On the issue of Martha Stewart versus Julia Child, the world is clearly divided into two camps. Perhaps you love Martha -- her freakishly neat ways, her ability to strangle the warmth out of homemaking, the artificially manufactured twinkle in her eye. Or perhaps you love Julia -- the hooting voice, the happily sloppy technique, her naughty humor. For those who are wavering between the two, the path to righteousness was made clear this week, when Ms. Robotic Perfectpants was sued for allegedly trading on some insider stock tips and Julia had her kitchen enshrined at the Smithsonian Institution.
OK, so I'm a little biased. But who wouldn't be? The two are polar opposites who somehow stem from the same tradition, and truth and goodness can clearly lie with only one of them. Where Julia is a food revolutionary who tore down the barriers between home chef and fine dining, Martha has put them back up, turning what is homey and accessible -- quilts, cakes and flowers -- into works of insanely fussed-over art. Julia was the original mother of the cooking show, and she took obscure, unhelpful cookbook writing to wonderfully clear, approachable and zesty heights. Martha has followed in Julia's footsteps with a TV gig and numerous cookbooks, but where is the warmth, the genuine eye-popping pleasure in beauty and food? She clearly doesn't take that pleasure in writing, either -- her prose is as dry as a Wasa wafer.
Thank goodness that Julia came along first, or American home chefs might have died from inferiority complexes. When most moms (not many dads in the kitchen back then) were making revolting meatballs in grape jelly and ketchup sauce and "green rice ring mold," Julia was starting to introduce such marvels as puff pastry, pâté and a nicely done beef bourguignon to the American kitchen. She brought French food down from its snooty heights and made it good, messy fun.
As a fellow Julia fan says, "She made really high quality, dignified food but in a very down-to-earth manner, and she reminded me of my grandmother. But my grandmother made meat loaf."
Julia didn't start off as a chef, however. Born in Pasadena, Calif., she graduated from Smith College in 1934. Like Martha, who worked as a stockbroker, Julia found employment that was distinctly unfeminine at the time: She worked for the Office of Strategic Services, the predecessor to the CIA. After her husband, Paul Child, began work for the U.S. Information Service at the American Embassy in Paris, Julia turned her attention to cooking and began studying at the Cordon Bleu. Soon thereafter (in 1961), she produced one of her great masterpieces, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which led to cooking shows on PBS.
Julia's Cambridge, Mass., kitchen served as the set for her shows, and her fans can now gawk at that same kitchen while visiting the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History. Much of it is familiar to those who watched her TV shows: the turquoise cabinets, the huge array of knives stuck to wall-mounted magnetic bars and the heart-shaped cookie cutters. The countertops stand at 38 inches, two inches higher than usual, to accommodate Childs' 6-foot-2-inch frame. Her giant stove hunkers in the corner, the site of two years of experimentation with 284 pounds of flour for a French bread recipe that Julia was determined to get just right for her American audiences.
But as fun as the kitchen is, it's Julia herself who draws the most people, clustered around a video screen to watch a documentary about the famous chef. There you can see Julia in her full glory, shambling, quavering, sloshing eggs about, and delivering witticisms and tart comments. This is the lady, after all, who declared that keeping a happy husband involved the three F's: feeding, flattering and she never specified the last. The no-fat frenzy of recent years received this Julia put-down: "Anything that says 'healthy' I stay away from," she said, before hypothesizing that relinquishing fat would lead to frightful health consequences. "Giving up butter, for instance, means that in about two years you will be covered in dandruff," she said. Julia is wonderfully mortal no matter how expert she is on aspects of butchery or pastry making. When she dropped a potato pancake on her countertop, she told the camera, "You just scoop it back into the pan. Remember, you are alone in the kitchen and nobody can see you."
A flip through her cookbooks reveals how Julia is equally at home in her prose. She's one of those food writers who turns out recipes that are as fun to read as they are to make. In The Way to Cook, the Julia Child book I own, she makes special note of "the rooti-ti-toots" that beans may bring on, and suggests soaking one cup of beans in 10 cups of water "for antiflatulence." She has tips on taking the burps out of cucumber consumption, and writes a special section on how to flambé with dramatic flair.
But it's her remark on making pâté brisée that I like the best: "B.T.F.P. -- Before the Food Processor -- it was only the practiced cook who produced decent pastry dough. And what a to-do it was ... all done by that practiced cook with an infuriatingly calm smile of superiority." (Martha, anyone?) Julia goes on: "That wonderful F.P. machine enables any one of us to make perfect pastry dough every time. We are thus, with our own triumphant smiles, instantly masters of the quiche, the tart, the turnover, countless hors d'oeuvre niblets, to say nothing of the chicken pot pie." Only Julia would bring herself down to our level, the home cook swimming in butter and great clouds of spilled flour. And only Julia could finish off a list of the fancy food possibilities of a pâté brisee with a reminder that it also produces something as homey and comforting as a chicken potpie.
(If there's one thing we know about comment trolls, it's that they're lazy)