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The Julia Child Revival

After two decades of waiting patiently in the shadow of the Food Network’s drop-and-stir programming, Julia Child is back!  Americans can once more tune in to Julia’s ground-breaking black and white TV series from the 60’s.  There she is, showing her audience how to buy a chicken, posing with a lineup of raw suspects and fearlessly whacking at soup bones to make  stock.  After years of watching chefs grill chicken stuffed with a can of beer, will viewers remember what a real chicken stock is?

 

 

For the first time since being published in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia’s  cookbook for “servantless” American housewives, now tops the bestseller list in the self-help column.  Who would have guessed Julia’s detailed recipes for boeuf bourgignon would ever captivate this carry-out nation ?

 

Julia’s surprise comeback has its roots in the inconspicuous 2003 blog of aspiring writer Julie Powell who vowed to cook all five hundred plus of Julia’s recipes.  Unlike so many before her, Julie gives herself a year to complete this project.  Still, for a beginner, this is the equivalent of climbing Mt. Whitney and returning in a day.   Julie’s profanity-rich reporting of her self-styled Julie/Julia Project eventually wins her an enormous following and a book contract.  On the surface this might look like a win – win outcome for her.  Julie becomes an accomplished French cook? Her writing career is launched?  I don't think so..

 

When Julia Child, then 91 years old, reads Julie’s blog, she is not amused.  In fact, the usually charitable Julia called Julie’s Project ‘a stunt’.  Word of Julia’s disapproval comes late in Nora Ephron’s hit movie Julie and Julia, surprising the audience as well as young Julie.  Up to that point Ephron’s screenplay had successfully alternated scenes from Julie’s book and Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France which details her long struggle to write and publish Mastering the Art in the US.

 

Ephron wants us to think that Julie and Julia are alike, albeit a generation apart.  Both are married but childless, both seize on learning how to cook as away focus their lives and build confidence.   The movie careens toward Hollywood’s typical happy ending.  Julia Child gets fame, fortune and a TV show in America.  Julie Powell gets her book contract.   Had she lived long enough to see it, would Julia have found Ephron’s film as ‘frivolous’ as she did Julie Powell’s ‘iron chef’ approach to Mastering the Art?

 

I’ll wager Julia would not have minded her role as played by Meryl Streep.  She would have been pleased that Julie’s profanity is muted in the movie, and that Ephron  had shown Julie cooking her recipes in a tiny kitchen space.   Then again, does it matter what Julia would have thought about her big comeback?

 

We’ll never know.  But, yes, it does matter to those of us who cooked our way through Mastering the Art years before the blogosphere entered our lives.  We fervently cooked Julia’s recipes as if they came from the Bible.  We learned our basic techniques from her long, detailed directions.  We even looked forward to Julia’s cheery ‘Bon Appetit’ at the end of each television show.  It was code for our shared commitment to the value of life at the table,

 

Julia’s recipes are fixed in time in a sense.  They reflect Cordon Bleu techniques as they were taught a half century ago.  As in any art, tastes and styles have changed.  But today, when we crave comfort food more than ever, Julia’s boeuf bourgignon is bound to satisfy.