Betty Friedan and The Feminine Mystique, Julia Child reopened the American kitchen as an arena of Old World sensuality and delight.  At the same time she contributed her own example, on the tube and the cover of Time, of a woman at home in the world, entirely herself.

     The pianist Virginia Eskin first put the notion in my head that Julia was a cultural revolutionary who’d done more than Friedan, Gloria Steinem and Company to show American women a model of power in public and expressive self-discovery at home–no matter that she never called herself a feminist.  “I was never conscious of being downtrodden by the males,” as Julia said.

     It helped, she admitted, to stand more than six feet tall.  She’d had the further benefit of encouraging parents who, when she brought home a 48 on a school paper, would say, “Well, that’s fine, dear.  Maybe next time you’ll get a 50.”  It helped perhaps most to be in love for half a century with a US intelligence officer, Paul Child, who introduced her to French culture and cuisine. 

     Whatever the multiplicity of reasons, Julia always had the qualities Camille Paglia celebrates in the “pre-War feminists” like Amelia Earhart and Katherine Hepburn.  That is, she followed her own cheerful, hard-working instincts along a path so original that she never seemed to be competing with anyone, least of all a man.  And if a souffle fell now and again, she had no urge to blame anyone, least of all herself.

     “Yes, a major American woman,” Paglia had confirmed on the phone from Philadelphia.  Part of “the first wave,” one of the great almost 19th Century dowagers, “the opposite of today’s victim psychology and so on.  In the history of women, Julia Child obviously plays an enormous role.  And the neglect of her career–you know, by the Feminist Establishment, by Women’s Studies, and so on–is very typical.   This very achieving, practical woman–commanding as an admiral on a warship, for heaven’s sake, at the height of the British Empire–naturally doesn’t fit into the narrow view of the callow little Women’s Studies people.  Her heir as a mega-figure is of course Martha Stewart–a personality sui generis, as it were.” 

     The neglect that Paglia noted in conversation several years ago turned up again in those loving Julia obits, I thought.  The true measure of Julia Child is a great deal more than recipes and shtik.  “Obviously,” Paglia had said, “she is one of those figures in history who totally transformed American culture.  This country was a wasteland of Philistinism in terms of food and the preparation of food until Julia Child came on the scene.  You know, her manner–her whole mannish manner!  I mean, she’s a pioneering woman, with no connection to the Gloria Steinem school, the Patricia Ireland school, and all those, like, white upper-middle-class ladies.  I mean, I absolutely adore the whole technology of food preparation, the ritualism of food coming out of Mediterranean culture.  And nothing could be more opposite: food-affirming Julia Child versus the anorexia and bulimia-obsessd victimology of academic studies.”

     The professional cook in the Lydon family, middle-daughter Amanda, picked up in her commentary where Paglia left off.  “The key word Camille didn’t use,” Amanda said, “was pleasure.  Julia Child did open up a new world for women.  She broke the gender code in cooking.  I mean, all the great cooks talk about their mothers and their mothers’ food.  But there are differences.  Home cooking is relaxed and female.  Restaurant cooking is rule-bound, rigid and masculine.  Julia put the Apollonian into the Dionysian, and the Dionysian into the Apollonian.  Fine cuisine, so called, is a masculine tradition.  What Julia Child did is deconstruct this French, classical, rule-based cooking tradition and make it accessible to women as a source of pleasure at home.”

     “What about the guys,” I wondered.

     “The guys are kind of on their own,” Amanda mused.  “That’s my take on it.  Julia pulled off this raid on the cold, clinical preserve of French technique, and now it’s everywhere in American kitchens.  It’s serious stuff–all the French lore and method behind the great stocks and sauces, and she liberated it.  Who knows what we’d be eating but for her?”

     Late in the 1990s, not long before Julia Child left Boston, my daughter Sarah and I took her to dinner at Gordon Hamersly’s Bistro in the South End.  Food, fun and friendship were excuse enough for Julia.  The Queen of the Foodies didn’t eat out often, though she’d been out the night before with Lydia Shire (” a kind of a genius”) and Gordon Hamersley to the New Shanghai in Chinatown.  The old rule of going out was that “it has to be something better, or as good as, home.” A lot of the better tables in town were too noisy for Julia’s taste.  “I can’t hear myself eat,” Julia would say–not complaining, just reporting.  In truth she preferred to eat at home–hers or somebody else’s.  And no, she wasn’t hard to cook for.  “I’m a nice guest to have because I’m always hungry,” she explained. 

     She wasn’t exactly intimidating in a restaurant, but she was no pushover either. 

     “Do you like the wine?” asked the Hamersly’s waiter about a house Pinot Blanc with the soup.  “Not terribly,” said Julia.  And about that chowder with trout, smoked haddock and mussels in it: “There’s smoked fish in the chowder, and a very nice broth with it.  It looks pretty,” she told our server.  But the Vermont common crackers should have been split and buttered, “the way Jasper [White] does them.  These crackers are not good–they’re both tough and chewy, and they’re not crisp the way they should be.” 

     “I’ll let you tell him,” our waitress demurred. 

     Russell Morash, theWGBH producer who made Julia a TV star, was a carpenter’s son and a child of the old Boston, like me. 

     In 1960, on a Saturday night,” he reminded me, “you and I had baked beans and brown bread and franks.  On a Sunday you had pork loins.  And if you asked at the A&P for leeks or a clove of garlic, they would have looked at you funny.  Julia brought new food and new implements to America.  An omelette used to be a French thing.  An edible cheese?  Ground pepper?  Forget it!  Chicken in America was fried.  The Ritz in the late ’50s was serving codfish cakes.  And the world was pointed to food made in factories and sold in cans.  Julia said: start from scratch, and make something memorable.”

     Julia ignited Morash’s genius for how-to television, as in Crockett’s Victory Garden and This Old House, which in spirit are part of Julia’s legacy, too.  Morash, if he did not exactly invent the Julia Child persona, was present at the creation. 

     “It’s August 1961,” as Morash told the story, “and I get a call from a woman I think may be dying from overinhaling Marlboro cigarettes, and she says: ‘I will require a hotplate to cook an omelette on your program.’  I was the cameraman on Professor P. Alfred Duhamel’s program I’ve Been Reading, and he was about to review Julia’s first cookbook.  Maybe 4000 people saw her cook her eggs, and maybe six people out of the 4000 wrote letters saying: ‘This woman is terrific!’  And so Julia came into my life.”

     Even then, Morash remembered, Julia had the first remote-control on her television set, because she hated the commercials.  “It was just a couple of wires and a toggle switch.  She called it her Blab-Off.  And then she was the first kid on her block with a computer, then with a bread-making machine.  And the first to go online.  Julia is so hip.  Julia is tomorrow.  She is vital.  She is bright.  She knows what the hell she is doing.  My wife and I did 20 days of shooting with Julia in Norway a couple of summers ago–working hard, sucking down vodka and wine and salmon and salamis.  Marian and I would hit the rack at quarter to nine and die!  And then the phone would ring and Julia would cry, ‘dearie, let’s go out and get some dinner.’  She will not get old.  She will not get tired.”

     She was the eldest of three McWilliams kids–two girls and a boy.  All grew past six feet.  He mother used to say, “I have 18 and a half feet of children.”  They thrived for more than a quarter of a millenium.

     At Hammersly’s, Julia put it this way:  “I think I’m a good advertisement for my lifestyle.”  Her entree was Gordon’s own signature roast chicken with garlic, lemon and parsley.  Half of it went home with her in a doggy bag, for next day’s lunch.  Her second glass of wine was red, a Pinotage, from South Africa.  “Much better,” she said. 

     As always, she was waiting for the conversation to turn to politics.  Julia Child was a Roosevelt Democrat at home, an Acheson Democrat abroad–an unrepentant celebrant of The Best and The Brightest in politics and government.  “Tell me,” she said, with another of her half-winks, “what happened to the Democratic Party, which seems to have disappeared.”  And why did Hillary Clinton stir up such feeling?  “I think she’s marvellous,” Julia said.  “This is the first time we’ve had a modern young woman as a President’s wife,” not excepting Jacqueline Kennedy.  “She’s kind of a wild woman,” Julia reflected, but the hatred she stirred in Washington was our problem, not Hillary’s.  “With a woman who does something,” she said, “men are afraid and women feel inadequate.  And the reaction to inadequacy is hatred.”

     “People love you,” I said to Julia that evening. 


     “I’m not a threat to anybody,” she offered as an explanation. “I’m not driven.  I’m enjoying what I do, and I don’t have any great ambitions.  I just feel I’m lucky to be in this profession that I just adore and meeting all the people I like.  I’m just very fortunate.”

     It was Virginia Eskin, again, who first pointed out to me a certain similarity between Julia Child and the late Boston Pops genius Arthur Fiedler.  They both shared a peculiarly buoyant, American, democratic and practical passion for marketing masterpieces–for translating and demystifying European haute cuisine and haute musique.  They never patronized their subject or their audiences.  Their confidence gave the rest of us confidence. 

     Julia gave me confidence once to prepare a tuna fish lunch for her, in her own kitchen, on camera, for an 80th birthday interview.  “You ask the questions and we’ll see where it goes.  We won’t let it be Dullsville,” she said, typical Julia-speak.  “Hang loose.” 

     She also praised my version of tuna fish salad–with dill, asparagus, green pepper, lemon rind and minced bacon bits–and persuaded me to add capers to the mix.

     When we touched wine glasses that day and toasted our lunch, she corrected my clumsy grip and reminded us what food was all about for her.

     “Hold it by the stem,” she said, “so it will make a nice noise.  Paul calls this sound ‘les carillons de l’amitie,’ –the bells of friendship.”

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