TCS Daily


Pleasures Previously Unknown

By James K. Glassman - August 19, 2004 12:00 AM

A few years ago, when the pundits were drawing up lists of the most influential Americans of the 20th Century, the obvious candidate popped into my head: Julia Child.

Sure, Einstein and FDR were important, but Julia Child improved the way we live, three meals a day every day. She introduced millions to pleasures previously unknown.

Julia Child was a giant - literally, at 6'-2", and figuratively, as a powerful democratizer and demystifier of delicious, sophisticated and sensual French cooking for average Americans. She died Friday [ed: Aug. 13], two days short of her 92nd birthday.

At a time when most Americans had never encountered a croissant or knew how a chicken really ought to taste, Julia Child wrote a series of brilliant cookbooks, starting with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 1961, a model of clarity, rigor and accessibility that became my own lodestar for writing about economics and finance. Then, on PBS television, she launched a groundbreaking cooking show infused with humor and spontaneity.

My worry is that Julia's main message - that eating should be a pleasure, not an exercise in chemical analysis and guilt - is being lost in a country that has become obsessed with carb-counting and, more and more, dominated by the Food Police, the self-styled gang of thin-lipped pseudo-scientists and their pals in the press and the Nanny State, who frighten Americans out of eating anything that gives them joy, from egg rolls to b├ęchamel sauce to omelettes oozing with cheese.

Julia had only disdain for such creepsters. She often talked of her love of McDonald's French fries - though she had second thoughts when the company replaced lard (that is, animal fat, a mainstay of cooking both in France) with healthier vegetable oil. There's nothing better than French fries - not to mention oysters in corn meal - fried in lard, which is still the practice at Casamento's on Magazine Street in New Orleans.

If, however, I had to sum up Julia's cooking style in a single word, it would be "butter." Loads of it. One of my favorite dishes from "Mastering" (vol. 2) is Pommes Anna, which, for six people, includes only two ingredients: three pounds of thinly sliced boiling potatoes and a half-pound of unsalted butter.

She wasn't fat, and she lived a long time (her husband was also a nonagenarian). Her philosophy was that healthy eating is rooted, not in denial, but in pleasure, moderation and exercise. Like the French cooks and eaters she emulated, she wouldn't dream of passing up dessert (plus the cheese course). Fretting about what you put in your mouth shortens your tenure on earth.

Julia Child was born in Pasadena, Calif., went to Smith College, worked briefly in advertising, then joined the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor of the CIA, as a clerk when World War II began. She married Paul Child, a USIA officer, in 1946, and the couple was sent to France, where she learned to cook. The rest is glorious history.

Julia Child was a late bloomer. She wrote "Mastering" at age 48 and made her TV debut till 50. Her last book, "Julia and Jacques: Cooking at Home," written with Jacques Pepin, appeared in 1999.

She was my rock star. As a student in Cambridge, Mass., in the mid-'60s, I would occasionally see her at Savenor's, the small supermarket she frequented, me leaning close to find out what she was ordering from the butcher. My wife and I made "Julia" our second daughter's middle name, in Ms. Child's honor.

Julia Child's great accomplishment was making millions of people happier. What could be a better epitaph? But she showed them that nothing good comes easy and that pleasure is the reward for hard work. Prospective cooks had to be serious about learning the rules before they could improvise, and they had to practice. She showed her readers not merely how to bone a leg of lamb or make a perfect bouillabaisse but also, in her last book, how to fashion a great American hamburger....

Start with a thin (one-fourth-inch) patty of good ground beef, cook it quickly on both sides over high heat, pouring on a little salt. Meanwhile, toast the bun and spread it with butter. Then add thin slices of red onion, ketchup, a little pickle relish, a slice of cheese, two pieces of bacon and a couple of tomato slices, then a dab of mayonnaise. Yum!

James K. Glassman is a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and host of TCSDaily.com.


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