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Julia Child

17
Jan

My life is painted across a broad canvas. Although wine is my chosen vocation, and has occupied my world for two decades, the canvas allows much more than black and white…all kinds of colors and intricate shades come clearly into view with vivid brush strokes of good fortune. I have many landscapes to share with anyone who cares to stop and savor my world….but masterpieces are rarities and when they come they are to be enjoyed slowly and carefully and examined for their entire beauty, which flows beyond the frame and to depths well beneath the canvas.

The food world has just lost a living and breathing masterpiece and I was honored to sit with Julia Child and talk to her and savor her company for a short while in the not too distant past. In reality it was a brief encounter, in memory it will always be an eternity – a gorgeous, sumptuous, enchanting eternity:

P. Tell me about little Julia McWilliams first experiences with food. I understand that your grandmother was a pretty good cook.

J. She was a good cook but I grew up in the teens and twenties and middle class people all had maids or cooks. There were lots of people who would come in as immigrants from Germany and Ireland and so forth so there was lots of help around. Then it all disappeared in the thirties. My mother didn’t cook really at all. She could make baking powder biscuits. I was always very hungry living out in California doing lots of tennis and golf and everything so I ate hugely. My feeling was the more you ate at every meal the better. That was until the age of 42 when I found that calories did something……………..

P. I’d rather not be reminded about that at this point. You married just after World War II and you ended up going to France and you joined the Cordon Bleu and I read that you said you stayed there until they started getting a little too extravagant.

J. No, it wasn’t that…. they began repeating the lessons….I had no compunctions about extravagance of any type as long as it was edible.

P. You teamed up with two friends in France to create a cooking school and when you came back to the States you penned a book that the three of you had written.

J. We did it together. We started this little cooking school and then my two friends had already started a book on French cooking for Americans which pleased me, of course, because I wanted to go in with them. It began with a large number of pages on French sauces which I sent around to various people and we finally had a contract for $250. We went out and produced a large manuscript of 800 pages on French sauces and French poultry. There was also an esoteric section explaining things such as how you could go to the slaughterhouse and get some fresh pig’s blood and for some reason the publisher was not interested in that kind of information… so we put together a regular book from soup to nuts but it took around 8 or 10 years.

P. When you came to the States that became Mastering the Art of French Cooking. What was the response to that book when it was first published?

J. Fortunately that was about the time when people were beginning to travel abroad. Before you had to go by boat which took 5 or 6 days. Finally when you could fly over a lot more people did and became very much interested in good cooking because general American cooking was awful.

P. That actually leads me to a question I wanted to ask you. When you returned to the States, this country’s cooking wasn’t terribly well respected around the world.

J. It was absolutely not respected at all. It tended to be peanut butter and hamburgers.

P. Now would you have guessed back then, that some 30 years later, you would have been able to produce a book which contained some of the most incredible chefs on the planet from this very country.

J. No, I wouldn’t and it wasn’t a respected profession or discipline at that point. It was kind of a dumping ground, I think. If you couldn’t hack it in something else, put them into the kitchen. There is a wonderful and amazing change now where really educated people are going into the kitchen.

P. I should mention that book that I referred to is called In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs.

J. The reason it’s called In Julia’s Kitchen, it is aimed at serious home cooks. This is for people who are serious cooks, who want to learn things from professionals, the professionals happen to be cooking in the home kitchen. And, of course, almost everything is perfectly possible. And there is such a tremendous difference between home cooking and restaurant cooking, especially large restaurant cooking which is an entirely different art form.

P. How did the French Chef series come about? What was the reaction of the fledgling PBS at that time?

J. The first series was called the French Chef and I had hoped to get some French chefs on to do some of the teaching and we had to have a short enough title so it would go in on one line in the TV Guide and the French Chef just fit there. Of course, we never had any French chefs on and I am neither French nor a chef. It was an appealing title at that point.

P. In the past 35 years, what have you noticed as the major change to people’s attitude toward eating.

J. Of course, now we have this whole series of fear of food. We have all of this Mediterranean cuisine where everything is cooked in olive oil and ends up looking very much the same. People seem to be not very well informed…. they’re told lard is poison. It turns out that lard is perfectly all right to use.

P. Carrying out from what you were talking about, do you think that perhaps we are losing anything as far as quality and variety of food in our fervor to have a healthy diet.

J. I think it is very, very dangerous not to have a well balanced diet. The other day I heard about a woman who had given up fat altogether, one of the all or nothing type of people. She began getting seizures as though it was epilepsy. Then another who is some kind of a diet man, a friend of ours who runs a radio program, was interviewing him. He ate just about no fat at all. He was kind of greenish yellow and and the worst thing about it was that he was covered with dandruff. You see that is what can happen if you don’t eat a balanced diet. There is enough written about it so that you should know exactly what you are supposed to eat. We have that upside down pyramid in which we eat more beans and things and less meat. We all should know by now that you don’t go over 30% fat. If you just use your head, you can eat beautifully and deliciously following the guidelines of moderation. Small helpings which is probably necessary and a little bit of everything and……..having a good time eating.

P. If you were beginning again today, knowing what you know, what would you do, if anything, differently in your life?

J. Well, I’d learn more French. I would have gone over to France earlier and I would have taken a business course and I would also have a good nutrition course as well. I would leap into France. I’ve done some restaurant work but not much but I love doing what I do just now – the teaching. Somehow I’d do what I’m doing now but better and I’d know about everything when I wrote.

P. You’ve written nine books and so many different articles, and you’ve appeared on TV. Do you have a particular favorite series, book, article that you have written.

J. Of course I love all of my books. I love the television work. Problem with doing a book is that it is so very lonely work. And it is such fun on the television because you’re all like a big family. We have a lovely group of people. I’ve had two producers whom I love working with and we have a team and we’re all just like a big family.

P. Where on earth do you keep getting these new recipes? Or the inspiration for recipes? Do you borrow them from people in your travels or are they you own creation?

J. Actually I’m being so tied up with all the television and writing, that I haven’t been in the kitchen enough so I’m looking forward to really doing a lot more cooking. There is no problem about getting dishes and ideas to do. But I don’t speak of recipes, I speak of a dish or a bread or something like that.

P. So these come naturally to you.

J. You start working on something and then something else would suggest itself. I remember there was a famous chocolate cake made by a French woman in New York. She was a nasty woman. Among nasty women, little French women can be some of the worst. She had a cake that was presumably a flour-less cake and it was in a rectangular pan. All of the professional cooks, were trying to do it. I decided I’d try too. Then I went off on another tangent but I learned a lot just from doing that. Now you look at a recipe at some of the restaurants and they will say flour-less chocolate cake. That’s not an attractive title, is it? Every time I see one I speak to the chef and say that’s not an attractive title. Why don’t you call it the the supreme chocolate cake or something like that.

P. 30 years ago you were planning retirement.

J. No, I’ve never and I would never, ever retire. For one thing, you couldn’t take off your business and travel expenses on the income tax.

P. Besides, you are having a fun time doing it. Who has been the greatest influence in your life?

J. Well, L’Escoffier of course. I had great admiration for him. And then all those chefs with whom I worked when I was in Paris were just wonderful people back in 1949 when I really began. That was still the age of the old classical French cooking and of the seriousness with which they took their work. It made no difference how long or how difficult it was. If it produced something marvelous to eat, it was worth it. They really produced food as an art form and that’s what really inspired me. It was a profession worth pursuing.

P. When the time comes for you to go to that great kitchen in the sky what contribution do you hope to have made to the culinary world?

J. That it is a wonderful profession and well worthwhile. We are always entertained and fascinated and there are wonderful people in the profession. Very generous, good people.

Julia Child, doyenn of the American kitchen died August 12th 2004. Her kitchen is now an exhibit in the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.

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