Julia Child 1912-2004
Loss is unpredictable. At the time we lose someone--a family member, a friend, a national figure--we never know exactly what we are going to miss the most. The wit? The comfortable familiarity? The moral compass? The ability to lead? We certainly miss Kennedy's unshakeable optimism, King's righteous oratory, and Audrey Hepburn's playful dignity. What, then, will we miss most about Julia Child?
For many, the first and last thing will be the voice. She ascended into the pantheon of beloved national figures as a bit of an eccentric, an imposing tower of willful culinary domination. The juxtaposition of Julia's unstoppable can-do enthusiasm, her physical stature, the subject at hand--an ugly, massive "loup de mer" or a row of chickens to be roasted--was not comedic but it was startling. It reminded one of other rather odd but endearing American figures: Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, and perhaps Ross Perot.
Yet I suspect that Julia's winning charm, her physical presence, even her beloved French cooking, may not survive through the ages. I have always thought of Julia's entrance onto the national scene as unfortunate timing. Women were leaving their homes for careers by the millions. America was just getting serious about becoming a fast-food nation. Agribusiness was in high gear. And, most of all, French cooking was on its last legs. For more than a century, fancy French cooking had made an uneasy partnership with our own pioneer culinary arts. Fannie Farmer, among others, deftly presented us with this marriage of the continental gourmet to the country bumpkin. And by the 1960s, the future of classic French cooking was certainly in doubt. By the 1980s, Alice Waters, Larry Forgione, Jeremiah Tower, and many others would be leading an American culinary revolution that goes on today.
So, in the midst of a culinary Three Mile Island, Julia arrived to save us from ourselves. Her popularity belied her topic. Yet she prevailed with a strong sense of tradition, of culinary history, and of the complexities of great cooking. The rest of America was busy throwing off the shackles of the past and, with them, the notion that there was something to learn from it. We wanted bright lights and Julia offered us hard work and anonymity. We wanted instant gratification and Julia told us that a good stock took time. We celebrated the young and the beautiful and Julia presented us with an image that defied the times. This, in effect, was a recipe for disaster, and yet she turned it into a great success.
Over the years, Julia defied us at every turn. Diets were anathema to Julia because they implied that food was harmful. She had no truck with the organic and natural food movements--hadn't American agriculture fed the world? Yes, butter and cream could be reduced, but then the dish would not be worth eating.
And, yes, Julia was a real character. At one particularly poorly lit Italian restaurant where we dined shortly before her move to California, she constantly demanded more light so that she could see her food properly. When it was not forthcoming, she simply dipped into her large purse, took out a flashlight, and proceeded to inspect the rather insipid offering as if it were a corpse.
But to focus on these minor eccentricities is to miss the point. Julia Child provided what America really wants from its celebrities: She endured. She never took up the banner of "meals in minutes." She never offered a recipe for "lite" cheesecake. She never allowed her name to be used in the promotion of any commercial enterprise. She never wavered in her convictions. And she stood the test of time. She told America to look to the past and not to discard the wisdom of the ages. And she then proceeded to lead her life based on those simple, enduring principles.
Despite our infatuation with the moment, I think we knew that Julia was right. Yes, America loves those who struggle against the odds. But, in the end, the greatest among us also have to walk a righteous path. And Julia's instincts always pointed her in the proper direction. She was in a battle with the strongest and most dangerous of our cultural currents. Yet she held her head high, had no regrets, and dined thoughtfully off centuries past while the rest of us were grabbing a bite from the takeout window.
For all of these reasons and more, we will miss Julia terribly. But for many of us, those who followed in her footsteps in later years, there is the Julia of kindness, the lady who would get to know each and every star-struck buyer at a book signing--even if it took hours. When interrupted during a restaurant meal, she would be gracious and unhurried in her attentions. When she was with Paul, her beloved husband, she deflected attention from herself to him--to his paintings, to his life story. Here was a woman who launched a thousand culinary ships, who gave so many of us the confidence and inspiration to do good work in the kitchen.
It feels as if we have lost the best of us in recent years--as if these great men and women were descended from a race of people who walked the earth in strides too long for our time. Who now will demand the best of us, demand that we speak to our better instincts? Who will save us from ourselves? Yes, I can look back wistfully and say, "I knew Julia Child. I cooked with her. I knew her as a friend." But that's not good enough for Julia. She would politely suggest, with a twinkle in her eye, that we turn on the stove, grab a knife, and start preparing a proper dinner, the type of food that would satisfy our souls, not just our physical needs.
She did the cooking all those years. Now it is our turn. As if faced with the loss of a parent, we no longer have someone to encourage us, to tell us how we are doing. I think that Julia would ask, as any good mother would, that we pull up our socks, roll up our sleeves, and shrug off childish appetites in pursuit of excellence. It would be a great tribute to Julia to do this well, not in memory of her but for ourselves, for history, and for the bright promise of hard work and devotion to principle that has built the American dream.
- Christopher Kimball