The market for tributes to Julia Child is a crowded one, but on the 100th anniversary of her birth, here's mine:
My interest in cooking began, more or less, with a second-hand copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that I picked up at a used bookstore in a sun-bleached strip mall near my home in Orlando, Florida in about 1995. Like any suburban high school kid who fancies himself an aesthete, I spent a lot of time grasping at marks of sophistication in those days. My idea of refinement came to include, among other things: reading the first chapters of several Faulkner novels, imbibing lots of beat poetry, owning a copy of Frasier's The Golden Bough, and — where food was concerned — cooking from Julia Child.
Later, when I went on to a fancy college in the Northeast and encountered the far more current vogue for organic, local food as epitomized by Alice Waters, I was an eager recruit. But I remember the feeling of disappointment that crept up as I gradually realized the difference between Waters' cookbooks and my batter-stained edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Child gave readers permission to use, say, canned mushrooms or frozen spinach in a pinch; what was important was that you get in the kitchen and make something marvelous. Cooking, in her world, was fundamentally an act of transformation. But Waters and her many disciples, in their focus on the fresh ingredient above all, turned cooking into something that was really, fundamentally, about a rather different act: shopping.
For all the good that has come from the rise in consciousness about organic, local food, it can easily veer into a morally-freighted form of conspicuous consumption. Which is not to say that cooking with Julia Child was ever, um, inconspicuous. She certainly gave readers of her cookbooks the tools to show off, and the dishes I cooked from her pages were often ostentatious. But for a college student from the suburbs with little money and a lot of time on his hands, it was somehow affirming to operate under the assumption that great meals are made, not born.
Postscript: Julia Child spent her last years living in Santa Barbara. Today, over lunch, I rode my bike over to her favorite taqueria, which has enjoyed a thriving business thanks to her endorsement. Sadly, it was closed for the day: