I remember watching one of Martha Stewart's Christmas television specials as a youngster, where she had Julia Child on to help with a demonstration of making a traditional croquembouche, an incredibly festive party dessert of cream puffs, glued together with sugar syrup, built up to a towering size that reminds you why such a ridiculous pain-in-the-rear thing is made only for special occasions. St. Martha's dessert came out eerily perfect, as usual, an architectural wet dream of perfectly-placed, spiral formation dough puffs that, much like the Tower of Babel, would provoke the ire of God for making a dessert so haughty and self-righteous. Julia Child's version, however, was more croak than croquembouche, the puffs sort of haphazardly piled, nowhere near the pristine obelisk that Martha had done. Julia herself admitted in that perfect sing-songy warble, "I like yours!" But you know she didn't care because she wasn't there to compete, just to enjoy herself. Sure, JC's dessert didn't look as good, but it looked like what it should be, which is FOOD. I would be more likely to dig into that holiday sugar coma cone-of-shame than Martha's centerpiece-perfect version, which I'd be inclined to wonder if it was just there for show, like a garnish at a 1 Percent Holiday Soiree. I knew of Julia Child before that, but for whatever reason, the Croquembouche Incident solidified my love of JC.
I looked on YouTube for that Christmas special clip, but no dice. Most people have seen it or have heard of that bit, as it perfectly crystallizes the divide between the cooking/food personality pioneers with the new wave of media-savvy foodie-celebs. Julia Child would have turned 100 years old this week, August 15th, to be exact. It's sad to think that when she passed away in 2004, she was only two days away from celebrating her 92nd birthday, but when you think about it, she was one of the rare, treasured human beings who probably celebrated life every single day, and she was never short on love and appreciation. She exemplified True Happiness, not just because she enjoyed food, a healthy swig of sherry and had a stellar career as one of the most well-loved American chefs and cookbook authors. You got the sense that even if she never had her television programs or worked on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, she would have found what fulfilled her heart and just lived in that space forever.
All that fame and celebrity was just a byproduct of her effervescent personality -- people just liked being around her, and rightly so. I never met Julia Child; like everyone else, I got to know her through the TV screen, but she was approachable and funny, forever extolling the simple message of, "Yes, you can do this." I loved it when she'd drop things. Like a whole chicken. Just dust that baby off, the 10 second rule still applies in TV Land. She made mistakes but she never threw her hands up and got frustrated. It was just all a part of making stuff to eat, even the kitchen failures. The final dishes weren't dressed and styled the way present-day cooking programs gussy up their food. Granted, we expect that presentation now. It would seem unprofessional to have a simple, fluffy omelet not garnished with shreds of fresh parsley, sitting in the backdrop of a picturesque French country farm kitchen backlit by hidden studio lamps. When Julia Child made that omelet, it sure didn't look like that, but when you watch her old episodes of Julia Child and Company or Dinner at Julia's, you're reminded that this is what real food looks like. You saw it prepared from start to finish, no fancy editing or set dressers required. Don't fuss with photos, Twitter, or checking in on Foursquare, just effing eat and enjoy!
I wonder what Julia Child would think of the way food has become a part of pop culture and a social identity. I think she would appreciate the farm-to-table movement and the growing popularity of farmers markets across the country. I think she would roll her eyes at all the damn cupcake television series. Much like Martha's carefully constructed croquembouche, she would probably find molecular gastronomy tiresome and fussy. But I don't think she'd discourage any of it, because much like the path she took, she didn't do any of it because she wanted to be famous, she just wanted to be happy. So if you've found your bliss making five hundred red velvet cupcakes and playing with your food in a centrifuge, get down with your bad self.
Remembering Julia Child is a grounding experience. It centers you, like a really good hot yoga class and sometimes hits you in the face like a coffee mug full of bourbon. You think about the role food has in your life, and if you're being true to your own practice. I can only answer for myself, which is to say an active involvement in food is something I genuinely enjoy and it forces me to constantly learn new things. I'm not going to obsess over finding rare ingredients or filling my shelves with more gadgets to further separate myself from the part I love best, which is eating. But I do appreciate how meals are a means to engage in a dialogue that spans across professions, background and position. Whatever you do and wherever you are on the supposed social chain, everyone has to eat, and our resources all come from the same places, so we all have to do our part to be mindful. It behooves us to not be more educated over food preparation, and true to Julia Child's wisdom, it isn't difficult to cook a meal from scratch. There is no shame in having a simple omelet for dinner, and don't hold back on savoring every bite, because you know that's what JC would do. Don't forget the glass of sherry.