It was Julia Child’ birthday Friday and we celebrated by making her excellent Filet de Poisson Bercy aux Champignons (the recipe here is blurry, but you should really buy a copy of the book).
Most people these days are fascinated by the fact that she was a spy (she worked for the OSS before she became famous for cooking) which is interesting, but Julia was interesting for so many other reasons as well. She was a party girl from Pasadena who had aspirations of being a novelist. She was about six feet tall. She was in her thirties when she fell head over heels in love with Paul Child, who at first did not return her affections with the same intensity. When they finally married (the day after a nasty car accident with both of them bandaged), Julia was 34 and had not started on her adventure in cooking. She would begin classes at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris, mostly to learn to cook for her husband, but bound and determined to do it right and joining the professional school with the men instead of the housewives’ classes that the school encouraged her to take. It wasn’t an easy road but she always moved forward with cheerful determination. She published her famous book Mastering The Art of French Cooking
when she was 49 years old. The book is comprehensive and carefully considered. It took years – several years – for Julia and her partners to choose which recipes were most important, to research which ingredients would be available to the American in lieu of French ingredients, and to test…and test…and test…and test the recipes. To my great surprise, I discovered years ago that many cookbook recipes are not tested. Julia’s recipes work every time because they were tested multiple times and not just by her, but by others she trusted. She wanted to know that these recipes would work for you – you, the person reading this, you specifically. She was the ultimate teacher perhaps because she was the ultimate novice. She started with no knowledge, learned it all herself and wanted to show you (that’s right – you) that you could too. It’s the spirit in which she started her television shows (in her 50s, well past her “prime”), which are wonderful in their aspirations of elegant, beautiful food combined with a get-it-done and don’t fuss too much attitude. Julia didn’t cut corners – there are parts of her recipes that are tricky – but when she could, she modified recipes with modern conveniences. She wanted you (did I mention specifically you?) to cook – and to love – food. She was a fearless pioneer and knew that everything would not be perfect. In the very first episode of the show, at one point the lights get too hot for her and she pulls out some paper towel and mops her face and then goes on. No second take. No embarrassment either. That’s Julia. Something’s burning? Doesn’t matter. If she cooked it, she served it and without apology.
I love Julia Child because she reminds me that it’s ok to start when you start. It’s ok to want to do for others. It’s ok to screw it up completely and just move on. She also reminds me that when a person finds a passion – no matter where they are in life – that great things can come of it. You can be “past your prime,” awkward, too tall and have a crazy voice and insane hairdo and become a cherished television star. And you can start out as a tennis-playing party girl, be a spy, fall in love and wind up being one of the most beloved chefs of all time if you’re determined to be open to where life takes you. Julia reminds me that it’s never too late and one is never too much or not enough anything to be successful. She also reminds me that a little bit of butter is infinitely better than a whole tub of margarine – and for that I, and my dinner guests, are forever grateful.
Happy Birthday Julia – we’re having so much fun celebrating you all weekend long. Bon appetit.