Apparently, Julia Child, who resided just up the road in Montecito until her death in 2004, was not a big fan of Julie Powell or her online journal, “The Julie/Julia Project.”
Although more than 4 million food blogs clog the World Wide Web today, it was Powell’s e-chronicle of her triumphs and travails in attempting each and every labor-intensive recipe in Child’s landmark “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961) that elevated her to Internet celebrity.
As Powell initially blogged on Aug. 25, 2002: “365 days. 536 recipes. One girl and a crappy outer-borough [Queens] kitchen. How far will it go?”
As we discover in the film “Julie & Julia,” with Amy Adams and Meryl Streep, Powell made it all the way through Child’s 752-page magnum opus.
Judith Jones, Child’s book editor at Knopf, claims that Child refused to endorse Powell’s project because Powell didn’t seem very passionate about cooking.
Jones also allowed that Child, who ordinarily proved enormously supportive of anyone with a serious interest in food, might have been put off by two glaring generational differences: Powell’s liberal use of four-letter words and her “all-about-me” focus that, in Child’s view, took the spotlight off the real celebrity — the lovingly prepared dish calling seductively from the sideboard.
Although the blockbuster film is being credited with boosting enrollment in culinary schools, reservations at French restaurants and sales of Julia Child cookbooks, a bulge in the demographic of 20- and 30-something lovers of all things gastronomic has been noticeable for at least two decades. In fact, the word “foodie” was coined in 1981 by authors Paul Levy and Ann Barr (“The Official Foodie Handbook”).
Two additional indicators of the swelling sophistication in American home chefs can be found with the sudden spike in the number of farmers markets nationwide, as well as the variety of heretofore strange spices or peculiar produce now stocked regularly in suburban supermarkets.
In the film, Madam Brassart of the Cordon Bleu in Paris informs Child that she hasn’t any talent for cooking, but it doesn’t really matter since Americans wouldn’t notice the difference.
Apparently, then, in La Belle, France, the United States was considered a nation of fast-food fanciers or frozen-dinner diners, while today, millions of American viewers are rabid-to-the-max fans of at least 57 different television programs featuring the culinary arts. In fact, with respect to the Food Channel, it’s all food, all the time.
Child demystified cooking for me in 1964. The French Chef burst into my kitchen, courtesy of KPBS, and divulged such secrets as employing generous amounts of clarified butter in just about everything, drying meat thoroughly before browning, and sautéing mushrooms in small batches to keep them crispy and light.
It was Child who convinced me that I could, indeed, master an omelet — all it took was the fearless flick of the wrist and fresh eggs. Soon, I was impressing friends and family with mouth-watering boeuf bourguignon, succulent coq au vin and even a lumpless hollandaise.
I didn’t go as far as to sport a “What Would Julia Do?” bracelet, but when mishaps occurred, and they did, on a frequent basis, I took great comfort in Child’s immortal words: “If no one’s in the kitchen, who’s to see?”
Even though she may have been secretly embarrassed by Dan Aykroyd’s caricature on “Saturday Night Live,” during a 2000 interview with Larry King, Child stoically maintained, as “sort of a ham” herself, that high-pitched hyperbole was the name of the game.
The 1978 SNL performance of “Save the Liver,” which is reprised in “Julie & Julia,” features Aykroyd in drag attempting to debone a chicken. He ends up severing a finger and bleeding to death — but not before shrilling Child’s traditional send-off “Bon appétit!”
So why didn’t Child champion Powell? The truth be told, Child probably sensed that Powell was more writer than cook.
The book “contains no biographical information,” Powell observed in Harper’s Bazaar. “Julia was much too concerned with her passion for teaching the ‘servantless American cook’ how to create fine French food to indulge in personal chatter.
“Yet somehow it comes shining through in the book’s pages that this was the sort of woman who could plunge her bare hands into boiling water or stun a live lobster with one decisive whack,” she added. “A woman who had no use for words like inappropriate and impossible.”
And that’s the lesson the emotional, meltdown-prone Powell and the rest of us learned from the sensual yet sensible Child. It’s not about how perfectly the dish is prepared. It’s about infusing the best of nature’s bounty with love and serving it up with a dash of wit and a soupon of joie de vivre.
In fact, to me, it sounds like a recipe for life.