Michael on Julia’s legacy

August 4, 2009

Does anyone in Australia understand the Julia Child adoration thing, or is this purely an American phenomenon?

I have known virtually nothing about her except her name – but in the New York Times this week  is a long and lovely essay by the wonderful Michael Pollan about Julia Child, the first American TV chef, prompted by the new movie Julie &  Julia, starring Meryl Streep as JC.

He muses about the changes in American home cooking and the influence of television upon it, starting with the way Julia Child apparently liberated a generation of American women from fear of cooking by dropping a potato pancake and then retrieving it and patching it back together – her show was live TV, after all.

Pollan is such an engaging writer (his book Second Nature, about gardens, was a big influence on me as I wrote my second novel The Submerged Cathedral, and his other books on food production and ethics, In Defence of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, are just as lively and provoking), and this essay is a beauty.

michael pollanPollan’s essay goes on to discuss the exponential rise of television cookery, and how American studies show that people spend more time watching cooking being done than doing it themselves (particularly interesting given the popularity of  Master Chef here, and the talk about how it’s supposedly got people back into the kitchen. I wonder…).

Pollan writes that there are oodles of cooking shows on US television, but says of many of them:

These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure — physical and mental — that Julia Child took in the work of cooking: the tomahawking of a fish skeleton or the chopping of an onion, the Rolfing of butter into the breast of a raw chicken or the vigorous whisking of heavy cream. By the end of the potato show, Julia was out of breath and had broken a sweat, which she mopped from her brow with a paper towel. (Have you ever seen Martha Stewart break a sweat? Pant? If so, you know her a lot better than the rest of us.) Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal. It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn’t do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself. No one cooking on television today gives the impression that they enjoy the actual work quite as much as Julia Child did. In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television.

He also notes that Julia Child began her cooking show in the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique, and points out that although they could have been seen as adversaries, this wasn’t true: Child had an aversion to the word ‘housewife’ and treated cooking as a skill and an art, rather than another bit of household drudgery for women.

Anyway I could go on and on – but better for you to simply read this excellent essay here.

Then discover more about Julia Child here (or this fab Youtube video of her show here – it’s hilarious), and more  here about the Nora Ephron movie (which in the way of this strange new world, originated from a blog. Yes, a food blog, called the Julie/Julia Project.).

I just watched the movie trailer and confess that I can’t wait!

Postscript – October 3 2009

Two more amusing additions to this post must be made.

First, this link to the beautifully narky Regina Schrambling at Slate, on ‘Why you’ll never cook from Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking’.

And second, rather more entertainingly, The Defamer’s round-up of cranky food bloggers and their snooty dismissals of Julie Powell, the blogger whose work started the whole JC revival. Hilariously chock-full of envy and rage at their fellow blogger’s success, this stuff makes for rich reading. One namedropping post by a ‘trained chef’ even says, with disgust, “People who happen to eat and are able to type are now our new food experts”. Seems rather to miss the point of Julia Child’s taking cookery to the masses, no? Not to mention that the remark is written by a food blogger.

Anyway, all good for a laugh and found here.

Bon appetit!


  1. Mastering the Art of French Cooking- Beck, Bertholle and Child was the other break out cookbook in Canberra in the 70’s. Break out as in sweat, definitely, esp for some of the more intricate recipes: Rabbit with chocolate and prunes, larks tongues and scallops with a gallon of cream, you name it. Sauces to float all sorts of gravy boats.

    On my copy Elizabeth David describes it as “the most instructive book on fine French cooking yet written in the English language.” Effect of this somewhat lessened by note “Front cover shows utensils supplied by Elizabeth David of Bourke Street, London,” by…. and Nelson Christmas- now there’s a lovely name.

  2. Well well Miss Julie, you ARE the cookbook maven aren’t you? Am thrilled that you were cooking along with Julia Child, as I now realise were many Australians at the same time. Showing my ignorance again – I just replied to Fiona’s caper comment with the remark that the exquisitely knowledgeable visitors to this blog, yourself included, are SO great for my culinary education, and I feel a post coming on about classic cookbooks I should own but do not. I am sure you have them all, you first-edition-of-everything-owner-you…

  3. Nothing to add on JC, I’m afraid, Charlotte, but thanks for reminding me about Michael Pollan. I read the Botany of Desire a while back and loved it. Must seek out those others you mentioned. Botany of Desire actually counts for me as one of the more important books I’ve ever read in helping me to understand plants, seeds and genetic diversity.

  4. Silas saw JC doing a demo in a department store in the US a zillion years ago and said she was a hoot. She was v fond of presenting a dish while saying ‘Bon appetit!’ with the rising emphasis on tit.

  5. She looks and sounds like rocking good value, that Jules. I particularly love the emancipatory potato pancake.

  6. The only Julia Child I have is a very yellowed 1978 pb of ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’ (w Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) Vol 1. I’m so happy I’ve found your site Charlotte! I haven’t taken this book from the kitchen shelf for ages. It has a fond place in my cooking heart; it taught me so many of the basics – bechamel, hollandaise, mayonnaise etc – as well as souffles, omelettes, choux pastry – all in a firm, calm manner. It was my first cooking book mother – the human mother being a frozen chop sort of cook… Looking at it now, I love the first words of the forward: ‘This is a book for the servantless cook who can be unconcerned on occasion with budgets, waistlines, timetables, children’s meals, or anything else which might interfere with the enjoyment of producing something wonderful to eat.’ Can’t wait for the movie.

  7. Relieved to find maven is not a cross between ravin’ and maverick.
    In the wrong hands- certainly not mine- Mastering the Art could also be used for intimidation. Ah, the good old days of two day dinner party preparation during non-sitting weeks in the nation’s capital.I realised Charmian Solomon was more my type of food.

    Interesting now how much the book focuses on “instruction”and techniques- none of the ‘I’m just like you only I’m famous’ note and none of the ‘quick to make for busy workers with lotsa cash to spend on ingredients.’
    The film looks great,clever clever Ms Streep. Indeed I thought the Julia Child clip was someone in drag. The end of the foreword says:
    “Train yourself to use your hands and fingers; they are wonderful instruments. Train yourself also to handle hot foods; this will save time. Keep your knives sharp.
    Above all, have a good time.”

  8. Thanks for those glimpses Fiona & Julie (so it’s Julie and Julia AND Julie now); JC’s writing makes me want the book! Witty and warm and clever, she sounds. And funny.

    Oh and Jamie, I’m glad you like Michael Pollan. I haven’t read the Botany of Desire, but think I could be engaged by just about anything the man writes. You should definitely read Second Nature, about constructing a garden over several years. It’s beautiful. I used MP for an epigraph for my second book – “Some private Eden shadows every garden.”

  9. Okay – I should be in my office – where there’s no internet – writing a Neighbours script, but instead I’m sitting at home after a long delicious breakfast at the Lawson Grove Cafe and can’t resist one more Julia comment re Julie’s comment on generational change in cook book focus. So true. Mastering the ARt… has not a single photo, no celebrity guff, the firm tone sometimes verges on the punitive, the line drawings are charmingly clinical. And yes, for sure, this book and this style of cooking resulted in some shockingly show-off ‘dinner parties’ (guilty: but those days are long gone). Can’t imagine having that sort of time any more, for a start. The other books I was using in that era were the Women’s Weekly ones with very helpful step by step photos (I have a friend who was so addicted to the Italian one that he took it with him to ITALY lol) – and Beverly Sutherland Smith’s A tAste for all Seasons’ – the source of my first strawberry tart.

  10. […] – first, the empty space we now have in our new cookbook shelves; and second, our chat here about Julia Child, and especially Julie’s & Fiona’s recollections of working […]

  11. […] Snark & envy October 3, 2009 Just a pointer to a postscript I’ve added to the Julia Child post from way back in August (which, weirdly, seems to be getting a hell of a lot of hits this week […]

  12. […] last word on the Julie/Julia phenomenon is to point you to By Design – a terrific Radio National program my friend Mark Wakely […]

  13. […] but until I discover the flaws in them myself, I am pretty keen on the idea of my mate Michael Pollan’s new book,  Food Rules: An Eater’s Manual. It sounds like a kind of precis of […]

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