Julia Child, Andrew Carnegie, my mother, and me

I am certain that I have said this before, but, as it is a special occasion, Julia Child’s 100th birthday, it bears repeating. That is, I learned the fine art of cooking from watching Julia Child on PBS. Back then, the only thing on PBS was and endless stream of bad lessons which were not only filmed in black and white, but seemed to be all one shade of gray. Julia’s show had interest and personality and was one of the few with some degree of contrast!

I began cooking under the influence and guidance of my mother. She let each one of us stand by her in the kitchen to watch and occasionally help, when other mothers were pushing their little darlings out the door to play, just to get them out from under foot in the kitchen. Although my mother was a fine southern family cook, no one can come close to her fried chicken, and she certainly inspired in me and my brother and sister the desire to cook, there was a level of cooking which sometimes escaped her. Sometimes, she took the shortcuts that many cooks of the sixties were encouraged to do. Can you blame her if the cherries in her Cherries Jubilee sometimes came from a can at a winter dinner party? She was busy, very busy. She made most of my sister’s and my wardrobes well into our college days. She certainly didn’t shy away from a cooking challenge. She set that Cherries Jubilee aflame with the brandy she carefully warmed, doing this for one of the dinner parties she held in our tiny ranch home with no real dining room.

I ordered the recipe from the PBS station on which I watched Julia for the very first time. I believe it was Vichyssoise. This soup instantly turned me into a potato soup lover, when I had turned up my nose at it before. Watching her show inspired me to scour the library in my hometown library, for more cookbooks. In this quest I found a surprising cook book acquired in the days when the library was a Carnegie Library. I can’t remember if it was by Escoffier or Carême, though I am leaning toward the former.  I can’t remember the recipe I tried, though I know I tried at least one, an ambitious task for a child not yet out of grade school. I do remember that the cover was unadorned and the recipes  were completely lacking in pictures and, frankly, lacking in clear instructions.  A lot of guessing was required just to make the simplest item. Inspired by Julia’s confidence, I dove in and tried.

Back in that time, in the naissance of a movement encouraging women to learn more and imagine their lives beyond the restrictions of an earlier age, we could point to her with pride. Then, when so many of the boys sneered that none of the great chefs were women, we had Julia. Julia’s words spoke to so many women, prompting many of us to cook using fresh ingredients and others to train to become chefs.

Yes, she was our icon and our mentor, but she was so much more. Julia taught us all as a mother would, letting us stand by her as she cooked, encouraging us to be try new techniques and foods, admonishing us not to despair when the omelet flopped. Happy Birthday, Julia, you inspired a generation.


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