Before there was Emeril Lagasse or Gordon Ramsay, or any other TV-reared chef, there was Julia Child. She made complex French cooking accessible, and she did it with honest passion and likeability. When Chef Matt and I watched Julie and Julia for the first time last week, I was struck by the masterful combination of talent and coincidence that paved the way for her transformation of the culinary world.
In some ways, she had much in common with many other chefs. She was gifted, she adored food, and she was tenacious. I loved the scene in which the uncomparable Meryl Streep portrayed Child chopping mounds of onions, both to perfect her technique and to keep pace with her male classmates, as well as the scene where a beautifully prepared bit of fish brought her close to tears. I recognized both of those reactions.
But it was Child's life circumstances that allowed her talent to see the light of day in ways that elude 99 percent of chefs. First, she was unwillingly childless. As a historian, I shrink from speculation, but I think the presence of a child would have shifted her attention and perhaps her iconic status would not have come to be. It is difficult enough to have children while working the world of food, but for a woman in the 1950s, even one of Child's determined demeanor, a revolutionary cookbook would likely have taken a backseat.
Second, she lived in Paris and studied at a legendary institution with renowned chefs. Such a culinary upbringing would certainly do wonders for most budding cooks.
Third, and nearest to my heart, was the support of her husband, Paul. I watched with interest and understanding as Paul Child nurtured her great love of food and acted as an anchor during her long, arduous journey to Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Food was a merciless business even then, and Paul Child embraced his wife's destiny with grace. As a modern-day Kitchen Widow, I admit that such grace comes to me, at times, with difficulty. My support, much like Matt's cooking technique, is always a work in progress.
It is likely that our fortunes will not follow the Childs' path. But Julia Child, however unattainable her fame, showed chefs the way to an entirely possible career outcome: You can cook, and do it well, and do it with ferocity and love.
And for me, the lesson came from Paul Child: Your spouse's attachment to knives and sauces and butter is worthy of relentless support, and will surely keep you well-fed in the process.