What Julia Child taught us and why we could use a few more Julias today

by Terry B on August 12, 2009

The utterly charming movie Julie & Julia reminds us why Julia Child was so important. And Michael Pollan says that today’s food television doesn’t actually teach us to cook.

julia-in-chicago

Okay, show of hands. How many of you out there saw Julie & Julia opening weekend? We did. It was wonderful, even from the third row far right seats that were the best we could do in the crowded theater. And this was for a summer movie without car crashes, explosions or superheroes!

The crowd was spectacularly diverse, men and women, older and younger couples—even a group of teen girls sitting next to us—all thoroughly wrapped up in the intertwined stories. It’s not a film for kids, though. Julie & Julia earns its PG-13 rating with its occasionally frank celebration of love and life.

It is this celebration of life that is at the very core of Julia Child’s being. In her memoir My Life in France, she remembers her first meal there, a lunch of oysters and sole meunière in Rouen: “It was the most exciting meal of my life.” That meal—and the passion it instilled in her for French cuisine—changed how she thought about food and, ultimately, how America cooked.

That passion is what ignites her character in the movie too. And while movies are not reality, those who knew Julia well said that at times, they forgot that they were watching Meryl Streep on screen. Julia was passionate about food. Not just the finished dishes set before her, but the making of food—the raw ingredients, the techniques, the tools of the kitchen, even the sometimes laborious, time-consuming processes.

If you’re a regular here at Blue Kitchen, I think you get this. For food bloggers and food lovers alike, one reason we cook is because we like to eat. But we also like the processes. In a recent comment here, Kim over at Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet summed it up nicely: “I do love food—everything about it from the cooking to the flavoring of each layer to plating it up! Cooking for me is so therapeutic—I have a tough job and when the day is over I so look forward to whipping up something in the kitchen!”

The day after seeing Julie & Julia, I faced a mountain of post-cooking wreckage in the kitchen. Now, I’m the first to admit that sometimes [a.k.a. often] the last thing I want to do is tackle a kitchen full of dirty dishes, pots and pans. But other times, like last Sunday, I embrace it. I roll up my sleeves, turn on the kitchen boombox, get some hot water running in the sink and dig in. There is just something comforting about time spent in the kitchen, even—and maybe especially—on mundane tasks like this. You can watch your progress unfolding as it happens, feeling virtuous as you restore order and take care of your cooking equipment—and your mind is free to wander.

On Sunday, it kept wandering back to Julia Child. The movie we’d just seen, of course, but the person too. The amazing woman whose kitchen we’d visited weeks ago at the Smithsonian. How exactly had she changed America? What had she taught us? Beyond introducing the idea of home cooked French cuisine, of using real ingredients and respecting them, she taught us a certain fearlessness. She made mistakes on camera and instead of doing a retake, admitted them and patched things together. About her own experiences upon entering the male-dominated world of the famous Cordon Bleu as a student, she said, “You should have seen the way those men looked at me… but then they discovered I was fearless.”

Most of all, though, I think she taught us that food—and life—are meant to be embraced and enjoyed fully. Interestingly, in trying to capture in words Julia’s approach to life in general and food in particular, I am reminded of a quote by Judith Jones, the editor at Knopf who decided that Mastering The Art of French Cooking should be published, essentially launching Julia’s career as an author and TV personality: “Food is one of the greatest gifts of life… You should derive enormous pleasure from making it, eating it, enjoying it with family, and it should be honored.”

So what has happened to food TV?

And where are the new Julias? Late last month, author Michael Pollan had an article in the New York Times that put into words what I’ve been thinking about television food shows for some time now, particularly as seen on Food Network. We don’t have cable TV, but I’ve often thought that Food Network could be the one thing that might some day change my mind. In fact, I used to say that if we ever got cable, I’d plop myself down in front of the Food Network for a month. But even my brief times in front of it in hotels and whatnot lately tell me no.

“Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch” talks about how we’re spending less and less time cooking while, perversely, we’re spending more time watching cooking. And Pollan slams food TV in general and Food Network in particular for not teaching cooking skills anymore. He says the implicit message of today’s prime time cooking shows is, “Don’t try this at home.”

Reality TV [quite possibly one of the most bogus terms to be foisted on us in modern times] has invaded cooking shows. Suddenly, it’s not about teaching us to cook, but teaching us to watch TV. More specifically, to stare slack jawed for hours on end at totally artificial competitions and outrageous behavior.

About possibly learning cooking tips for the home from these shows, he says this: “But you do have to wonder how easily so specialized a set of skills might translate to the home kitchen—or anywhere else for that matter. For when in real life are even professional chefs required to conceive and execute dishes in 20 minutes from ingredients selected by a third party exhibiting obvious sadistic tendencies? [String cheese?] Never, is when. The skills celebrated on the Food Network in prime time are precisely the skills necessary to succeed on the Food Network in prime time. They will come in handy nowhere else on God’s green earth.”

To be fair, real cooking still happens on some shows in the non-prime time hours on the Food Network, at least to some extent. But even of these, Pollan says that programming “has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers… So the shows encourage home cooks to take all manner of shortcuts, each of which involves buying another product, and all of which taken together have succeeded in redefining what is commonly meant by the verb ‘to cook.’” For more about the depressing state of home cooking today, read Pollan’s entire article here.

So where are the new Julias to be found? In contemplating Pollan’s article, Laura over at What I Like asked this very question and got me thinking about possible answers. One place to look for actual cooks who actually instruct us in making meals is the place we found Julia. The Public Broadcasting Service, PBS. Depending on your PBS affiliate, you’ll find Rick Bayless, Ming Tsai, Lidia Bastianich and others in actual kitchens, preparing actual meals. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll even find reruns of Julia herself.

If you know of any other Julias out there cooking real food on TV, let us know. Leave a comment.

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{ 24 comments… read them below or add one }

Lou Doench August 12, 2009 at 12:50 pm

Firstly, love your blog.
What has happened to the Food Network makes me really sad. I only really started cooking in 2000 (to impress my girlfriend, it worked… she’s now my wife) and the Food Network was one of my inspirations. There was a point where primetime on the food network was all cooking! Then maybe a Rachel Ray travel show, (do they even do those anymore?).

Now all the cooking shows are on Sunday morning, and they’re all pretty bland.

Good shows i still watch? Nigella Lawson and Jaime Oliver heve great shows worth catching.
On PBS, I love America’s Test Kitchen and Cooks Country. And Primal Grill with Steve Raichlen.
Fine Living Network show re-runs of Molto Mario, which I stick in the DVR for when I really need a cooking fix.

joan Nova August 12, 2009 at 3:08 pm

A very thoughtful piece but I have to own up to being one who enjoys the new wave of ‘reality’ foodTV. Not so much some of the hosts and their cruel punchlines, like ‘you’ve been chopped’ or ‘pack your knives’…but, rather, for the challenge and the creativity inspired by it.
I loved Julie & Julia and I, too, was off to the side in a packed theater. My little group of theater-goers included 3 generations and we all found it entertaining. I think it’s especially appealing to food bloggers who intuitively understand Julie’s experience.

PlethoraOfPinatas August 12, 2009 at 3:19 pm

I have to disagree with Food Network being the death of the home cook. It was Food Network (and specifically the show Alton Brown’s Good Eats) that inspired me to start cooking. Shows like Good Eats and America’s Test Kitchen teach the chemistry behind cooking as well as give tips on equipment to buy (and advice to not buy one-use gizmos!), while Chefs like Bobby Flay, Michael Chiarello, and Giada DiLaurentis opened me up to new flavors and ideas. My least favorite shows are the ones that Pollan detests, i.e. the contests and Sandra Lee’s dreadful Semi-Homemade.

Furthermore, it was the visual appeal of Food TV that inspired my brother to go to culinary school. He never opened our mother’s Joy Of Cooking or other intimidating encyclopedias, because they were too confusing and had no pictures. Don’t we eat with our eyes first? Why on earth would a cookbook NOT have pictures? The reason a channel completely devoted to cooking succeeds is because food and cooking is inherently visual. I just wish I was the TV exec clever enough to realize it.

Terry B August 12, 2009 at 3:40 pm

Lou Doench—Yep, the stomach is now the quickest way to a man’s and a woman’s heart. Thanks for the tips on TV cooks still cooking.

Joan Nova—The problem with most of the challenges is how preposterous and non-real world they are [hence, my problem with the term "reality TV"]. Regarding Julie & Julia, I am just surprised and thrilled by the universal appeal the film seems to have.

PlethoraofPinatas—Yes, there still is actual cooking on even the Food Network, but it’s the contests and the so-called cooking shows Pollan rails against that disturb him, me and you. And I totally agree with you about cookbooks without photos. I’m a very visual person. I don’t need a complete play-by-play [unless a technique is especially difficult or arcane], but seeing how a dish is supposed to look when it’s done gives you so much more information than words alone.

Laura August 12, 2009 at 4:40 pm

Wonderful post Terry. I agree with the other commenters that there are some positives to the Food Network (historically at least) and that there are some great shows still. Jamie Oliver is clearly quite committed to real cooking, and I have to say that Nigella in the early days was a new Julia Child of sorts, although now I think with her latest cookbook/series she’s fallen prey to the shortcut format. I’ve been loving watching the old Nigella Eats episodes on You Tube lately though, and have gotten a lot of great ideas from them.

I think the issue with the Food Network is that these kinds of shows are not being encouraged. Molto Mario was shunted off (a show I used to really enjoy and found inspiring on more than one occasion), even Anthony Bourdain, who simply told us to go out and try new things to eat, not even to cook, was relegated to the Travel Channel. It’s a question of intent and philosophy and focus I think, not so much a question of whether there is a decent show to be found somewhere, sometime on the channel.

And hooray for PBS! My family used to watch it all the time but I haven’t in quite a while…I need to return to those roots I think.

Kristen August 12, 2009 at 9:10 pm

Lovely post, Terry. I tried to see Julie & Julia last night and all three show times were sold out! This movie is crazy popular.
I think this is my favorite Julie &
Julia post so far. Very thought provoking!

Linda August 13, 2009 at 12:36 am

I have not like the direction I see Food Network going, but I still watch some shows. Julia Child was my mentor, but I have also learned and been inspired from many Food Network chefs. I just hope those days aren’t over. I haven’t watched PBS cooking shows since I started watching Food Network. I guess I need to go back and see what they are doing now. We also had a group of all ages watching Julie and Julia, we loved it. James Beard was another one I learned a lot from. Linda

dick August 13, 2009 at 12:48 am

The ones I like to watch now are Sara Moulton, Jacques Pepin and Hubert Keller. All 3 are people I think I would enjoy talking with and all 3 also use ingredients I have in my kitchen.

Kim, Ordinary Recipes Made Gourmet August 13, 2009 at 12:52 am

Wow Terry, should I take a bow? hee hee LOL!!! Thank you though for mentioning me in your article! I haven’t seen the movie yet and can’t wait! I hear it was great! I love this article you wrote too! I actually love to watch cooking shows while I eat, weird I am, right? But to me, I learn so much watching someone cook while eating a meal! The other shows like “Chopped” are ok but I still go for shows like “Sara’s Secrets” which I think is now on “Create”. And I used to LOVE East meets West. I do follow “Simply Ming” because I love the way he cooks! Another favorite of mine was “2 Fat Ladies”, “The Melting Pot”, and I do like “Barefoot Contessa”. I miss the show “Chefs of the World”, we used to get that show here in FL but not anymore, if someone can tell me what happened to that, I’d really like to know! Well once again Terry – great post! Kim

Terry B August 13, 2009 at 4:41 am

“It’s a question of intent and philosophy and focus I think.” Perfectly put, Laura. Almost three years ago, Bill Buford wrote a story for the New Yorker called “TV Dinners,” describing watching food television for 72 hours straight. Even then, he talked about the conscious dumbing down of the Food Network, replacing real chefs like Mario Batali with non-chefs like [love her/hate her] Rachael Ray—whom he describes as “a likable sales-rep personality, with a me-and-my-mom vocabulary and a smile as instantaneous as a light switch”—and Sandra Lee.

Thanks, Kristen. Hang in there and see the movie—we’re ready to see it again!

Thanks, Linda! Do give PBS another look.

dick—You know that “people I think I would enjoy talking with” is a big factor. I think Julia had that in spades.

KIm—Create, part of PBS here in Chicago, is where we’re finding a number of cooking shows.

Laura August 13, 2009 at 2:13 pm

Terry – My dad has many wonderful qualities…he’s ridiculously smart, really talented when it comes to building things, very emotionally available…but his cooking ability does leave a little something to be desired. He taught me a couple of useful things, like how to make a good tuna melt, the virtues of peanut butter on toast for breakfast and how to make peas and ham in white sauce over linguine. Bachelor foods if you will. My mom sort of rescued him from a world of 1950s American food I think when they met.

Pamela August 13, 2009 at 5:23 pm

I agree with your comments however, I am surprised no one has mentioned Martha Stewart. Her show and books have been instrumental in teaching me valuable techniques in cooking and baking. I too don’t like the direction of Food Network. I watch PBS. Love your blog!

Jill August 14, 2009 at 3:11 pm

Your blog is great! Can’t wait ’till I see Julie & Julia!

I don’t have cable, so PBS is what I watch. My favorites are Lidia’s (Bastianich) Italy, America’s Test Kitchen and Cook’s Country, Joanne Weir’s Cooking Class, Simply Ming, Everyday Food and Everyday Baking. I won’t hesitate to try the recipes out myself.

I started cooking when I was six. Basically, when my classmates danced with Bert & Ernie on Sesame Street, I couldn’t wait for reruns of Julia Child and Graham Kerr, the Galloping Gourmet.

My Carolina Kitchen August 14, 2009 at 8:19 pm

My husband and I saw Julie and Julia the other day and loved it. I had read the Julie book a while back.

I learned to cook from Julia Child and Craig Clabourne (The New York Times Cookbook and many more). My knife skills came straight out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Cookbooks have really changed since then and now have pictures of almost everything, which I love but it wasn’t always like that. I was probably a snob because I made everything from scratch and didn’t use packaged products from the supermarket that so many people did.

I’m not crazy about a lot on the Food Channel but I do love Ina and Giada and perhaps Bobby Flay, but I don’t grill (my husband does) but Bobby uses a lot of fresh flavors that I like.

You’ve written a great post and I’ve enjoyed reading it.
Sam

Terry B August 14, 2009 at 8:51 pm

Laura—Sounds like you did well in the parental department. And I can’t tell you how often peanut butter toast is part of my breakfast!

Pamela—Martha Stewart really has done a lot to get people cooking. Somehow, though, I never picture her actually doing anything without staff.

Thanks, Jill! And it’s nice to be reminded of the wealth of food programming still available on PBS.

My Carolina Kitchen—You’d be surprised at how many photoless cookbooks there still are out there. And I know that publishing books with lots of pictures immediately ups the cost, but they’re so darned helpful. Almost worse for me are cookbooks that feature beautiful photographs of raw ingredients—gorgeous piles of produce, for instance—but no finished recipe shots. I know what eggplants look like—show me how the dish you made with them should look.

Tina Marie August 16, 2009 at 2:09 am

I don’t mind the photoless cookbooks…if they have good recipes and great instruction. The book Julie and Julia was a good read in my opinion but I have not, as yet, seen the movie. Saw an interview with Julie Powell and for some reason, it made me not want to rush out and see the movie…but I do want to see it. So many times books are great for me and the movie is a stinker….I’m hoping that’s not the case for this one!

Linderhof August 16, 2009 at 11:12 am

Julia Child WAS the first TV Chef. And on PBS there were others that followed her — Graham Kerr and Jeff Smith.

PBS Cooking Shows were for teaching and learning — not for entertainment.

FN nighttime lineup is awful IMO.

I do like Ina Garten — both her books and her show.

Saw the movie and loved it — am going again next week.

Carmen August 17, 2009 at 3:37 pm

Yes! I saw Julie & Julia on opening night with my Mom, who first read about the film on your blog. We communed with the sold-out audience with laughter and sighs, completely blissed out to watch these creative and fearless women overcome the odds and make some great food.

Terry B August 17, 2009 at 4:22 pm

Tina Marie—I’ll make exceptions for photoless cookbooks if the recipes are intriguing. But I have to admit, I’ve put many back on the shelf at the bookstore or library because they didn’t have photos.

Linderhof—You’re the second person now to mention Graham Kerr. I don’t remember him so much for the food he cooked as I do for his joie de vivre and his shtick of drinking on the job—”I think I’ll have a short slurp whilst doing this…”

Carmen—Sounds like a great mother/daughter evening! Glad we got to meet your mom while she was here.

Karen August 17, 2009 at 5:30 pm

I dragged my husband to see the Julie and Julia and he actually left liking it…I also make him watch the Food Network and have to agree that many shows on the Food Network are fluff but a few are educational, like Good Eats. I think that many of the shows can do a better job of educating while entertaining. After watching the network for 5+ years, I’m craving more. I guess that is why I’m in culinary school. That being said, the Food Network did help awaken my passion to cook and ignite by appetite to learn.

laanba August 29, 2009 at 7:10 pm

I enjoyed reading your blog post. I agree with many of the things both you and Michael Pollan have to say about the state of cooking on TV.

I’m coming from an interesting perspective. I am just now, in my late 30s, teaching myself to cook. I didn’t really learn to cook while growing up and I have spent most of my adult life thinking of it as a chore, one that I really despised. Finally last spring I had had enough. Enough of fast food and of frozen dinners. I decided that I needed to teach myself to cook and change my attitude about it. Funny enough a few weeks later Michael Pollan’s excellent “In Defense of Food” came out and that sealed the deal. I certainly don’t think of myself as a cook, but things are slowly changing.

I have always enjoyed the programming on Food Network even when I didn’t cook. I’m not a big fan of reality TV, but I liked the travel shows and the cooking shows. I mean who doesn’t like to look at pictures of beautiful food. But now that I am seeking places to actually learn how to cook, places where I don’t want to take short cuts and places that will teach me the basics of this medium, I notice there are very few options on Food Network. The two that come to mind are the shows by Alton Brown and Jamie Oliver.

Sadly the pressure for certain types of programming that Laura mentioned have also now claimed Jamie Oliver. He just finished shooting a Reality TV show in the US about people that need to loose weight and teaching them to cook. Maybe it will be great and maybe I’ll really learn some tips from it, but I doubt it.

Terry B August 29, 2009 at 11:28 pm

Hi, Karen! Anything that sparks a passion for cooking is a good thing in my book. BTW, we use the heck out of our Tea Spot Tuffy Steeper. Thanks!

Iaanba—It’s always interesting to hear how people come to cooking. Some do it from childhood, others come reluctantly to it as you did. I’m glad it’s no longer a chore for you and that you’re wanting to learn more. I feel that I’m constantly learning new stuff about food and cooking, and that’s one of the things that keeps it fresh. My quick visit to your blog tells me that you take a very thoughtful approach to everything you do. I will be back for more.

dick August 29, 2009 at 11:53 pm

I always did cook from childhood. Always liked it.

However when I was in my late 20′s I lived in Annapolis. I had a whole bunch of friends who had never cooked and were having problems making ends meet. I worked out a deal where they would take turns buying food and I would do the cooking. I found it interesting to do all kinds of things. They would eat whatever I came up with and I got to eat for the cost of my time. Win-win.

That got me started and now I find that I read a recipe just like I read a book. This has led me to sampling and cooking Chinese, Japanese, Italian, French, German, all kinds of American and starting with Moroccan and Mexican foods. I have a Puerto Rican landlord so I am also tring that as well. So many kinds of cooking and so little time. So many ways to use the same materials and have the result come out so different. It has really become fun, a true adventure. I find that the internet has really opened my experiences up to an amazing degree. One website leads to another to another ad infinitum and they are all different. One got me into baking bread in 5 minutes (a white lie but it is easy) which led to a couple of other ways to bake bread and so it goes.

Terry B August 30, 2009 at 8:37 pm

Dick—That sounds like a total win-win situation! And like you, I love reading cookbooks and trying various cuisines.

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