Julia Child’s Benedictine-Infused Soul

Julia Child

(Julia Child died four years ago tomorrow, on August 13, 2004. “Julie & Julia,” a film about “The Julia Project,” one of the first food blogs ever, is due out in 2009.)

An upcoming movie, “Julie & Julia,” stars a be-wigged Meryl Streep as Julia and Amy Adams as  depressed and bored NYC secretarial temp Julie Powell. The celluloid promises to be a real trip, hopefully delicious, but likely not.

When I read Julie Powell’s Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen, about how over a year’s time Ms. Powell cooked 524 recipes from Julia’s classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I found myself objecting to the frank lack of homage paid to Julia Child, and the excessive self-absorption of the author. Granted, Julie Powell comments about the sense of community she felt as she opened up her house to her lovelorn friends, stuffing them with the huge meals that came out of her cooking experiments. But rarely does she quote Julia Child or reflect much on Julia’s focus on feeding others. Nor does she delve into other traits of Julia’s that ironically mirror the daily practice of Benedictine monasticism.

Welcoming. Hospitable. Humble. Accepting of everyone as guests.

And those Benedictine traits, especially that of hospitality, defined Julia Child. Hospitality was her vocation, in the larger sense of a spiritual calling. Cooking thus evolved into a spiritual practice for her, creating a connection with the earth and bestowing gifts on those around her.

Although Julia used French cooking as her vehicle for sharing her culinary bounty, she was universal in her approach to both people and cooking. Many journalists loved to interview her, because she cared about making the story a good one for both herself and them.

Her kitchen, tightly organized, every utensil in its place, now stands not in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but Washington, DC, at the Smithsonian, where thousands of curious eyes stare through floor-to-ceiling glass panes and the noses of the persistent and the curious press up against the glass.

One day I stood behind the glass walls, gazing at the pots and pans, the 6-burner Garland gas stove, and the pale blue-green walls. The wooden countertops and the separate butcher’s block witnessed a revolution. Higher than normal, these work spaces were Julia Child’s dream. Looking at the photographs of her in her French apartment kitchen, and seeing how the stove barely comes to her hips, it’s easy to understand her comment, immortalized for years to come on the wall in the Smithsonian version of her kitchen: “If we ever get into the money, I am going to have a kitchen where everything is my height and none of this pygmy stuff.” The blue professional-sized mixer beat thousands of eggs and kneaded hundreds of pounds of dough. Cat paintings still cover the walls. Forty-one gimmicky magnets dot the side of the refrigerator. And two copies of The Joy of Cooking stand cheek by jowl with all of Julia’s major books, first editions from first to last.

In one of her books, The Way to Cook, Julia wrote, “The pleasures of the table—that lovely old-fashioned phrase—depict food as an art form, as a delightful part of civilized life. In spite of food fads, fitness programs, and health concerns, we must never lose sight of a beautifully conceived meal.” Making the kitchen, and not the TV room, the family room became Julia Child’s goal. She worked endlessly to make cooking accessible to home cooks. She never considered herself a chef, but just a plain old home cook.

Food, then, is the very glue that holds us together. Literally and spiritually. Julia Child, although she professed no religion, knew that. Very Benedictine of her, actually.

For Julia, true hospitality meant welcoming the stranger. Her way is a way to remember our shared humanity with all human beings. Eating, cooking, and sharing food together are all things that we all need very much these days when even families, much less strangers, do not eat meals together very often.

In memory of Julia, invite a new acquaintance to a meal this week. Cook the food yourself. Instead of the boxed pizza, learn to make dough—it rests very well in the refrigerator overnight, the pizza sauce you make from real tomatoes or at least the canned Marzano variety beats the jarred variety. Better yet, include your kids, your husband, your friends, your aging mother, and your grumpy neighbor in the act of cooking and eating together. You’ll see magic happen. And remember … once people have eaten together, there are no longer any strangers.

Watch the movie when it comes out, but remember this: Julia’s soul was far too large to be captured in a trendy film. (Or in tiny blog entries, either for that matter!)
© 2008 C. Bertelsen


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