Advice

The One Piece of Julia Child Advice I Live By

August 15, 2018

Most of America met Julia Child—who would have turned 106 today—in the 1960s.

At the time, my mother was a kid growing up in suburban New Jersey, skipping grammar school, climbing cherry trees, getting chased by her three-legged dog. My grandmother was working as a needlepoint designer and raising three children and, all the while, cooking dinner with Julia.

When I asked if she remembers what she made, well, of course she does. Grandma is nearing 90 but has a better memory than I do. Go figure. She made soupe à l’oignon for weeknight suppers and boeuf bourguignon for dinner parties.

Five-ish decades later, Julia Child is no longer just an author or TV host, teaching French recipes to “the servantless American cook.” She’s a legend. By the time Grandma gifted me her 1967 edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking—stained cover and broken binding—I was as interested in learning about quiche as I was in learning about Julia.

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I wanted to know her. A lot of people did.

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Top Comment:
“Julia (and Jacques Pepin) taught me to cook, I remember one Sat nite when I was about 14. I was home alone and Julia was making omelettes. I went thru a whole dozen eggs, but nailed it in the end. My mother was cussing the bag boy the next morning for forgetting to put her eggs in the bag...little did she know most of them were at the bottom of the garbage pail. Ha! Fun memory...”
— Happygoin
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A couple years after she passed away, her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme, published My Life in France, an autobiography he co-wrote with Julia during the last months of her life. I devoured it. And along the way found this:

I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one’s hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as “Oh, I don’t know how to cook…,” or “Poor little me…,” or “This may taste awful…,” it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one’s shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, “Yes, you’re right, this really is an awful meal!” Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed—eh bien, tant pis! Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile—and learn from her mistakes.

This stuck with me.

A big part of my job is critiquing my own food. If I’m developing a recipe for, say, miso ranch dressing, I have to taste it over and over. And over. And over: Is it salty enough? Is it too salty? Too thick? More miso? Another kind of miso?

When it comes to cooking for work, this sort of obsession is helpful. But when it comes to cooking dinner for fun, it’s not. And that’s putting it kindly. No one wants to eat “roast chicken with—well, it didn’t really turn out the way I wanted it to.” And no one wants to take a bite of that chicken, then be interrogated about its tenderness, crispiness, saltiness. Do you think I should have cooked it at 450° F instead of 425° F? Does it really go with the salad?

I remember, years ago, my boyfriend and I were hosting Thanksgiving. I made a sweet potato gratin, whose creamy, cheesy sauce broke in the oven, like a platter dropped on the floor. It was separated. It was greasy. It was the end of the world. While everyone chitchatted in the living room, I dragged Justin into the corner of the kitchen, and whisper-shouted a plan:

“We’ll hide it in the closet. No one will know. Then, when everyone leaves, we’ll throw it out and take up the trash right away and by the time they come back for breakfast, it’ll be like nothing happened!”

In that moment, Justin was my Julia. “Or,” he said, “we’ll serve it. And everyone will love it.”

Everyone loved it. Or they pretended to. And I pretended not to be embarrassed by my own food. We were all, it turned out, happier this way.

That’s the funny thing about white lies: They can be so aspirational. I like to think that the more you act like the person you want to be—less self-deprecating, more self-loving; less frantic, more calm; less judgmental, more empathetic—the more you become that person. And then, eventually, what’s the difference?

For what it’s worth, a broken–cream sauce is not a cat fallen into the stew. If that happened to me today, I’d probably just order pizza.


Mastering the Art of French Toast

What have you learned from Julia Child—about cooking or about life? Share your story in the comments!

44 Comments

Anne-Marie August 27, 2018
My grandmother and I watched her religiously (we had two channels), and I remember the episode where she was poaching fish - and forgot it. Julia shrugged if off, and started again. In the process, she dropped her best advice. To paraphrase: Never apologize, unless the people your having over know the recipe, they'll never know it didn't turn out the way it was supposed to. I still try to live by that when I'm experimenting and it doesn't quite go well.
 
Jane S. August 27, 2018
It’s not to late to start your career.
 
Jean |. August 26, 2018
Emma, I loved this story. My mother was a huge Julia Child fan and would have been thrilled that I actually got to meet her and chat with her on several occasions. She had a marvelous sense of humor. <br /><br />When I mentioned putting whole wheat flour in my quiche crust, she got that look and asked why I would ruin a perfectly good pie crust with whole wheat flour. Then she uttered those famous words she's said so many times, even to Jacques Pepin: We're not interested in nutrition, we're interested in taste!<br />
 
Marilyn L. August 23, 2018
I met Julia many years ago. She was the luncheon speaker and patiently signed books afterwards. I presented her with my battered and stained copy of Mastering the Art.... I apologized for the condition of the book and was somewhat embarrassed to admit that I only make her recipe the first time I try it. After that, I make my own variation of her recipe, writing notes in the margin of the book. Julia was delighted: both with the condition of the book and my "courageous" efforts to make each recipe my own. She said, "That's exactly what you should be doing with every cookbook. A cookbook is only a guide book. You continue to make those recipes your own." I have never forgotten her kindness or her words.
 
Nancy August 24, 2018
Lovely story. Thank you. ;)
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 24, 2018
That's such a wonderful story, Marilyn. Thank you for sharing! It's so nice to know that Julia saw recipes that way and encouraged everyone to be creative—and "courageous," too :)
 
Sandra August 23, 2018
I learned to cook from my mother and grandmother and then Julia. She taught me so much more then how to put a meal together. When I moved into my first apartment I made dinner for my parents. Beef Bourginoun. They were so happy that I made a special dinner for them. I was 20 y.o. then but have never forgotten
 
Ann August 23, 2018
Steak Tartar and Double Stuffed Oreos. I hosted a retirement dinner at my house years ago. Made appetizers, fixed a fancy meal, then came to me for dessert. Yikes! I had forgotten to pick up dessert from the bakery! So, I dove into the freezer, grabbed a bag of double stuffed oreos, vanilla ice cream, and chocolate for shaving. Fixed ice cream with chocolate shavings and a DSO stuck jauntily on top. Everyone applauded my solution to the dessert dilemmna, and have never forgotten that dinner. Julia was right - food is to be enjoyed with friends!
 
amazinc August 23, 2018
Will forever love this JC quote "If you're afraid of butter, use cream." What good advice. Very inspiring article and a reminder to not take oneself too seriously. Miss her fun t.v. shows to this day, no matter who is on, they aren't Julia!
 
Diane T. August 23, 2018
"People who love to eat are always the best people."
 
Dini August 23, 2018
Absolutely I agree with your insights exactly! I had the pleasure of being able to cook dinner and pour wine at a dinner at Julia's house before she passed away. I made a video about the lessons I learned from her gracious hostessing: https://youtu.be/MIdo_daVJZY
 
Dini August 23, 2018
I especially loved that she didn't take herself too seriously even when it comes to wine - she just enjoyed it!!
 
MBE August 20, 2018
Many many years ago I embraced Julia's philosophy! When trying something new-my mantra is "the worst that can happen is we'll order pizza" to this day I've never had to order pizza!!!
 
lsm August 20, 2018
Loved reading your story. Brings back watching Julia's cooking show on PBS. I was never interested in cooking when I was younger. But I loved to watch Julia in the kitchen. Such passion and great fun she had for her craft. When I am in the kitchen fixing a meal for my husband and me, I remember to have fun and enjoy the moment. Thats what I learned from Julia.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 20, 2018
Thank you! Totally agree—if it's something you do every day, might as well have fun doing it. My fiancé and I always say our favorite thing to do together is cook :)
 
Kathy H. August 19, 2018
When I was working toward becoming a chef, and had recently graduated from the California Culinary Academy in San Francisco (CCA), I went to a cooking demo at Macy's Union Square to see Julia Child and her husband Paul. They also had chefs David and Annie Gingrass who were about to open Postrio, a Wolfgang Puck restaurant, doing the demo. After sneaking through the crowd to get to the front of the rope, they called for questions and I was able to ask Julia her advice for an aspiring chef?<br />"Don't just cook," she said kindly, "it's important that you educate your palate by dining in fine restaurants." <br />I took that advice to heart and continue to follow it to this day. In a way, she helped a stranger (but a dedicated fan) land a great job. One week later, seriously, I was hired at Postrio! That was in 1989, sadly, both CCA and Postrio are no longer around.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 20, 2018
Thank you for sharing this story, Kathy!
 
Janet K. August 24, 2018
Postrio was great. I haven't thought of that in years but it was a great when I would visit San Francisco. You were so lucky to experience all of that.<br />
 
Madeline W. August 19, 2018
I absolutely love reading all of the bits of wisdom that women share, even in cooking. There are life lessons everywhere!
 
Jill A. August 16, 2018
I love Mastering the Art of ....My home kitchen is specially outfitted JUST FOR FRENCH CUISINE, esp. recipes of Julia's, et al. Now I love cooking at home. 1 thing Julia taught me: Don't let water touch your food! Pat dry those steaks and chicken thighs before browning. Don't simmer with water, use cream, wine, stock, lemon juice, ANYTHING BUT WATER! Makes it so YUMMY. Love you Julia!
 
Julie August 16, 2018
Don’t crowd the mushrooms.
 
BerryBaby August 16, 2018
Years ago a man complimented me on my hair. I replied, "Really? I didn't even style it today, I let it self dry and....." He grabbed my arm and said, "Just say 'thank you'." <br />From then on, I now say nothing more, except I make sure I smile when I say it.
 
Vanessa August 16, 2018
Everything in moderation, including moderation.
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 16, 2018
Another favorite of mine! :)
 
Phildup August 20, 2018
That one is my mantra!<br />
 
Chuck K. August 23, 2018
I think I first heard it when she was being interviewed by Johnny Carson, or maybe Dick Cavit. I apply it to my life, liberally!<br />
 
Eric K. August 15, 2018
Us Type As in the kitchen—is there anything more devastating to watch self-destruct?
 
Author Comment
Emma L. August 16, 2018
It ain't easy being Type A.
 
GretchinF August 15, 2018
If you don’t think you can possibly go on, just remember Julia went on after she lost Paul and theirs was a love story FOR THE AGES.
 
Happygoin August 15, 2018
Julia always said, when you bake, always leave one hand clean to answer the phone. I love that! Julia (and Jacques Pepin) taught me to cook,<br /><br />I remember one Sat nite when I was about 14. I was home alone and Julia was making omelettes. I went thru a whole dozen eggs, but nailed it in the end. My mother was cussing the bag boy the next morning for forgetting to put her eggs in the bag...little did she know most of them were at the bottom of the garbage pail. Ha! Fun memory...