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julia child

12 january 2008

Laura Shapiro begins her biography Julia Child with an appetizing description of Child on TV showing her audience how to ragout a goose. She dismembers and skins and de-fats the raw bird, preps it, browns it, adds other ingredients; and then,

As soon as the goose went into the oven, she turned to a second oven and triumphantly pulled out her "ready" goose – a ragout that had been fully prepared before the show. (xiii)
The magic of TV! And yet I can't help thinking that even one fresh goose would set you back a day's pay, in 1972 when the show aired and still today, before we've even gotten to "the onions, the lardons, the cabbage" (xii) and the stock and herbs, and the quarts of wine and liquor that Julia Child seemed to add indiscriminately to everything she cooked.

Shapiro notes throughout Julia Child that Child's fans rarely executed her recipes in full, a reluctance Shapiro chalks up to their demanding, intricate algorithms of preparation. But the other reason is surely just their cost. Child was no frugal gourmet. Nothing but the best ingredients would do, and time must be spent preparing them; and if time is money, her recipes are doubly expensive.

People watched Julia Child, it seems, not so much to learn how to cook as to learn how to yearn vicariously after a world of cookery just out of their reach. She was that paradoxical thing, an unpretentious patrician, an independently wealthy non-snob. She brought the most outré of dishes into American homes the only way they were ever likely to get in: virtually, over noncommercial broadcast television. Her impulse was democratic; she had lived in Paris and studied at Cordon Bleu, but there was no reason that the homemakers of Levittown should have to do so. But like so many patrician democrats, there was always a touch of let-them-eat-cake about her – or rather, let them eat quenelles.

Much of Child's cookery could never easily be replicated at home, for want of time, money, and ingredients. When she displayed a chipper faith that we could all cook French masterpieces with some effort, she was in fact talking in a sort of blithe way to an emerging upper middle class of Americans, some the descendants of oldish money like herself and her husband Paul Child, and some the rising managerial class. This class, so dominant in the American imagination of the 1950s and 60s, had replaced a staff of servants with a housewife and her appliances. The robust postwar economy had made good help hard to find, and a newer, post-New-Deal ethos placed some opprobrium on keeping servants, anyway. With no hope of hiring a French cook for that split-level in Westchester, the "American housewife" – in actuality a tiny subset of American womanhood – could go in for French cuisine herself. She trained her considerable purchasing power on Child's cookbooks, and tuned her dial to Channel 13 and The French Chef.

And it wasn't just "she." Shapiro quotes Lewis Lapham:

"In New York's Greenwich Village . . . a coterie of avant-garde painters and musicians gathers each week in a loft to watch The French Chef, convinced that Mrs. Child is far more diverting than any professional comedian." (119-120)
This is as close as Shapiro comes to identifying Child as a camp icon, which she certainly was for a while. Shapiro includes an entire chapter on Child's views on feminism and both hetero- and homosexuality, but much of that is devoted to the uncomfortable topic of Child's rather casual homophobia. That was Julia Child in private, though (and like many such private prejudices, it seemed not to extend at all to accepted friends, like James Beard). In real life (or at least in TV Land), she could be an emblem of gay fascination with the role of perfect housewife, her mad chopping, licking, sipping, and her all-too-imitable Brahmin contralto lending her 6'2" frame the air of the campiest chef in the world.

Well, I didn't really expect a Penguin Life to be a deconstruction of Julia Child as an emblem of ideologies of class and sexuality. Shapiro's book is brisk, entertaining, and appreciative, and at the same time packed with specifics about its subject. If it argues too strongly that Child transformed American cuisine, it is certainly correct in saying that Child transformed the cooking show. Now that there are entire 24/7 cooking networks on cable, we must acknowledge that Julia Child was the model for them all.

Shapiro, Laura. Julia Child. New York: Viking, 2007.