This week — specifically August 15th, Wednesday — would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. Huzzah! In this post-“Julie and Julia” world, it seems that everyone and their mom is at least vaguely familiar with the woman behind “The French Chef,” America’s introduction to French cooking, fine food, and the joy of what Julia called “cookery” in the kitchen. This author, television host, world traveler, former OSS-operative (no, seriously) and beloved wife of Paul and friend to millions of fans worldwide is my culinary hero, and deserves a heckuva celebration for her illustrious centennial.
Julia was, more than anyone else in her time, a hero to us “budding chefs.” She herself — as detailed in her lovely memoir with Alex Prud’homme, “My Life in France” (currently residing on my Kindle) — was a budding chef during her early days in Paris with Paul, between 1948 and 1953. Determined to explore something new, frightening and altogether invigorating, Julia took to the stove, table and countertop, taking classes at Paris’ famed Le Cordon Bleu. Eventually learning enough to write her famed tome “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” with friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Julia became a household name by teaching home chefs that they, too, can rise above the drudgery of microwaved this and store-bought that. Give it a try. Make it yourself. Don’t be afraid. You’ve got guts — you can do it!
My favorite piece of advice in “My Life in France” is when she reminds us, as chefs, to “Never Apologize.” Here’s a passage from pg. 90 of the book that, I think, illustrates this perfectly:
“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-proclaimed 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 [oh well, too bad]! Usually one’s cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile … then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile — and learn from her mistakes.”
How can YOU celebrate Julia’s 100th birthday this week? Try any of these fun ideas, my little budding chefs. I’ll be running a few features all week in celebration of Julia, including, perhaps, some French cookery of my own.
- Watch “Julie and Julia,” and — inspired by Julie Powell’s quest to cook her way through “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” — whip up some boeuf bourguignon yourself!
- Find clips of “The French Chef” on Youtube — or even just Dan Ackroyd’s hilarious parody of Julia’s cute, lilting accent and eccentric ways. The internet is a magical place, friends, where you can find pretty much anything.
- Visit the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History (or just their web site), which is spearheading their own 100th Birthday Celebration. They formerly — and, I believe, soon-to-be permanently — housed Julia’s Cambridge, MA kitchen. I saw it in 2010, and while I didn’t leave a stick of butter behind like Julie Powell, I did my best to pay tribute to this American treasure by snapping photos like a madwoman.
- Try something NEW, make it for someone you love — or yourslef! — and even if it turns out to be a hot, steaming plate of holy crapola, tant pis! Never apologize!
- Shop at a farmer’s market or outdoor market. Talk to your vendors. Get to know them and their produce. Build relationships — Julia’s biggest tip for successful food shopping is, as she called it in French, les human relations — with camaraderie and respect. See what looks good, experiment, and go for it!
Bon appetit, indeed.