What Would Julia Child Think?
A Wine Tale from Christina Kelly
Co-Author Jean Yates
There's a firestorm going on among chefs and foodies after the revelation that Chef and TV star Paula Deen, the Southern belle of heavy cream, butter and a frying pan, disclosed that she has diabetes. Deen was diagnosed with the disease three years ago and waited to publicly disclose the condition after admitting she was a paid spokesperson for a diabetes drug Januvia.
Her biggest critic is Chef Anthony Bourdain, host of "No Reservations" television show. He has been quoted as saying, "When your signature dish is a hamburger in between a doughnut, and you've been cheerfully selling this stuff knowing all along that you've got Type 2 diabetes...it's in bad taste if nothing else."
It made me wonder, what Julia Child would say? People forget that food critics and modern-day nutritionists often questioned or scolded Julia's use of ingredients like butter and cream in many of her recipes. In a 1990 interview with the New York Times, Julia responded to the critics by saying, "Everybody is overreacting. If fear of food continues, it will be the death of gastronomy in the United States. Fortunately, the French don't suffer from the same hysteria we do. We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life."
Although I can't imagine that Julia Child would ever recommend a hamburger sandwiched between two doughnuts, I am not certain she would publicly slam a culinary colleague either, especially one fond of butter.
Memories of Julia Child
One of my very first "celebrity" interviews as a new cub reporter was with Julia and Paul Child in the 1980s. I remember asking her about criticism she received for not touting the virtues of low-fat, low calorie meals. She laughed, shaking her head and looking to her husband as though it was an inside joke. A few years later, I saw an interview with her where she predicted that a "fanatical fear of food" would take over the country's dining habits and that focusing too much on nutrition takes away the pleasure from enjoying food. Moderation, she extolled in a voice that was uniquely hers, was her policy.
Naysayers also poked her for not washing her hands enough on her television show after handling meat and poultry. She was also criticized for decadent deserts at a time when the national girth had to add another collective notch in the belt. At one point, she responded saying, "I would rather eat one tablespoon of chocolate (Charlotte) Russe cake than three bowls of Jell-O."
(At right, original article published in 1982)
Julia Child died in 2004, two days before her 92nd birthday of kidney failure-and lived up to her belief that moderation was a good thing-it wasn't clogged arteries, it was old age. Her death was not just a loss to the culinary community-it was personal for me because of her kindness to a young, nervous and inexperienced newspaper reporter, going to college and pitching stories to newspapers.
At the time we met, I wasn't even legally old enough to drink wine, but I was already a foodie and a fan of Julia's. I watched her television shows, "Julia Child & Company," "Julia Child & More Company," and "Dinner at Julia's," religiously, since I was designated the family's cook after insulting my working mother's table fare too many times.
Julia was in Seattle doing a series of cooking demonstrations for upcoming shows in the 1980s, with a guest chef for each show. She traveled with a crew of three people, all wearing maroon tennis shoes, energetically running from place to place, checking utensils, inspecting ingredients and pulling out an assortment of cookware from large containers. Even Julia wore the maroon sneakers, and as I quoted her in my original story, published in 1982, she said, "People only see me from the waist up and these tennis shoes are very comfortable-I always tell people you can photograph the cook, but not her feet."
My assignment was to spend a day and a half following Julia around Seattle and write a feature story for the newspaper. I spent a great deal of time with her husband Paul, who was retired from the U.S. State Department. While cooks and admirers circled around Julia, Paul Child would watch with amusement on the sidelines.
"You know, she couldn't even boil an egg when I met her," Paul said to me as he watched his famous wife open a gift box of handmade chocolates from a local candy shop. "She was always an enthusiastic eater, but not a cook.
"Now look at her," he beamed.
Paul took credit for encouraging his wife to enroll in a French cooking school while the couple was stationed in France. Those classes put Julia on the road to writing her book, "Mastering The Art of French Cooking." "She wanted to learn, and I wanted to benefit from the results," Paul said with a sly grin.
The couple was generous with their time for a new reporter who asked a lot of seemingly unrelated questions. I didn't know where I was going with the story, and I am certain I rambled. I even asked them if they ever ate at fast food restaurants and both smiled and told me that they have, on occasion, stopped for a hamburger, although they would not say where. As she bent her tall frame towards me Julia said, "It isn't wise to say the name of the burger joint because the next thing you know, they will say I endorsed their burgers."
What struck me profoundly, even now as I recall my brief time spent with them so long ago, was how proud Paul was of his wife and the deep devotion they had to each other. Although she towered over him in height, she would lean over and give him a kiss on the cheek. At dinner they sat close together in a booth, almost like they were in a world of their own. And, most of all, they laughed together. Paul said during the interview that his wife had a "bawdy" sense of humor at times. I remember at the time having mixed feelings about a retired guy talking about his wife as though he thought she was still sexy. Now, it brings a Mona Lisa smile to my lips.
When I saw the movie, "Julie & Julia," which came out a couple of years ago, I was flabbergasted how well Meryl Streep channeled Julia. Even the relationship portrayed between Paul and Julia in the movie was spot on. I recently watched it again on television and pulled out the old article I'd written about them.
In the article, Julia was giving me advice on learning how to cook because I asked what a beginning cook should do. She first told me to buy a good set of knives and "learn how to cut things up." She then advised me to purchase a set of non-stick frying pans, find a terrific cookbook, invite friends over and have fun. "Fun," she said, "is the key word."
As a cub reporter, I didn't make much money, but enjoyed entertaining. Julia was quick to point out to me in our interview that being a good cook was not all about spending a large amount of money. Buying a tougher or less expensive cut of meat and braising it-a very simple technique-always results in succulent, tender and juicy meat from a long, slow cook, she said.
I've been a braising mama ever since.
Although the foodie controversy about Paula Deen may wax and wane, I really don't think Julia would have added her voice to the cacophony of critics. I'd like to think that Paul and Julia Child are strolling arm-in-arm in heaven somewhere, chuckling over the matter, talking passionately about food and butter. I can almost hear her scoff at the thought that chefs are voicing disapproval of one of their culinary clan. After all, this was the woman who had the courage to tell viewers, when she flipped a potato cake in the air and it fell to pieces on the stove, "You can always pick it up. And if you're alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?"
Hey, it works for me!