With the help of The Daily Meal Council, we have selected ten key figures in the history of food to honor this year in our Hall of Fame. Here, Council member Christopher Hirsheimer — photographer, writer, partner in Canal House, and co-founder of Saveur — explains why the legendary Julia Child belongs on the roster.
Recently I've been watching the very first episodes of Julia Child’s classic television cooking show, The French Chef. Based on her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the series launched in 1963, over 50 years ago, so the quality of the footage is a murky, grainy black-and-white. The quality of the show's star, though, is bright, clear, and colorful, as she leads us into a new world through cooking and eating.
Julia Child (1912–2004) loved the food she was cooking, and her joy and enthusiasm were, and still are, irresistible. For her first show, she demonstrated boeuf bourguignon. What had seemed like a fancy restaurant dish turned out to be an example of good French home cooking. Even today, as I watch her brown the meat, peel the small onions, and add the red wine and mushrooms — the "vin rouge et champignons" (she translated the English into French in her distinctive, cultured voice as she went) — I can't wait to run right into the kitchen and start cooking.To employ a now overused word, Julia was authentic.
Julia — it seems impossible to think of her as "Child" — shares knowledge (how to tell when a mushroom is fresh, the best cut of beef for this stew) and demonstrates techniques (how to deglaze a pan), and these lessons stick with you. Her recipes aren’t made up — they're classic. She never changes a dish to add her own signature. Thus, when we cook and eat her recipes we ingest a whole culture: This is what France tastes like. To employ a now overused word, Julia was authentic.
Why, after all this time, and with so many (too many) slick, exciting (too exciting) cooking shows on the air, has Julia endured? To begin with, she was a pioneer, and that always matters. The pioneer heads into the unknown and must rely on herself to find the way. And she seemed fearless. During the World War II, Julia was in a plane flying “over the hump” (the Eastern Himalayas), a very hazardous flight at the time. While the plane swooped and shook and other passengers prayed for their lives, she calmly read a book.
Julia was courageous, with a great sense of curiosity that led her to these adventures. She shared her expanded knowledge of the world, and showed us a way into French culture through food. She is an icon worthy of our veneration because she was the real thing. She wasn’t angling for a restaurant or sponsorship deal. Her intent was pure — to share and spread her message of home cooking, French style. We trust her motives, so we can open our hearts to her.
Then there's the delicious real food that she taught us to cook for ourselves. That’s the greatest. Nothing quick, simple, or fast about it. It requires effort, but Julia assumes we are up to the task. And who would ever want to disappoint Julia?
I was lucky enough to photograph the book Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, published in 1999, when Child was 87 years old. It was based on a television series of the same name, filmed in her famous green kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts. (That kitchen is now installed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.) I was there to catch some behind the scenes shots. Child sat with her famous book editor, Judith Jones, and me at her big dining room table, discussing the book and having a late lunch. I was all eyes and ears as their conversation wandered through past and present, embroidered with names like "Mary Frances" (M.F.K. Fisher), Jacques Pépin, and Claudia Roden.
At the end of the long day, my assistant and I said good night after packing up our equipment. We were heading out the door when Julia inquired, “Where are you having dinner tonight?” “We thought we’d try the Blue Room,” we answered. “Oh, that sounds like fun," Julia replied. "Mind if we come along?” It was too good to be true, but we all jumped into my little car and sped off. As we walked from the car to the restaurant, my assistant asked if anyone minded if she had a cigarette. Julia replied, “Not at all. When we were your age, we all smoked like fish!” Such a fun and funny thing to say, so open and permissive that I never forgot it.
During the whole meal, Julia was graciously curious, inquiring about our lives, our work, what and where we liked to eat. And, of course, what we cooked. That’s how she stayed so young — through generosity and curiosity. That’s why she is so worthy and beloved. She showed us how to cook, but she taught us so much more.