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.
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.