Julia Child died today in Santa Barbara, California at the age of 91.
Serious foodies and those of us old enough to remember her first television appearances know that Julia revolutionized cooking in America. Her television career began in Boston in 1963, and for those of us who grew up back in the day, French cuisine was the height of culinary sophistication. Her book, The French Chef Cookbook, based on that first television series, was actually the first cookbook I ever bought for myself. As I sought to expand my own range beyond the dishes I learned from my mother, Julia had a huge influence on my subsequent development as a serious home cook.
Julia’s popularity also paved the way for the current fascination that the food-loving American public has with celebrity chefs, although she herself never cooked professionally (as in behind a restaurant stove). Today’s crop of chef superstars typically head up their own restaurant empires and endeavor to translate their professional skills to the home kitchen. Julia started out in the home kitchen and stayed there, teaching us that quality ingredients and a little attention to detail could yield results that would elevate mealtime to something special. She also refused to march lock-step with whatever the culinary fad of the day happened to be; instead, she counseled moderation in all things and continued to cook with the rich ingredients that many modern-day chefs were trying to do without as classical French cuisine fell from favor. She came to her career in her middle years, starting her first television show at the age of 50, so she deserves credit for having the courage to take a different path in life at an age when many people feel compelled to maintain their personal status quo.
My own feelings about food are very personal; cooking is an important part of who I am, and an important part of where I came from. My mother was my earliest teacher, and the things I learned to cook as a young girl are still in many ways the most important dishes in my repertoire. The act of preparing a meal for family or friends is an act of love, one that we can renew every day. Sharing that meal is an important way to build and maintain the bonds that hold us to each other. The level of discourse about food in America has risen from an early preoccupation with convenience to the current interest in fresh, healthful ingredients well-prepared and flavored with an abundance of ethnic influences. Thank you, Julia, for starting the conversation.