So, as promised, I’m making this recipe tonight, and the house smells like garlic and parsley. It’s fun to cook from a cookbook, or to mimic the technique of Julia Child. But there’s a special pleasure in making something you’ve made many times before, that your hands know how to make, for which (if you’re me) you don’t bother measuring, you just throw in the amount of this and that that “feels right” and trust it will all work out.
The gift of Julia Child (one of the many gifts of this confident, self-actualized woman) is that she made intricate, traditional, intimidating dishes into something accessible. She transformed them from fussy recipes, full of steps and warnings, to a felt process that anyone who paid attention could experience. Well, you had to do more than pay attention — you had to risk failure, and you’d certainly see some failure; but Julia was never afraid of failure, because you learn from failure and pick the chicken up off the floor, or toss out the failed soufflé, and start again, better equipped not to fail the next time.
Last night we watched one of the episodes of Julia Child’s “The French Chef,” which was conceived in Boston in 1962, a few years before I was born, and premiered on WGBH late that year. I thought the early episodes had been lost, taped over back in the days before anyone thought up “syndication”; but apparently someone found them, and they’re available on DVD and on Amazon streaming video. Shot in one take, in a Boston Gas demonstration kitchen, on two cameras powered by a diesel generator in a Trailways bus behind the studio, this is not “Iron Chef” — the blurry black-and-white picture barely shows anything clearly but Child’s cheery face and whatever it is her hands are doing. But there’s nothing else worth looking at anyway, is there? In the episode we watched, in which Child explained how to make a quiche, I actually learned how to make a quiche, start to finish, complete with tips that will be useful the next time I bake anything. I didn’t have to take notes, didn’t have to write anything down — and I have a reasonable expectation that I could make a quiche right now, out of ingredients I already have in my kitchen, and it would look good and taste better.
In reflecting on that episode, it occurs to me that Child was good at teaching cooking, but she was better at teaching mastery– at transmitting the sense that if you simply paid attention, you would have the right to claim ownership of something new. It’s not coincidental that the great book behind which she was the motivating force and the principal contributor was entitled Mastering the Art of French Cooking — not Learning the Art of French Cooking, or 1001 French Recipes, but Mastering.
That is the talent of a great teacher — not that she or he shows you how to do something, but that she or he transmits the skills and the confidence, and the sense of proportion, that you need in order to own that thing.
There’s much more to the story of this incredible woman, who started with some liabilities (being seen in her own context as tall and ungainly and not particularly pretty, in a prosperous but unimaginative family whose women weren’t expected to do particularly much) and through force of character turned herself into a happy and deeply fulfilled person who lived an unusually interesting life. (Before her food career, she and her husband were essentially Cold War spies in Europe — you can read all about that in her exceptional memoir, or, if you must, in that movie.) I found myself within one degree of separation of Julia Child in the late 1980s (I knew people who dined at her home, which was in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near where I lived), and I wish I’d taken the opportunities that came within reach to meet her.