Julia Child introduced French cuisine to Americans

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DAVE DAVIES, HTE:

It’s FRESH AIR. There is a new documentary about Julia Child, who introduced Americans to French cuisine with her 1961 book “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking” and became a public television star who cooked onscreen for four. decades. In this scene from the documentary, Russ Morash, producer at Boston’s public broadcaster WGBH, explains that Julia Child’s show began after she appeared on a book review show to talk about her new book by cooking and making an omelet on the platter.

(EXTRACT FROM DOCUMENTARY, “JULIA: THE DELICIOUS LIFE OF AMERICA’S FIRST FOOD ICN”)

RUSS MORASH: When Julia made her omelet on that first example of her cooking on television …

(EXTRACT FROM THE PHONE RINGING)

MORASH: … The phone started ringing. And the station had a pulse. What a sketch. What a vision of French cuisine. Boy, I think I’ll buy his book when it comes out. Everything was positive and it gave the station management the idea that maybe a TV series could be born from this appearance.

I was summoned to the office. And they said, we would like to try a couple of programs featuring Julia Child cooking. We will do three pilots.

(MUSIC EXTRACT)

DAVIES: The new documentary, “Julia: The Delicious Life Of America’s First Food Icon,” directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is in theaters now. Today we’re going to listen to part of Terry’s interview with Julia Child recorded in 1989. She told Terry about the food she grew up eating in Pasadena, California.

(SOUND EXTRACT FROM ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

JULIA CHILD: I grew up in my teens and the 20s when most people had – middle class people had maids or had somebody to help them. And we had very reasonable New England type food because my mom was from New England – you know, roasts and veg and fresh peas and mashed potatoes. But no one talked a lot about food because it just wasn’t done. And there was no wine served at the table, at least not in my family, which was very conservative. We always ate very well, but we didn’t talk about it.

TERRY GROSS: Well, your family had a cook. Did your mother cook and did you …

CHILD: No, she …

GROSS: … Learn to cook?

CHILD: No, she really didn’t cook at all. She knew how to bake baking powder and Welsh rarebit. That’s all she knew how to do. And I didn’t cook at all at the time.

GROSS: When you graduated from college, you went to New York City hoping to become a novelist or write for a magazine.

CHILD: Where to go …

GROSS: Why did you – yeah?

CHILD: Or write for the New Yorker, at least get into Time or Newsweek. No one wanted me for some strange reason. And then the war came, and I got into the – I went to Washington, and finally I got into the Office of Strategic Services, OSS.

GROSS: Did you want to be a spy?

CHILD: I wanted to be a spy, and I thought I would be a really good spy because no one would think that someone as tall as me could be a spy.

BIG: (Laughs).

CHILD: But of course I ended up doing the office – a menial office job. I was on files all the time. It was actually fascinating as an organization, and at least I knew everything that was going on.

GROSS: Well, you were telling us how being in the OSS got you overseas. You lived in China for some time. I think you have lived for a while in India.

CHILD: Yes. It was Ceylon and China.

GROSS: And then after the war you would tell us that you went to Washington and then went back to Paris – went to Paris and lived there. It was at the end of the 1940s.

CHILD: Mmm hmm.

GROSS: So you ate great food in Paris, food …

CHILD: Oh, it was just wonderful. It was still the old classic cuisine, and it was just delicious. I have never eaten as well as I did back then.

GROSS: Well, how did eating great food make you want to start preparing great food?

CHILD: I was very impressed with the food. And I just, having started cooking after our wedding, I thought I would go to Cordon Bleu. They had sort of classes for what we call cuddly toys. Well, it did – at the same time they had classes for GIs on the Bill of Rights. And I decided after doing a little bit that I would really like to get into the kitchen a lot more seriously so that I could join the GIs. And they didn’t oppose it, fortunately. And we started at 7 a.m. and finished around 11 a.m. Then I would rush home and cook a fancy lunch for my husband, Paul. At that time, the American Embassy followed the two-hour lunch – French lunchtime, so he always came home for lunch. But at the time, two middle-class women did not cook, neither the French nor the Americans. And the French, of course, all had maids. It was the way we lived before the war in the United States.

GROSS: When you co-wrote “Mastering The Art Of French Cooking”, did you see it as a way to introduce Americans to French cooking?

CHILD: Yes. I was hugely interested in French cuisine because it was – it’s the only cuisine that has the real rules of how to cook. And I wanted – I guess I had started quite late. I was about 30 years old when I started cooking. And I found that the recipes in most – all of the books that I had were really not adequate. They haven’t told you enough. And I, for one, won’t do anything unless someone tells me why I’m doing it. So I thought we needed a more complete explanation so that if you were following any of these recipes it should turn out perfectly correct. And that’s why the recipes were very long. But they have all the details. My feeling is that once you know it all and digest it, it becomes part of you.

GROSS: When you came back to the United States and wanted to continue French cuisine, were there any ingredients that you couldn’t find in the United States?

CHILD: No, the – well, there was some difference. I think the cream wasn’t that thick, but it was quite easy to make your own crème fraîche by adding a little buttermilk or heavy cream yogurt and making it thick. And at that time, the cream was very chic. Nowadays, people are afraid of it. But – the flour is different, but you could – because the French – French general flour is softer and more suitable for baking. And you can do this perfectly by using some unbleached all-purpose flour with a little bit of regular bleached cake flour, which softens the gluten content.

GROSS: You got famous in the United States for your cooking show. Were your first concerts live?

CHILD: No. Nothing was live with the first shows because we had a very, very – very strict budget. It was really live on tape. And so once we started, we didn’t stop at all unless there was a terrible disaster. And we only had two or three, I think.

GROSS: Tell me about one of the terrible catastrophes.

CHILD: Well, one time I had – cooked – whitewashed broccoli. And me, it was in a salad basket, which had gone down into a large kettle. And when I picked it up, my fork slipped, and it all fell to the floor. I didn’t pick it up and use it, so we did …

(TO LAUGH)

CHILD: We stopped because it was a mess. But every time we stopped it cost, I mean, several hundred dollars because it always took half an hour to come back, and you had to pay overtime. And another time there was a short on my microphone. And every time I touched the stove, the microphone would go off (vocalizing).

BIG: (Laughs).

CHILD: And I squeezed my chest (laughs). So we had to stop for that. But otherwise we didn’t stop at all, so folks – it’s funny. People would say, well, I saw you drop the chicken on the floor, which of course I never did. All I did was flip a potato pancake on the stove, then put it back in the pan, and I said, well, if you’re all alone in the kitchen, no one will know.

GROSS: So were there often mistakes in the actual show that you would recover from, thinking that …

CHILD: Yes.

GROSS: … well, this sort of thing happens all the time?

CHILD: And I think some people would accuse me of doing things on purpose. But anyone who’s been in the kitchen knows horrible things happen all the time. And you – if you’re a cook, you’ve got to make do with whatever’s going on. I mean, I was cooking just like we normally would at home which I think people liked quite a bit because it was informal and it was the way most people cook at home anyway. .

GROSS: I’m sure you must have seen Dan Aykroyd’s “Saturday Night Live”.

CHILD: Oh, yes. We have a tape of it.

GROSS: And you?

CHILD: It’s a lot of fun.

GROSS: What he always did was take some wine (laughs) until he was really dizzy while he was cooking.

CHILD: And then people accused me of that too. No, I never would. I mean, it’s a – it would be a very awkward thing to do in public, wouldn’t it?

GROSS: I want to ask you what you think of the nouvelle cuisine.

CHILD: The new kitchen is over, I think. But I think it was very helpful in that it freed people from a straitjacket. Then we got into silly seasons and so on. But one thing that was very helpful was paying attention to the appearance of the food on the plate, to make it really appealing. Then I think it gets overkill so something looks like a Japanese flower garden and the food looks like it’s fingered which isn’t appealing. I think the food should look like food, but it should be arranged in a very appetizing way.

GROSS: When you say food looks like fingers, what do you mean?

CHILD: It means like you’ve taken your thumb and somehow wet your thumb and put these little things all around the plate in the shape of petals and so on.

BIG: (Laughs).

CHILD: And that’s – I don’t find that appealing because you know they probably licked their fingers and put them on the plate (laughs).

GROSS: Thank you very much for speaking with us.

CHILD: Well, it’s good to talk to you. Bye.

DAVIES: Julia Child spoke to Terry Gross in 1989. Child passed away in 2004. The new documentary “Julia: The Delicious Life of America’s First Food Icon”, directed by Julie Cohen and Betsy West, is in theaters now. Upcoming, Justin Chang reviews “Licorice Pizza”, Paul Thomas Anderson’s new film. It’s FRESH AIR.

(EXTRACT FROM “GIT IT” BY BOOKER ERVIN) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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