We all know the public Julia Child, the woman who opened American kitchens to a world beyond mere meatloaf and boring boiled beef. On TV she charmed us, but what was she like off camera?
Nancy Verde Barr has recently released an insightful biography based on her memoirs of over 25 years as both Julia’s professional colleague and personal friend. Well worth the read (and owning), Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child shares the little known stories and details that explain Julia’s remarkable personality and success.
Julia was unique and a later bloomer. It is rather, perhaps, more accurate to say that Julia gathered many skills early in her life that would serve as the groundwork for her later successes.
First off, she had a very loving mother who always told her very tall (6 feet 2 inches!) daughter that she was wonderful and could do anything she set her mind to. In short, Julia grew up in a loving AND positive environment where life was seen as a great and glorious adventure. Julia would carry that bright outlook with her throughout her entire life.
Julia also grew up in California and loved sports. She was athletic and determined. She played until the game was over or the race run. She did not give up. She stuck with a task or sport until done. This too would serve her well in later life.
In addition to these two advantages, Julia was very organized. While working for the Office of Strategic Services (forerunner of the modern CIA) during the Second World War, she was responsible for organizing the many secret documents then crisscrossing her desk in Ceylon.
That is where she also met her future husband Paul, who was the man who not only introduced Julia to the world of French cooking but also understood the many dormant talents of this amazing woman.
Together as a team, they would change cooking in America. Yes, as a team. Paul referred to himself as the “unseen part of the iceberg”. Together they created the format for the food shows that we now see on nearly every food channel. Many of the photos that captured the joy of life that Julia shared with us all were taken by Paul.
Together they designed and laid out her kitchen in Cambridge, MA. And what a kitchen it was. A vast array of pots and pans hug on pegboards where their shape was outlined with a black marker. That way they could (and better be) put back where they belong so they could easily be found again. Even the many knives were easily accessible from a magnetic strip attached to the wall in descending order of size from smallest to largest. (Are you getting a sense of Julia’s love of order and structure here?)
But less you think that all was organization and structure, Julia also understood that failure was part of learning – and she did it all with a smile. In her kitchen she hung a sign humorous sign that read: “I wasn’t there. I didn’t do it. It was the little people”.
But Julia didn’t really think that anyone was “little” or beneath her. While she asked her staff to keep EOTism (Eye On the Target) ever in their minds, she also firmly believed in a WYSIWG philosophy (What You See Is What You Get).
Being real was key in her life at home and at work. She did not like the waste and clutter of magazine insert cards but sent a town car to pick up her hard working (and devoted) staff when on location. She cared.
She laughed when the chicken fell on the floor instead of the counter cutting board and never believed in guilt. Her only statement of fame in her hometown was to tape a wooden spoon to the antenna of her little red car.
She loved to toss things – rolls, omelettes, fish – it was all such fun. And because it was fun she laughed and laughed. And, of course, we had to join her and laugh, too.
“Can’t” wasn’t in her vocabulary. Rather she believed in “If I can do it, so can you”.
In Nancy Verde Barr’s delightful book we are reminded how much we are like Julia. We each have our limitations and our talents, our hopes of what the future might be.
But when all the dishes are washed and the pans put away, Julia’s greatest gift to us might not be just her culinary talents, but also her fearless love of life. She never gave up. She pushed past her fears into a life of creativity and sharing.
Here's a toast to you Julia (and Paul) for your courage and a great Love that lasted a lifetime!
Your Culinary World copyright Ana Kinkaid/Peter Schlagel 2010