Though Julia Child was a cooking teacher, what she really taught was how to be alive. She lived until she was 91, mocking Atkins, Ornish and anyone else who believed that a slice of French bread or a pat of butter would kill you.
It was her intensity that made me love her long before I liked to cook. As so many cowardly loves do, mine started under the pretense of camp--that I was at least half mocking her, as Dan Aykroyd did on Saturday Night Live. The first time I saw her, the TV must have been on PBS when my dad left the room. There she was, a 6-ft. 2-in. matronly woman with a warbling New England--inflected accent that Katharine Hepburn would have found snobby. And yet, even to my teenage brain, she was clearly a badass. She explained sides of beef by pointing to her own body. She tore at suckling-pig ribs with her giant bare hands. She never edited out any of her mistakes, showing you how to fix them, live with them or bluff. She dropped stuff on the floor, wiped it off and said, "Remember, you're all alone in the kitchen, and no one can see you." She was the Lee Marvin of cooking.
When revolutionaries win, it's hard to remember that they were once the minority: George Washington is a portrait on the dollar bill instead of a shoeless guerrilla on a raft. But Child was a rebel. She fought against everyone who believed in living correctly instead of well. She first fought against recipes that called for the culinary ease of prepackaged powdered soup and then the dietary benefits of defatted cheese. "Fake food--I mean those patented substances chemically flavored and mechanically bulked out to kill the appetite and deceive the gut--is unnatural, almost immoral, a bane to good eating and good cooking," she said. "I just hate health food."
She fought for women to be taken seriously as chefs instead of just cooks preparing family meals. And she fought against the snobbery that says French cooking is refined and complicated and for the rich, instead applying French techniques generously and sloppily to local American ingredients. She flambeed with insouciance. And unlike most other revolutionaries, she had a sense of humor. She was famous at her alma mater, Smith College, for her practical jokes, like placing an alarm clock inside an organ and setting it to go off during an assembly. For Smith, that's pretty good stuff.
She wasn't just fighting against a bad meal. She was fighting, in the 1950s, the entire post--Industrial Revolution naivete that believed technology was inherently good and would free us from our earthly constraints. She saved us from washing down powdered dinners with Tang. She rescued meat from the cannery and vegetables from the freezer. At great cost to herself, she refused to endorse any packaged food products. She wanted to show that simple, natural pleasures can be pretty great.