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Julia Child | Cooking With Flair

Julia Child | Cooking With Flair
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A Yankee Classic from November 1979.

Julia Child in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen
Photo/Art by Associated Press
Julia Child in her Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen

“When we were first married,” Paul Child says, “Julia was always hungry, but she didn’t know enough about cooking to do anything about it.” With him as her incentive, she took a crash program in learning French, and then immersed herself in cooking lessons in Paris where they were living. Since then she has been doing her own culinary thing with steadily increasing confidence and command.

Some say she could coat the most abysmal meal with a layer of cheese, put it under the broiler for a few minutes, and present it as if it were ambrosia fit for the gods. Likely as not, it would be.

In popularizing the art of good eating, Julia Child has demonstrated to millions of stay-at-home cooks that a certain devil-may-care attitude and dram of humor are nearly as essential as the raw materials all cooks deal with regularly. As with her traditional TV sign-off — a raised glass and a jaunty “Bon appetit” — Julia inspires confidence, even among those who have never felt an urge for culinary derring-do.

Julia Child has perfected the art of good teaching as well. She captures the attention with her energy and her somehow outrageous naturalness. Her husband calls her a clown, a ham even, and Julia doesn’t deny the charge. “When one is a teacher,” she says, smiling, “haven’t you found it so?”

Her recipes tend to be long because they are written with such precision, but they do allow more seasoned cooks to scan directions they do not need. Because of the method of theme and variations — an approach she carefully developed to communicate her information easily to others — many cooks claim her recipes are nearly foolproof.

“She’s a creative artist,” Paul Child explains, “dedicated to making an imprecise art more precise.”

An example of this is Julia’s Strawberry Souffle No. 29. She was determined such a dish could be concocted as a sweet dessert. Her recipe worked well enough for one of her televised cooking lessons. But soon after it was aired, a flood of letters poured into the studio. It seemed her recipe was not infallible. It might have had something to do with the moisture content of the strawberries, so Julia went back to her own kitchen and tried it again. It took 29 attempts before she was entirely satisfied.

Just as there are basics which must be mastered in order to succeed as a cook, there are some skills that are now performed better by mechanical aids. Although Julia Child makes her own bread, she prefers to use a dough hook attached to a commercial-size mixer to do the kneading. “Some people go on and on about how necessary it is to knead bread by hand, to get the feel of it through their fingers, up through their arms, and down their spines — as if their soul is more important than their taste. I use every mechanical aid possible to make cooking easy.”

But she also accents basics like careful shopping for economy and quality and keeping fresh foods fresh. (“Never refrigerate a tomato; it stops the sugar process. You can’t ripen a fresh pineapple; it will get softer but never ripen from the day it’s harvested; pick it carefully at the fruit store.”) And she does insist on presenting things with a flair.

In surely what must be an all-time film classic — as understated as the best of Charlie Chaplin — in the mid-1960s millions watched her show fascinated while she absently fondled a suckling pig under one arm as if it were some strange house pet, cleaning its snout and ears with a towel, brushing its teeth. And all the time, straight on camera without the glimmer of a smile, she talked about the steps it takes to prepare a whole pig for the oven. Her performance convinced us it is a common thing to do for a special occasion, that the satisfaction to be had from eating roast suckling pig will be staggering if one is only willing to follow her simple lead.

Ruth Lockwood, her producer now for the past 12 years, says, “Julia wants to show you how to do things properly. And if something goes wrong — which it does from time to time with all of us — she wants to make you feel confident enough to correct it. She wants to help other cooks eliminate the worry and fear of failure.”

One result of this demystifying process and of exposing the art of good cooking to a mass audience is that Julia Child has put fun and satisfaction back into the American kitchen.

Updated Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

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One Response to Julia Child | Cooking With Flair

  1. teri gerrard August 10, 2009 at 2:14 pm #

    I can agree with Julia’s idea of using the dough hook for kneading bread now, but when I was in high school and always baking. I went to my grandmothers one weekend mad at my boyfriend, made up a lot of bread and the kneading and pounding on the bread dough really was a good anger management tool and the bread was a lot better too. Try it sometime; I haven’t made bread in sometime but since I am now unemployed it might relive my stress.

    Teri Gerrard

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