What Julia Child Taught Me About Failure

Julia Child, the grandmother of many of today’s food celebrities, experts, and intrepid bloggers, isn’t nearly as well known as she used to be. Certainly most millennial cooks, be they of the professional or “home” variety, have heard of Julia Child. But how many of us have watched The French Chef or cracked open a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking or any of her other many many books? Most of us are more familiar with popular culture’s still throbbing obsession with impersonating her especially high-pitched voice (she’s one of Modern Family’s Phil Dunphy’s go-to impressions). I remember seeing her for the first time on network television when she appeared as a special guest on Emeril Live. I was struck by how tall and graceful she was, towering over the modestly heighted Emeril Lagasse. I remember thinking, “Wow, all those impersonations I’ve heard of her voice were pretty damn accurate.”

Thanks to a winning combination of internet searches and second-hand book sales, a few years ago I discovered Julia Child’s original suite of media, and let me just say, it’s delightful. Watching The French Chef, I immediately noticed that she’s just as graceful, high-pitched, and tall as she was on Emeril Live, but shot through with a youthful exuberance for life, cooking, and eating. In reading her books, I’m struck time and again by the delicate way in which she writes her recipes, her affection for food coming across even in her directions for something as simple as rolling out dough. Julia Child was many things — cook, teacher, grand influence on American cuisine. One thing she was not, though, was perfect.

In watching her shows and reading her books, what surprised me most was how frequently Julia Child, this goddess of American cookery and culinary media, failed. Omelettes mis-flipped, cakes under-baked, fish whose heads had to be regretfully cut off because they were bought too large for the pan in which they were intended to cook — Julia Child failed, and the evidence of these failures is recorded in both text and television.

Nowadays, though, failure is an allusive reality in food media, a specter that may here and again be suggested to but is never actually apparent. Think about it — could you imagine Martha Stewart, Ina Garten, or any of the pristinely pictured food blogs you visit putting failure on display? We watch these people and visit these blogs, in fact, because we want to avoid failure. If I want to see failure, I can just bake that soufflé, make that reduction, roast that bird my own damn self. No, we want our food media to be manicured, efficient, successful — in a word, perfect. Fail in the test kitchen, Giada; that’s what it’s for. Show me the good shit.

But I wonder, what does this sense of effortless execution mean for the average cook?

One word that I encountered over and over again in Julia Child’s books and shows is “hopefully.” When she pulled a delicate torte out of the oven or attempted to flip some unwieldy omelette, she would routinely say, “Ok, now. Hopefully this should come out [like this].” Julia Child cooked in the subjunctive — wishfully, uncertainly, hopefully. And that’s what cooking in Julia Child’s kitchen, or in your own under her tutelage, was all about — hope, the hope for nourishment with which each of us picks up a skillet, knife, and spatula. Cooking, for Julia Child, was a fundamentally uncertain endeavor that needed the support of skill and technique, yes, but also, it needed hope. It was an endeavor prompted by that universal mandate to eat, structured according to the beautiful senses with which we have been blessed, and wholly shaped by not-infrequent failure. Ms. Child reminded the home chef that cooking was both a necessity and an art, much like life. And like life, it requires effort, lightness, joy, and, again, failure. Beautiful, delicious failure.

In the perfect kitchen, there is no need for hope, because there is no uncertainty, no possibility of failure. In the perfect kitchen cooking is not so much art, which always courts the distinct and looming reality of unsuccess, as it is assembly. Increasingly food media today is not about jumping into the tenuous, loving adventure of trying to feed yourself and those nearest to you. Rather, it is an elaborately enumerated and perfectly pictured set of instructions. More IKEA than cookery. Thank you but, no thank you, contemporary food media. Give me the mistakes, give me the failures, give me the uncertainty and then show me how the right mix of hope, effort, and grace can yield a beautiful, resilient meal anyhow. Show me the art of cooking. Save the perfection for that new bookcase you’re waiting to build.

P.S. In that episode of Emeril Live I mentioned above, Julia and Emeril make a cheese soufflé. In the frenzy they stir up, sharing stories and gushing over each other, they forget to put in the cheese—something they realize only after it’s in the oven. Beautiful, delicious failure.

 

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