2000s Archive

The Accidental Purist

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We’re sitting on her small back patio, soaking up the warm spring sun and munching on the multicolored Goldfish she’s put out, when a very loud machine begins to rumble and then spews water over the roof and onto the awning directly above us. Her perm is covered in a halo of mist, but she carries on just as she did that time decades ago when the potato pancake she was flipping legendarily missed the pan and flopped onto the stove. “You can always pick it up,” she told viewers as she put it back into the pan. “Who is going to see?”

Those who know Child say they’ve never seen her lose her cool. She can be curt when displeased, and she does nurse a few grudges just to keep up her game, but she’s not mean and she isn’t known to yell. Incompetence annoys her, as do vertical food, nouvelle cuisine, overly reduced sauces, crunchy vegetables, and anything no-fat. (“It’s not food,” she says of the last. “It’s a process.”)

Culinarily, she’s a stickler but not a snob. She loves Chinese cooking, especially that of Martin Yan, and prefers In-N-Out Burgers to McDonald’s. (Mickey D’s french fries, she says, were admirable “until the nutritionists took the animal fat out of the oil.”) She approves of genetic modification (“We have an ever-growing population and we have to feed them some way”); opposes humanely raised veal (“It hasn’t any of the tenderness or the real milk-fed flavor”); and is an unashamed evangelist for butter and cream. French cooking is still her pleasure, she says, “mainly because it’s carefully done by people who know what they’re doing.”

Of all the virtues, Child favors perfectionism, and she expects the same of others. “Remember Jeff Smith, the Frugal Gourmet, who could never find anything on the counter?” asks Morash. “Julia is the opposite of that. She always knows where everything is and how much of it she’s using. And if something doesn’t work, she spends a lot of time getting it right.”

Child devoted no less than two years to unearthing the secret of good, crusty, slightly sour French bread. At first she thought the problem lay in the differences between American and French flours, yeasts, and water. Finally, in 1967, she went to France to study with that country’s leading baker, Raymond Calvel. “It’s the folding,” she exclaimed in a letter to Judith Jones. “It’s all in the forming of the loaf!”

When Jones asked her to include a recipe for cassoulet in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Child responded with something that filled six pages in the published volume and included a procedure for making homemade garlic sausage. “She had studied five tomes, going back a hundred years, on the perfect proportions,” says Jones. “And all her notes were pinned on a wall. That’s how she worked. She never guessed. She put it to the test.”

In Child’s living room, where we have relocated for lunch, there’s a library stocked with a few hundred titles and an old wood-paneled TV that suggests how little she actually watches. She was never a couch potato, even in her heyday. Still, she’s curious about the food stars who have followed in her footsteps, so together we view a few tapes.

Nigella Lawson she finds “very appealing.” Tyler Florence “seems like a real person, very attractive.” (Though she takes issue with the 425-degree temperature at which he roasts a chicken. “You can start at 425, but you must go down to 325.”) Barefoot Contessa Ina Garten? She “hasn’t any charm,” she says, “though I’d probably eat her food.” Child says she didn’t warm to Martha Stewart when the two did a show together, though she does admire her efficiency. As for Jamie Oliver, she is baffled. “The show moves so quickly, and I just can’t see what he has to offer.” I explain that he’s all about making cooking doable. “Well,” she replies, “I tried to make things doable, too. Maybe I should have called my show The Naked French Chef.”

But Child never had to resort to such tactics. The wealth she inherited enabled her to remain devoted to public television throughout her career. (For years, she returned 10 percent of her income to the station that gave her a start). In doing so, she maintained the freedom to prepare whatever food she liked, be it tripe or kidneys, and to endorse only those products she adored. She donated her house in Cambridge to Smith College, and her original kitchen is preserved in the Smithsonian Institution. The museum took everything, including the paper clips in her drawers, exactly as she had left them. When I ask if that included recipes, she looks at me as if I am insane. “Recipes don’t go in kitchen drawers! They go in files, upstairs in the office.”

It appears that Julia Child is one of those rare creatures who have remained true to their craft with little regard for celebrity and the money and fame that attend it. Her motivation was solely to learn about food and then teach people about it. Says Morash: “We were once doing deals on home videos and posters, and Julia said, ‘Do whatever you think is right. We’re not in it for the money.’ At which point Paul turned to her. ‘Julia,’ he said, ‘we do not eschew money.’ It was the only time I heard him get stern with her.”

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