Julia Child’s Supporting Characters Become the Main Course of a Well-Researched Narrative



Julia Child is having a moment right now. Celebrating his exuberant personality and influential oeuvre, which helped change attitudes toward cooking and eating in post-war North America, we have a recent documentary (2021’s Julia), as well as a new dramatized series (also called Julia and streamed on Crave).

This final entry in Child’s bibliography is thorough and detailed, sometimes great fun but sometimes a little dry. If you’re new to Julia worship, you might want to start with something more general, with a little more whoosh. For Julia completists, however, this well-researched work, which involves a careful sorting of primary sources, will be essential reading.


Julia Child warming up

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Julia Child warming up

Helen Lefkowitz Horowitz conveys a keen sense of Julia Child’s talent for cooking, her passionate perseverance and determination, and her keen business acumen. But the American cultural historian goes against the so-called Great Man Theory – or even the Great Woman Theory – of history, to expand its scope.

According to Horowitz, two of Julia’s greatest assets were her genius for friendship and her gift for collaboration. In a sense, Julia Child warming up tells us about her central figure by telling us about six key figures who surrounded and supported her — what Horowitz calls “Julia’s team” — first while she was working on the groundbreaking cookbook Master the art of French cuisine and later in his breakthrough television show, The French cook.

“In the beginning there was Paul,” writes Horowitz. Paul Child was a creative, encouraging and adoring spouse, and in a reversal of the usual gender dynamics of the 1950s and 1960s, his work often supported his wife’s professional career. Simone (Simca) Beck was Julia’s French collaborator. When everything was going well, Julia called her “our sister [sister] – but better than a blood sister, because you’re our choice.” When things weren’t going well, like when the two argued about something like adding bread to pistou soupSimca was “an old goat”.

Avis DeVoto, who began writing to Julia as part of her husband’s quest for a truly sharp kitchen knife, developed a close friendship with Julia before they met in person. Judith Jones and Bill Koshland both worked at Julia’s publishing house, while Ruth Lockwood was a producer at WGBH, the Boston-based public broadcaster.

Horowitz gives a sense of the larger cultural context, but she mainly emphasizes the close interactions of her characters, largely through their correspondence, with letters filled with idiosyncratic expressions, period slang fun and frequent misspellings by Paul and Julia. (The term “[sic](gets a good workout here.) The book’s 20 pages of endnotes are nearly all references to letters, especially the voluminous amount of mail flowing between Julia and Simca, Avis and Julia, and Paul and his twin brother Charlie .

We see Julia and her team taking the rigor and long tradition of French cuisine and translating it for the supermarkets and kitchens of the American cook – the “servantless” cook, as Julia has often pointed out. It wasn’t always easy, like when Simca wondered how you could make cassoulet without goose confit, or Julia struggled with the recipe for a very simple but also very delicate rolled omelette.

As Horowitz follows what has become a 10-year back-and-forth process, many readers might wonder why is this cookbook taking so long? Or maybe even why is this cookbook book taking so long, when the middle section of Horowitz falls into a lull.

And ironically, for a book about a book that has been endlessly edited, corrected, checked and debated, Warming up could have used another time. There are a few repetitions of quotes every few pages and occasional spelling mistakes (Cordon “Blue” instead of “Bleu”).

Yet Horowitz ends with a bang, going from cookbook to wild live-TV adventure, in which Julia’s chirpy delivery and magnificent handling of her occasional misfires and failures have endeared her to audiences. .

With her television show, suggests Horowitz, Julia Child would become not just a cooking authority, but a beloved personality, “known and remembered simply as ‘Julia'”.

Alison Gillmor failed to make Julia’s infamous 14-second rolled omelette.


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Alison Gilmor

Alison Gilmor
Writer

A student at the University of Winnipeg and later at York University in Toronto, Alison Gillmor considered becoming an art historian. She eventually caught the journalism bug when she started as a visual arts critic at the Winnipeg Free Press in 1992.