All About Julia

by Emily Contois

Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard University

Drawing record crowds, Siting Julia, a day-long symposium hosted by the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard explored three sites of Julia’s life: Post–World War II Paris; Cambridge, Massachusetts; and national television. From the symposium, I’ve put together four key attributes that speakers felt contributed to Julia’s legacy:

Her Personality 

Keynote speaker Laura Shapiro (author of Perfection SaladSomething from the Oven, and Julia Child) recounted what Paul Child called “Juliafication” — the phenomenon by which Julia’s warmth and attention lit up those around her. While many speakers discussed Julia’s caring, generosity, and sense of humor, Dana Polan (professor of Cinema Studies at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts and author of Julia Child’s “The French Chef”) credits Julia’s personality for her success on television. And Lisa AbendTIME correspondent in Spain, argues that we have Julia to thank for transforming food into entertainment.

Her Love of Learning

Julia was the eternal student. Alex Prud’homme (Julia’s grandnephew and coauthor with her of My Life in France) spoke of how even at the age of 91, Julia was planning her next project — from learning to butcher in Chicago to teaching children to cook.

Michela Larson, a longtime restaurateur in Cambridge and Boston, told of Julia counseling one of her cooks, saying one does not have to go to culinary school to learn about food. The experience of cooking, working with food and under noted chefs, carried just as much weight with her. Julia’s own commitment to learning influenced her belief that cooking can be taught, a tenet central to her books and television shows.

Her Moderate Approach to Food

While Julia is often heralded for her focus on fresh ingredients, her ideas on food were far ranging, often diverging from those currently endorsed by foodies and alternative food movement advocates. For example, she found organic food elitist, thought McDonald’s French fries and Burger King hamburgers were the best, argued we ought not to worry about GMOs, and supported MSG. Julia did not see the point in vegetarianism, and according to Jane Thompson, who equipped Julia Child’s television kitchen and came to know her well, Julia once told her hair dresser, “I’m a card carrying carnivore. I eat anything and everything in moderation.”

Her Contributions to Women’s Issues

Keynote speaker Laura Shapiro, argued that Julia Child taught Americans to not belittle women in their domestic roles, and that her legacy is how she created a new way to be a woman that included a kitchen. Dorothy Shore Zinberg, an astoundingly well-rounded academic who was one of Julia’s Cambridge friends and neighbors, contended that Cambridge was a ripe environment for Julia because Cambridge was a town full of unemployed and underemployed women with PhDs who cooked and loved food as an intellectual outlet.

Julia Child began cooking on television the same year that Betty Friedan published The Feminine Mystique. Both women stand as key figures engaging in women’s issues, albeit in different ways. As artifacts of an amazing woman, Julia Child’s books, papers, and television shows now tell us the story of a woman who found her destiny and chose to fulfill it in the kitchen. So often credited with elevating food in America, Julia also elevated cooking and the women who do it.

Emily is a current gastronomy student and graduate assistant. Check out her research in food studies, nutrition, and public health on her blog, emilycontois.com

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One thought on “All About Julia

  1. I really wish I could have been there. Julia is a fascinating topic on so many levels. I probably among the few who literally grew up with her from infancy to adulthood, watching every episode as it appeared on TV. And loving it at every age.

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