Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Birthday Julia!

Today is Julia Child's birthday.  Had she still been alive, she would have celebrated her centennial birthday today.

When I look back on it, Julia Child was instrumental in inspiring me to get into the kitchen and cook.  My earliest memories of Julia revolve around watching her on our old black and white rabbit eared television creating dishes I couldn't even begin to understand.  Despite my young age, I was mesmerized by her distinctively haughty voice as she instructed us on the finer intricacies of cooking. (This was in the days before the advent of cable television so WGBH was one the four channels our television was capable of receiving).  There was something about watching The French Chef on the fuzzy screen that made me want to cook.  At my young age, none of my dishes would have passed muster with Julia; a particularly memorable pan of taffy like candy comes to mind when I think of my earliest culinary disasters......

Although I didn't know it at the time, Julia was so much more than a cook or a public television personality.  She received a degree from Smith College (which, as a Mount Holyoke College alum, I must say, is nothing to sneeze at).  After graduation she joined the OSS where she met her husband Paul.  Together they travelled the world; he worked for the United States Information Agency and she was an early "trailing spouse."  Her desire to break out of the monotony of her life as a foreign service spouse and find her own identity drove her to enroll in cooking school at the Cordon Bleu during a Paris posting and eventually go on to write her first cookbook.  Settling back in Cambridge, Massachusetts after Paul's retirement, it was then Julia's turn to shine as her culinary career took off with Paul supporting her aspirations and efforts.

In time, Julia Child became an unlikely American icon.  Within the first week of it's opening, I visited the Julia Child Kitchen exhibit at the Smithsonian Museum of American History in Washington, DC.  During that initial visit there were so many people crowding into the display area that it was virtually impossible to take in the eclectic tools that lined the kitchen's walls.  Visitors included people old enough to remember her show during its original broadcasts and those who only knew of the Julia legend.  I've made several subsequent visits to the exhibit- after all I lived three short Metro stops away from the museum for over a year.  Each time I returned I noticed new details about the kitchen and gadgets that I hadn't remembered from previous trips.  Some items were kitchen classics- her Kitchen Aid stand mixer that inspired generations of brides to add the item to their registries (I did but I also use mine on a weekly basis) while others were obscure- to this day I don't know the purpose of several of the items hanging from those pegged walls.  Simple wire whisks and wooden spoons reiterate the idea that fancy gadgets and appliances while nice, are not necessary for creating memorable cooking.

My interest in Julia never quite matched that of the "other" Julie who became famous for blogging about Julia Child and her voluminous Mastering The Art of French CookingJulie and Julia was one of the few movies I ran out to see when it was released in theaters.  I saw it again when it was released on Netflix.  As it seems to be staple on the AFN movie channel, I have seen reruns more times than I can count.  The story of both Julie Powell the author and Julia Child the chef give me hope that I too, will someday take the plunge and turn my hobby into something that I am passionate about (and pays the bills).

As I have grown older, my love of food and cooking has only increased.  Over time my repertoire has moved far beyond that disastrous taffy incident.  Whether it be pastries, entrees, or appetizers, I love to tweak recipes and make them my own.  I spend hours thinking about the perfect dishes to serve at dinners and receptions.  Experimental dishes are a staple on our weekly dinner menus.  The only limit is the ingredients I can find on the store shelves (which in Albania, is indeed limiting at times).  I find myself subscribing to  numerous cooking magazines and my cookbook shelf has turned into a full bookcase and outgrown its dedicated space in the kitchen.  I love the early Food Network shows, where cooks actually cooked without the competitiveness and drama that dominates today's reality t.v. cooking.  I've spent hours browsing through Williams Sonoma and Sur La Table catalogs, websites, and when accessible, stores, dreaming about the culinary masterpieces I could create.  We may not know what our dream house looks like but I know for sure what the design and layout of the kitchen will be.

Yes, Julia Child inspired me, and millions of others, to go into the kitchen and just cook.  But her inspiration runs much deeper than the pounds of butter she is famous for.  Despite the obstacles placed in her way, she followed her dream.  She fought stereotypes and refused to fit into the mold that was prescribed by the time and her social class.  While finding her own way she supported her husband who in turn, supported her efforts.   And that is truly inspirational.  Thank you and Happy Birthday Julia!

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