03 Nov 2009
In Julie & Julia, Meryl Streep plays Julia Child, the American chef who introduced French cuisine to her compatriots in the 1960s. “I never met her,” says Streep, “but got a cranky letter from her once, when I wrote to her and tried to enlist her help with my work in the early Slow Food movement back in 1989.”
Here we publish a profile of Child that we found in the Slow Food archives.
Edith Green accidentally burned a meringue pie on her television cooking show in the early 1950s, and she instantly became San Francisco’s talk of the town. Her audience, primarily affluent housewives, showered her with letters of praise and appreciation. Americans have been eating up televised food shows – both educational and entertaining – for fifty years.
In Northern California, the years between 1948 and 1955 marked the heyday of local television. This was a period of black and white television with sharp picture definition and programs locally conceived and produced. With an absence of network programming from New York and Los Angeles, which came in heavy doses a few years later, television shows had a distinctive hometown flavor.
From its launch in 1949, San Francisco’s KRON TV pioneered televising chefs and cooking. While television stations in other parts of the USA aired food programs featuring home economists in starched lab coats lecturing mechanically about the four basic food groups, KRON created a daily show featuring Edith Green, a 45-year-old native San Franciscan who had lived in a French canton in Switzerland before World War I. Edith learned to cook from her family’s French housekeeper. During the Depression years, she taught cooking in her San Francisco home, helping women cope creatively with the shortages of food and shrinking household budgets.
In 1949, she accepted the offer to star in a daily television show, Your Home Kitchen, aired live every afternoon, Monday through Friday for eight successful years. Her friendly, humorous and practical approach explains her popularity. Her audience was cosmopolitan, and her cooking sparkled with continental flavor.
She appealed to a generation of American women disconnected from their culinary roots in the Old World and under a barrage of advertising from New World food processing and manufacturing. Food companies, using production and packaging technologies invented during the second world war, had introduced the “TV dinner”, a frozen dish of leathery meat, salty gravy, mushy potatoes and soggy vegetables served in a portable, disposable aluminum tray – a meal designed to be eaten in front of the television set.
While Edith Green was teaching San Franciscans to cook rhubarb, sauté scallops and prepare Veal Marengo, the food world’s soon-to-be television super star, Julia Child, was in Paris reading Escoffier, studying at Cordon Bleu and doing all manner of research on French culinary technique. Her vision was to bring the pleasures of French food to the American table by translating French cooking vocabulary into recipes and instructions for novice and accomplished cooks in the USA. Her biographer, Noël Riley Fitch, describes Julia as “a pioneer of pleasure in a Puritan country”.
By the 1960’s, the American diet was loaded with instant food, packaged mixes, canned fruits, frozen fish sticks and condensed soups. Our pots and pans were lightweight and thin; our spoons and spatulas, plastic. Along came six-foot tall, 50-year-old Julia with her whisk, mortar, sieve, copper bowl and a cookbook masterpiece: Mastering the Art of French Cooking by Beck, Bertholle and Child. The book is subtitled The only cookbook that explains how to create authentic French dishes in American kitchens with American foods.
WGBH, educational television in Boston, invited Julia to talk about her book on a television show that reviewed new publications. Doubting that she could fill the 30 minute program with words, she brought along some eggs, a whisk, an omelet pan and a hot plate. Her television career, and the demystification of French cooking in America, began with this book review and an omelet. By 1963, her television program, The French Chef, produced by WGBH, was syndicated to 96 TV stations. She taught us to chop an onion quickly, to make beurre blanc, to debone a duck and to make mayonnaise by hand, all revelations. She taught us how to pronounce aubergines and clafoutis.
Her expertise and easy manner won over a large, diverse audience of housewives, fraternity boys, brides-to-be and aspiring chefs. Julia’s warmth and unique delivery transfixed even youngsters who tuned into educational television to watch children’s programming; two-year-olds were toasting bon appétit from their high chairs.
Seeing herself as primarily an educator, albeit an entertaining one, Julia Child stayed the course and refused offers to move from WGBH, a public broadcasting station, to commercial TV. She has awarded a percentage of her book royalties to educational television.
“Julia” is a household word that Americans equate with excellence in food and wine (and an occasional burning potholder or collapsing soufflé). Today, at age eighty-six, she is an icon who inspires us to share mealtime with our families, to dine rather than feed, to enjoy wine with dinner and to learn basic cooking techniques to use with fresh, seasonal foods. Her favorite ingredient continues to be butter. When asked to describe her favorite comfort food, she replies, “Red meat and gin”. Bon appétit.
First published in Slow magazine no. 15.
Barbara Bowman, USA, co-founded Slow Food Sonoma County in 1997 and helped start the Slow Food Russian River and Sonoma Valley convivia. She has served on the Slow Food national and international boards.
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