Despite the fact that Julia McWilliams Child went to Smith, I am in awe of her (tongue firmly in cheek—there is a long-standing but good-natured rivalry between her alma mater and mine, Mount Holyoke). When Julia first arrived on the shores of France in 1948 with her husband, Paul Child (her adventurous and talented equal), she was served in a small restaurant with what she described as the “most exciting meal of her life”. It was oysters on the half-shell, rounds of ‘pain de seigle’ (a pale rye bread), one of many types of unsalted butter to spread on it, and ‘sole meuniere’, the fish arriving whole and browned in butter sauce. To borrow shamelessly from “Willy Wonka”: the oysters tasted like oysters, the fish tasted like fish, the snozzberries tasted like snozzberries, and the butter! It was the revelation of a mystery; why was this simple food so uniquely satisfying to all her senses? The answer eventually filled more than 700 pages and kept her occupied for the better part of ten years.
Julia Child’s determined pursuit of cookery perfection for what would become “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is amazing when considering that her serendipitous collaboration with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle was done sans the aid of email or Skype. When the women were not in Paris together and a new “foolproof” method of preparation was intuited, or a change considered, they sent letters back and forth. There was always more cooking and research to do; the collected recipes were bolstered by descriptions of techniques and, revolutionarily, the reasoning behind the requirements. All of this presupposed that the “servantless American housewife” would appreciate the knowledge that would bring such rarefied classics as ‘boeuf bourguignon’ and ‘aigo bouido’ (garlic soup) to American tables with American ingredients. Her show, “The French Chef”, on WGBH Public Television from Boston’s Channel 2, was a staple of my grade school-age viewing though none of her recipes ever made it to our table where, I’m sorry to say, Chef Boyardee reigned supreme despite my mother’s best efforts. However, Julia Child’s message to me was clear. Do your very best and if it doesn’t work out quite the way you intended, smile and adjust. Merçi, Julia.