Ah, Julia Child. The happy hooting, the knowing yet sloppy kitchen technique, the stevedore shoulders and ribald sense of humor -- Child is in the news again as the Julia half of Nora Ephron's latest film, Julie & Julia, and the subject of Michael Pollan's recent paean in The New York Times Magazine.
Why is Child in the spotlight again five years after her death? Child was a larger-than-life personality, in both her 6-foot-2-inch stature and in her influence -- she pioneered the TV cooking show and took the fear factor out of French food. But even more than this, as Pollan asserts, she's become a potent symbol of our nation's nostalgia for real cooking, which we both pine for and do precious little of in our lives.
Pollan, the author of The Omnivore's Dilemma and the de-facto face of the resurgent food movement, celebrates Child as the high priestess of cooking done for its own sake. "Child was less interested in making it fast or easy than making it right, because cooking for her was so much more than a means to a meal," he writes. "It was a gratifying, even ennobling sort of work, engaging both the mind and the muscles. You didn't do it to please a husband or impress guests; you did it to please yourself."
In Ephron's film, cooking is a similarly ennobling practice -- one that gives shape and meaning to lives in drift. A bored housewife in 1950s Paris, Child is shown casting about desperately for "something to dooooo," as she yodels (brilliantly embodied by Meryl Streep), fussing with hatmaking before taking culinary school by storm. Julie Powell (Amy Adams), a beleaguered civil servant, seeks out the structured salvation of "something you have to do, every day, one day at a time" by deciding to cook and blog her way through Child's great Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
I can see how cooking can become an art and a calling. I think of it as alchemy, a physical practice of an abstract skill in transforming whatever we're given to work with -- literally and otherwise. I can use this kind of purple prose to talk about cooking not only because I love it but because I'm footloose and fancy-free -- I'm single, childless, and have enough economic security to engage in bourgeois salivating over the joy of culinary experimentation. Simply put, I don't have to cook unless I want to, nor do I have to cook anything but what I want. The truth is it's difficult to conceive of cooking being a calling if you have to do it every day on a budget, for demanding audiences like children. (Julia and Julie are both childless, not surprisingly.)
While he hasn't forgotten the plight of those who cook to feed their families more than their own artistic souls, Pollan seems to lay a disproportionate amount of the blame for our increasingly canned, frozen, and hastily assembled meals on those who already carry a disproportionate amount of the responsibility for providing them. Pollan primarily faults ever-present advertising for our convenience-food reliant meals, but women's participation in the work force has also played a part, he argues, as have some unhelpful second-wave feminists who left the joy of cooking "thoughtlessly trampled in their rush to get women out of the kitchen." After giving women a good prod -- and failing to analyze why it is that men still only cook 13 percent of family meals -- Pollan tries to even things out with an egalitarian call to arms to battle our obesity-causing, socially isolating, Hungry Man eating ways: Everyone should get back into the kitchen.
And everyone should cook like Julia, it seems. The shows of "Rachael Ray, Paula Deen, Sandra Lee -- tend to be aimed at stay-at-home moms who are in a hurry and eager to please. … These shows stress quick results, shortcuts and superconvenience but never the sort of pleasure -- physical and mental -- that Julia Child took in the work of cooking. … In this, she strikes me as a more liberated figure than many of the women who have followed her on television," Pollan writes.
For many a food snob, Rachael Ray is a noxious perkinator who disrespects the low smoking point of extra-virgin olive oil or EVOO, as she calls it, but she deserves real kudos for helping moms perform the monumental and thankless task of putting up a tasty dinner on the table day after day. Disliking the make-it-easy cooking style of Rachael Ray has become a sort of shibboleth into the world of foodie-ism, however -- and it smacks of the casual sexist divide in the culinary world, where "women's cooking" is considered sparrow-brown, utilitarian work done for free, while men's involvement brings cultural cachet and economic reward. Child herself, held up as a feminist icon, certainly seemed to value men in the culinary world. When William Rice became the food editor of The Washington Post in 1972, she trumpeted, "I'm all for having MEN in these positions; it immediately lifts it out of the housewifery Dullsville category and into the important things of life!" More than 30 years after Child's comment, men still get paid to helm the kitchen, engage in the sort of gladiatorial antics of Iron Chef and other spectator-sport food shows, and whip food into what others consider art far more often than women get to.
What does it take to make a more egalitarian kitchen in American homes and restaurants? Ephron's film provides some surprising answers, if only in typical rom-com guise. While the Julie sections pale in comparison to the Julia Child sequences, the scenes of the Childs' intertwined but also independent lives are deeply moving -- and inspiring. Streep and Stanley Tucci play the unconventional couple with a warmth that is nearly tactile. Paul Child leads his own life but is also unstinting in his support of his wife's unusual raison d'etre, even seems to revel in it. What does it take for a partner -- or a society -- to recognize, cherish, and make time and space for women's lives, work, and art?
If Pollan were more of a feminist, he'd be calling for what Virginia Woolf might have termed a kitchen of one's own, where cooking is a creative work of love done for oneself. But a scaffolding of support is necessary for such a space -- not only love but all the material conditions of a living wage, sound child care, and humane working hours. This would allow a truly shared division of housework -- for women and men to have the chance to play in the kitchen and experience the joy of creative work, if they so desire. This kitchen of one's own should be a place a woman can leave and a man can preside over -- after all, why should only women be the protectors of a lost culinary idyll?
It should be a place where a woman could have the luxury of blowing up dinner if she wants to try something new or where she can just throw something together to feed the family -- and still have her efforts recognized if not as high art, then as fundamental and important labor even if not made perfectly from scratch. And it should be a place where a woman can develop her culinary voice toward the goal of being a professional, well-compensated chef and not just be stuck in the purgatory of "women's cooking." Talking about the preconditions for this kitchen of one's own may not be as sexy and toothsome as Child's signature boeuf bourguignon, but the idea of those sorts of partners, and that sort of world, is delicious to contemplate and just as deserving of Child's TV signoff, her battle cry, her celebratory toast -- bon appetit.