I just saw Julie and Julia on DVD. The film intertwines two stories. The main story starts in 1948 when Julia Child and her diplomat husband Paul arrived in Paris, and traces her transformation from recently married housewife looking for something to do, to the legend she became after the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961.
The second story focuses on Julie Powell, who in 2002, spent a year cooking her way through all 524 recipes in Mastering the Art, chronicled her saga in a blog that quickly gained a large following, and later wrote a book about her experience: Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen.
I enjoyed the movie, especially the sections on Julia and Paul Child, masterfully portrayed by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci. It reminded me why Julia Child has been one of my personal heroes ever since my student days at the University of Chicago in the 1960s.
Her impact of the world of cooking was well captured in the New York Times review of Julie and Julia:
“The impact of that first volume of “Mastering the Art,” and of Child’s subsequent television career (which is mostly tangential to the movie’s concerns), is hard to overstate. The book stands with a few other postwar touchstones - including Dr. Benjamin Spock’s “Baby and Child Care,” the Kinsey Report and Dr. Seuss’s “Cat in the Hat” - as a publication that fundamentally altered the way a basic human activity was perceived and pursued.”
In May of 2002 I was invited to give the spring commencement address at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). In my talk, “The Value of an Open Mind in a Fast Changing World.” I said to the new graduates that as a result of all the changes taking place in the world around them, whole careers will be redefined and new ones will be created. Many of them will go on to jobs in these emerging fields, even though they have not had much formal training in these new careers - no one has.
I told them that it was thus very important to approach this fast changing world they were graduating into with the right frame mind. A fast changing world can seem alien and threatening. But, if you approach such a world with an open mind, you will find that it is also full of opportunities
I said that an open mind was a critical prerequisite to innovation, that is, the ability to change the world and take advantage of the opportunities it offers. Instead of illustrating the talk with the kinds of technology subjects I had long been personally associated with, e.g., the Internet, Linux and supercomputing, I wanted to focus on something different, - a more general, every-day subject that someone had truly transformed through the power of innovation and an open mind.
So, I chose cooking as the every-day subject to talk about because it is something I personally enjoy doing. And I illustrated what I meant by the power of innovation and an open mind by talking about Julia Child, and how she transformed cooking in the US through her books and television series. Let me share what I said about cooking and Julia Child in the 2002 UTEP commencement address.
Open Mind and Good Cooking
The open mind is a liberating force, not just in critical life choices, but in changing styles, preferences . . . and tastes.
For many, many years serious cooking meant French cooking. And there is no question that French food has always been among the most sophisticated - not to say delicious - in the world and that French chefs undergo the most rigorous education and training before practicing their art.
To think serious cooking was to think French . . . Larousse Gastronomique . . . the Bible of French cooking. And to aspire to be a great cook was to study at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris and walk in the footsteps of the great Escoffier . . . the DaVinci of French cooking.
That is until one of my personal heroes came on the scene. Some of you may have heard of Julia Child. She wrote several highly successful bestsellers on French cooking, and had a very popular cooking show on TV.
I discovered Julia Child while a student at the University of Chicago in the 1960s. I was rooming with three other students, and we alternated the cooking duties, each taking a turn cooking for the others. Don’t ask me how it happened, but it wasn’t long before the four of us transformed cooking from a necessity for survival to a competitive sport. Each of us began trying to outdo the rest, producing increasingly complex and sophisticated meals. Julia Child and her wonderful cookbook became one of our competitive weapons - our play book, so to speak.
While Julia Child started out writing French cookbooks, she soon went beyond that and in the process helped redefine serious cooking. She felt you could apply the kind of superb cooking techniques and cooking discipline developed by the French to any kind of cuisine and produce great food. Whether it was pizza, barbecued chicken, or paellas, on the one hand . . . or quenelles, coq au vin and Veal Orloff, on the other, Julia Child didn’t care. As far as she was concerned, the right technique and care would make any dish infinitely better, which is how she came to write some fourteen books on cooking.
That last thing you’d associate with Thanksgiving Day is French cooking, yet for years, I have been making my family’s Thanksgiving turkey from a Julia Child recipe.
I think Julia, by being open to all the possibilities, started her own French Revolution and spread gastronomic excellence beyond the borders of one country. After Julia Child, good cooking was no longer synonymous with French food alone.
Now, I do not mean to create an international incident with our allies, and imply that Julia Child, an American, single-handedly revolutionized French cooking. Serious diplomatic repercussions might follow, given how justifiably passionate the French are about food. After all, imagine how we would feel if France started lecturing us on the proper way to play our national pastime . . . baseball.
Many French chefs participated in this cooking revolution, especially those involved with what became known as “nouvelle cuisine.” Nevertheless, I think the rise in the quality of cooking in the US is attributable, in no small part, to Julia’s throwing open the kitchen doors to good cooking no matter what kind of food you were working with, especially in her very popular cooking programs on public television.
Predictably, good cooking in the United States, even reflects the diversity of our country. Italian, Mexican, Chinese food - along with dozens of other cuisines - are all as American as apple pie. And some have been even fusing together in a culinary version of the melting pot.
Julia’s revolution in good cooking . . . the acceptance of other people’s foods . . . represents something very hospitable . . . something welcoming . . . something reflective of an open mind, . . . and an open spirit as well.