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