by Alex Prud'homme
Julia Child died in 2004 at age ninety-two. Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published in 1965. She was then forty-eight and her career had not yet begun. She and her coauthors had worked on the manuscript for ten years. It was a model of clarity, rigor, and accessibility.
She was still working on a book about her life in France with her husband, Paul, when she died. Her last TV cooking series, with Jacques Pepin, was in 1999 when she was eighty-eight. It came with a companion book that she reviewed.
It was her vigorous curiosity and joie de vivre that made Julia so appealing to so many people. And it is one of the things that set her apart from many oftoday's celebrity chefs and lifestyle entrepreneurs. But she could sometimes show her "flinty" side, too. This was an aspect of her personality that people tend to overlook or ignore, yet it was just as much a part of her as the fun-loving "ham" and "hayseed" that was her television persona. She was not simply a funny tall lady who dropped food on the floor and appeared to swig wine intemperately. (In fact, she was privately irritated by such caricatures.) She was a driven and rigorous technician, a well-trained and hard-working cook who loved French cuisine in part because it had what she called "rules."
She wanted things done right and had an acerbic quality to her personality that was rarely seen in public.
She hated the joyless, thin-lipped food police who didn't understand the joy of cooking, eating, and drinking. Pommes Anna was one of her favorite dishes. It consists of thinly sliced potatoes, garlic, Parmesan, and lashings of butter and cream. She said, "If you are worried about using so much butter, substitute more heavy cream."
Julia Child said, "People looked at me and thought, 'Well if she can cook, I certainly can.' If you watch people who are too expert, you think you could never do it. But if you see a sort of normal person cooking, it makes you feel more confident. I had learned to cook at a mature age myself, so I understood that beginners need lots of details. At that time a lot of the recipes were very brief; they'd say put it under the broiler for twenty minutes. Well. I remember the first time I did that. When I came back, the chicken was all burned up. I'm sometimes laughed at for having long, detailed recipes, but if you don't know how to cook, you really want to know how far under the broiler to put the chicken, what to baste it with, and how hot the oven should be."
Her epitaph was that she made millions of people happier. But she also showed them that nothing good comes easily and that pleasure is the reward for hard work.
Child, Julia, with Alex Prud'homme. My Life In France. New York: Random House, 2006. Shapiro, Laura. Julia Child. New York: Viking, 2007.
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