Fifty years ago this week, a program debuted on a public television station in Boston that revolutionized home cooking.
“The French Chef,” the brainchild of California-born and French-trained culinarian Julia Child, was audacious in its timing.
In an era when American housewives were being offered “liberation” from cooking in the form of frozen meals, packaged cake mixes and dump-cuisine recipes in ladies magazines featuring Jell-O, Spam and food coloring, here came Child insisting that anyone could master classic French recipes. “Don’t be afraid!” was her motto.
On-air mistakes were not edited out but viewed as learning opportunities as Child coaxed nervous non-cooks to relax rather than stress out in the kitchen.
“The best way to execute French cooking is to get good and loaded and whack the hell out of a chicken,” she said.
That famous quote reveals Child’s singular gift: She encouraged would-be cooks to take on complicated tasks, such as butchering whole chickens, with great respect for the technique but an equal dedication to enjoying the process.
Most of today’s famous TV cooks fall down on one or the other of those qualities, in my book. They either take themselves too seriously or, more commonly, perpetrate the myth that memorable meals can be thrown together easily, with a minimum of effort and in 30 minutes or less.
Sometimes fast and easy can be tasty: A rare rib-eye steak is a perfect thing. But I wouldn’t want to eat it with a microwaved potato or salad out of a plastic bag with bottled dressing.
So baking a russet potato in the oven for 90 minutes and making a real Caesar salad in a wooden bowl rubbed with fresh garlic, etc., etc., can turn a simple steak dinner into an all-afternoon affair if I am in charge.
Sadly, two years before Child died in 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday, she was forced to endure the dreadful “Julie & Julia” blog that ignited like a grease fire in the media.
The popularity of Julie Powell’s account of her hackneyed effort to cook every recipe in Child’s classic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is a depressing testament to the current state of our national obsession with cooking, which too often values novelty over competency.
Child never met Powell, which speaks volumes. If there were any doubt about how Child felt about having her meticulously developed recipes botched for cheap laughs, an interview in Publishers Weekly with her longtime editor and friend Judith Jones erased it.
“Julia said, ‘I don’t think she’s a serious cook,’” Jones said. “Flinging around four-letter words when cooking isn’t attractive, to me or Julia. She didn’t want to endorse it. What came through on the blog was somebody who was doing it almost for the sake of a stunt.”
Not that Child didn’t embrace the dramatic. But her larger-than-life antics – such as the famous time she told viewers, “When you flip anything, you have to have the courage of your convictions” before proceeding to fling half the potatoes out of the skillet and onto the stove – were always in service of true learning, never crass mugging for the cameras.
Child was a staunch defender of real food and a fierce critic of people who sought to take the joy out of eating, a recurring plague in America, probably rooted in our Puritanical past.
“I think one of the terrible things today is that people have this deathly fear of food: fear of eggs, say, or fear of butter,” Child said.
She refused to even use the word “margarine,” referring instead on her show to “that other spread.”
One of her most famous quotes is, “If you’re afraid of butter, use cream.”
Child had a scientific mind, always willing to experiment with using a food processor or blender to save time but only if there was no sacrifice in quality.
In a letter to her friend Avis DeVoto, Child once described having subjected her husband to “the most miserable lunch” of frozen haddock in a white-wine-shallot sauce, frozen green beans and Minute Rice. She was gamely experimenting to see if convenience products could be incorporated into her recipes and, unlike one current TV chef, decided the answer was often “no.”
“It is just no fun to eat that stuff no matter how many French touches or methods you put to it,” she wrote. “It ain’t French, it ain’t good, and the hell with it.”
If only today’s celebrity chefs were as interested in rigorous testing and the primacy of the highest quality ingredients and exquisite flavor as they are with hairstyles and trademark phrases.
Of course some TV cooks are much better than others. But for every Lidia Bastianich, there’s a Guy Fieri, and for every Alton Brown, a Paula Deen.
As an unapologetic optimist, I think about how the lust for spectacle and buffoonery that characterized popular entertainment in the Middle Ages was followed by a period of refinement and reverence for knowledge and beauty in the Renaissance.
So I’m hopeful there could be a shift from the sensational to the sublime in the next generation of food television shows.
Until that day, I’ll stick to DVDs of the 50-year-old program whose grainy black-and-white images could not dim the incandescent brilliance of the greatest TV cook of all time.