August 15 marks Julia Child’s 102nd birthday. That’s hardly a banner anniversary – remember the media celebration two years ago for her centennial? – but Julia Child deserves a red-carpet bonanza every year. Certainly her birthday should be recognized as a national holiday by the food world. If not for the late cookbook author and television host, its media empire wouldn’t exist – at least not in all the glory that it currently enjoys.
Yes, we have Julia to thank for all the Americans who eat something besides TV dinners every night. (The powers-that-be at Swanson may not feel so grateful.) But we also have Julia to thank for the glut of food porn, er, television that comprises an industry unto itself. The entire Food Network should credit Julia as its real founder. Without Julia, there’d likely be no Emeril Lagasse, Jamie Oliver, Tom Colicchio, Barefoot Contessa, or Pioneer Woman in our public eye. There’d probably not even be an Anthony Bourdain or a “Hell’s Kitchen.” (There’d still be a Rachael Ray, though. With her aggressive cheer and predilection for shortcuts and catchphrases, Ray always seems one gelatin mold away from being the new Betty Crocker.)
It’s also possible that, without Julia, we still wouldn’t recognize food literature as a legitimate genre. True, A. J. Liebling and M. F. K. Fisher were already writing about travel and dining before Julia published her seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961. But most publishers didn’t believe a market existed for anything but chirpy cookbooks that touted the virtues of mixes and cans of mushroom soup. With the second-wave feminist imperative to liberate women from “domestic slavery” and the rise of fast food and new food-preparation technology, meals with integrity and complex flavors were not being prepared in the average American household.
Were it not for the forward thinking of editor Judith Jones, Julia and her partners Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck might never have published their wonderful if weighty instructional tome. But publish they did, and the book launched a literary revolution of cookbooks and food essays, biographies, autobiographies, and, eventually, blogs. It also launched the career of Judith herself, who went on to introduce many other seminal cuisines and culinary philosophies to the American public. (Jones proved a wonderful food writer in her own right, too; her The Tenth Muse may be one of the most underrated eating memoirs around.)
Julia reframed cooking for the American public. A childless Child, she approached the everyday ritual of cooking with pleasure rather than resignation, and thrilled to devise the finest meals she could matter-of-factly make for herself and her best friend, business partner, and husband, Paul. Just as Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique was demonizing all housework as drudgery – and that polemic was necessary to counteract the post-war brainwashing of the American woman – Julia Child lumbered on the scene to declare, in her oft-imitated squawk, that cooking was not only physically and spiritually nourishing but fun. So much fun, in fact, that everyone – men and women – should want in on the game. What’s more, Julia declared that good food belonged to everyone, not just the wealthy. Fresh off her years abroad, she was always keen to remind us that many of her recipes would be considered peasant fare in France.
Simply put, Julia made good food democratic. And what’s more democratic than television? With her outsized personality and physicality, the lady was a natural at looming large on a small screen. PBS was smart enough to offer her a show after glimpsing her ease on cookbook tours, and an empire was launched.
As a tween, I acted on a show filmed at WGBH, the Boston public television studio that produced her cooking shows, and I remember the echo of her big laugh, her six-foot-two frame towering over the men who flanked her as she strode down halls. To a young girl, Julia was that rare female role model who ruled the media roost with unfussy intelligence rather than looks. She might not have considered herself a feminist icon but I saw her as a domestic goddess who’d unleashed her powers on the world outside her kitchen. I knew she was why my family ate something besides chop suey for supper, and I knew she was why I could envision a future in media that did not involve myriad plastic surgeries of the body and, yes, soul.
The irony, of course, is Julia likely would have detested the direction that food media has taken in the decade since her death. (She died August 13, 2004.) The “Top Chef” and “Cupcake Wars” battlefield and today’s “farm-to-table” kvelling might have offended her sense of decorum. She viewed cooking as fun but not frivolous, and detested faddishness of all sorts. She also might have rolled her eyes at today’s myriad food blogs and memoirs (as evidenced by her rejection of blogger Julie Powell); to Julia, the first-person voice was best used to connect people to their individual instincts rather than to trumpet one’s own personality. The number of people who watch hours of food TV but never cook would inevitably have filled her with despair.
Dame Child always said that she’d “lived at exactly the right time,” and while it’s hard to imagine a cultural moment that wouldn’t benefit from her presence, she might have been correct on this point as on so many others. The lady stirred us out of our national bad-food coma and then, just as we were devolving into a food media circus, left us with a legacy of principled culinary pleasure. Her fluty, funny voice will always be accessible on page and on video, and it is our responsibility to keep listening.
This essay was originally published in Word and Film.