I was given a set of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1986 just after I had moved to France, which was, when I come to think of it, a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle or, as I did, bringing a pasta machine to Italy. Although I have always loved my copies of “Mastering,” it wasn’t Julia Child who taught me to make Blanquette and Daube, ratatouille and mayonnaise. No, I learned how to make the French classics from my French husband, a man who had never even heard of Julia Child, The French Chef, until well into our marriage when I explained who she was. His response? There was no revelation, no epiphany, no beginning of a love affair with her recipes. No, he shrugged his shoulders and promptly forgot about her. I mean, he is French, grew up learning to cook from his own Maman so what would he need with Julia Child, une américaine?
I have long been fascinated by Julia yet, unlike so many of my American friends, it’s never really been about the food. Oh, I know the lady could cook! I do have charming memories of watching The French Chef when I was a kid but it didn’t particularly inspire me to cook. If we learn from example, then I was more likely to make a big pot of cabbage soup or pop a tv dinner into the oven than try and concoct clafoutis or coq au vin. I never attempted to cook like Julia Child nor did I expect French food to ever appear on my mother’s kitchen table. No, I wasn’t an enthusiastic fan of The French Chef for the food. What I loved about those shows was Julia herself. It was her enormous personality, her energy, her own passion for cooking — and eating — and her humor that inspired and entertained me. Her casual nonchalance, her endearing lack of grace and lack of beauty made me, a clumsy ugly duckling, a little more at ease with myself, less embarrassed by my faults and maybe a bit more confident in my own talents, whatever they would turn out to be. The Galloping Gourmet, my other television hero, was all sexiness and suavity, charisma, British accent and perfection while Julia was, well, Julia.
Today, my personal relationship with, my passion for Julia Child has transformed into something else completely. As I have gotten older, our connection has grown more complex. Thirty some odd years after first discovering her on television, twenty-five years after receiving her cookbooks, what fascinates and inspires me today was Julia’s age when she discovered her passion for cooking, her age when she embarked on an entirely new career. Julia was a ripe old 36 when she arrived in Paris and succumbed to the incredible cuisine and ambiance of her adopted country, 37 when she enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. She was in her forties, stoutly Middle Aged, when she embarked on her career of teaching, cooking and writing, 49 when published for the first time.
You see, I moved to France, not quite as old as Julia was — but almost — and slowly discovered the incredible food. I was married and pushing middle age before I, too, began my own love affair with French cuisine. And here I am, like Julia, a woman of a certain age, on the brink of starting over, embarking on my own new career. Julia has become my role model, a woman who was able to transform and recreate herself, daring to start over long past the age that we are told we should already know who we are and where we are going. Long past my own prime, or so society tells me, I glance around at all the young whippersnappers in their twenties and thirties who have discovered their own passions for writing or photography, some of whom leave college armed with creative writing or journalism degrees or those who go onto culinary school or are given a camera when still a babe in arms and it intimidates me. I question my choices and the possibilities of a future. I wonder if I am just plain crazy to be doing this now and up against all of those who have been at it for years. And so Julia’s own history, her life, which is in many ways similar to my own, reassures and spurs me on.
I look at those old black and white episodes of The French Chef and see a funny, witty woman, not particularly elegant, larger than life who tromped fearlessly through France in her size twelve shoes, who grabbed at life with much more gusto than the average human can muster up on any ordinary day. I see a woman who made a name for herself in what was thoroughly and insistently a man’s world in both France and the US. And I am encouraged. Connected by the revelation of a first sole meunière, mine eaten at that venerable old Parisian icon Chartier, hers at La Couronne in Rouen, a first oyster, mine tasted with the same mixture of curiosity and fear at a bustling brasserie on La Place de la Bourse, culinary lightbulbs popping and flashing, Julia and I are united by the irresistible urge to make food our life, our career. And while she dove in head first, no looking back, and I tiptoed in rather hesitantly, we both stumbled upon a passion and a new start quite by accident and surprise and later in life than either one of us should have. In my constant search for inspiration, Julia is my muse.
Julia Child’s birthday brings out the nostalgic in all of us. Fans all across America talk about how Julia inspired, gave them the courage to take to the kitchen and, whisk in hand, whip up their own mayonnaise or hollandaise; she encouraged them to master a traditional bouillabaisse; she offered the perfect recipe for the perfect clafoutis; she had the country rolling out homemade pastry dough for an authentic Quiche Lorraine. Proverbial sticks of butter are laid at the altar of the Grande Dame of classic French cooking updated for the modern American kitchen. Yet while all wax eloquent on how Julia got them cooking, I thank her for simply, unknowingly inspiring me to write, to forge a new career, for giving me the assurance to start over at my age and for doing it joyously, confidently and with relish. As Julia once said, “Find something you are passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” And to slightly appropriate another of Julia’s truths “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking — and writing — you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
Happy Birthday, Julia Child, and thank you for the gift!