What I've Learned From Julia Child
On the Saturday following Julia child's death, I was in the bathroom of a restaurant and I overheard the following conversation. The woman in the first stall said, "I'm so stupid. I tried to make myself a piece of salmon for dinner and I had no idea what to do. So I put it in the pan to saute it, but I hadn't put any oil in so it all stuck to the pan. I didn't know how long to cook it, so I let it cook until it was practically burned!" The woman in the second stall said, "No big deal! Did you know that Julia Child didn't learn how to cook until she was thirty-six years old?" The first woman, the salmon torcher, emerged from the stall with a huge smile on her face. "I'll be thirty-five on my next birthday," she said. Her friend emerged from the stall next to her and said, "See, you could be the next Julia Child. You could change the face of cooking."
The whole conversation made me smile because it was indicative of so many things that I've been thinking about: How we beat ourselves up over the tiniest things, about the primal role food plays in our lives, and how much Julia Child has taught us not only about food but also about life. It seems like the older we get, the higher the bar is raised. I remember, as a child, being so impressed by all the whiz kids that I'd read about in the news: gymnasts and ballet dancers, chess players and piano prodigies. I honestly remember thinking, at the age of eleven, that if only I applied myself then maybe I could do something with my life! Even when I ended up going to college at the age of sixteen, I still felt only average. At the early college I attended, half of the college freshmen were fifteen. The year I started college, there were two fourteen-year-old freshmen and one who was just thirteen. At sixteen, I was practically a remedial first-year college student!
Julia Child's The Way to Cook has been a staple of my adult life. I turn to it the way I imagine that a 1950s housewife would ring up her mother. How do you steam an artichoke? How long do you boil an ear of corn? What exactly does it mean to poach a piece of fish? Whenever a direction in a recipe was puzzling, I opened The Way to Cook and "asked" Julia. In the months since Julia Child passed away, I've been digging into her life and learning about more than cooking. "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear" is an old Zen saying. And as I get into the thick of my thirties—the years when Julia Child got married, learned how to cook, found her true calling—I'm assured that the wisdom of the Zen saying is true. Piano prodigies and Russian gymnasts be damned, I love the idea that for both myself and the girl I overheard in the bathroom, the ride, the real roller coaster ride of life, is just about to begin. So in the unscientific and unflinchingly honest way that she heralded, here are just a few of the things that I have learned from Julia Child.
Lesson 1: Hang on to your friends.
Long before she taught the world how to cook and became in the manner of all great personalities, the kind of figure that a million strangers thought of as a friend, Julia Child was the center of a vibrant social circle. Rosemary Mannell, who served as a kind of sous chef on Julia's first public television show, The French Chef, had known Julia and her husband since 1949 when they all lived in France. Paul Child and Rosemary's husband, Abram, were in the Foreign Service together. The two couples became a sort of gourmet club, getting together for frequent dinners at the Childs' apartment on the Rue de l'Universite or at the Mannells' on the Ile St-Louis. Elizabeth Bishop, another one of the sous chefs on Julia's show, once told a friend, "Cooking is the least of it. You know in a funny way, I feel closer to Julia than I do to anyone. Of course, I'm closer to Jack [Bishop] and the children, but there are things I could say to her that I couldn't say to anyone else."
There were other friends. Simca Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom Julia started Les Ecole de Trois Gourmands, the small, private cooking school that they ran out of the Childs' Paris apartment. There was Avis DeVoto, who served as an informal editor for Julia's first, groundbreaking book. "We both liked to write letters," DeVoto told an interviewer. "There was a lot to write about. The McCarthy thing was heating up in Washington. Julia and Paul were both rather frightened by it. Sometimes we'd write each other three or four times a week."
I love this, because I am so over e-mail. At any given time, I find myself fifty to a hundred messages behind. If I am especially busy, my in-box swells to five hundred, and it becomes impossible for me to pick out the wheat—a missive from a beloved friend, news of a baby born or a new job, or a fond "remember when"—from all the chaff, the department store sale updates, the sure-fire investment advice, and offers for Internet porn. I try to write letters because I like getting something in the mail besides bills and junk, and I imagine that my friends feel the same. I try to send paper birthday cards for the same reason. I water the gardens of my relationships the best way I know how because, like Julia, I want to have fifty-year-old friendships one day.
What to do, though, about the weeding of such gardens? I cannot let a friendship go. Do not ask me to do it. Sometimes, when I get to the point where I know a friendship must end but I am too jelly-bellied to do it, the universe performs the amputation for me. I move or my friend moves, and there are no hard feelings. But sometimes, a friendship lingers on and on and then what to do?
There is no manual for breaking up with a friend. Therapists, religious leaders, wise women, and elders guide us through the dissolution of romantic relationships and marriage, but there is no high court of friendship to legally and permanently break its bonds. Without this guidance, the ailing friendships in my life break up in fits of pent-up fury and frustration. In the last ten years, I have broken up—or been dumped—by three dear friends. Every case involved tears; hundreds of dollars' worth of therapy; a film festival of sappy chick flicks; and an elementary school girl's conviction that if I were prettier, more popular, and less of a "super freak," the friendship would still be intact. This tremendously mature life view has been highlighted only by the fact that I am highly resistant to change. At every social gathering, my internal MP3 player blasts the same track over and over again: "No new friends. No new friends." Honestly, I never got the whole "Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver, and the other's gold" business. Who wants silver when you've got gold?
Lately though, I have been wondering whether this passion I have for my old friends, as flawed as each one of us may be, could be chalked up to something more than my being bullheaded and stubborn. The older I get, the more I value my friends as witnesses to the girl I once was and the young woman I'll never be again. As my life becomes more settled, I want to look into a friend's eyes and see the me that danced on top of bars, drove a convertible through the desert in Mexico, and unabashedly wore blue eye shadow on my chocolate brown skin. As I become increasingly comfortable with a certain level of success, I want to hold on to the friends who know how hard I worked to get here, the ones who stop me mid-sentence when my humility veers into a kind of disingenuous, self-flagellating deprecation.
I look around my apartment at the gifts my friends have given me. Treasured books that represent shared passions like Laurie King's The Beekeeper's Apprentice, recipes scrawled in familiar handwriting, Depression-era glass found by a friend who has an eye for such things—and I do not want the objects I own to outlast the friendships they sprung from. Which is why during a recent break-up with a friend, I decided no, I could not, did not, want to lose this friend. Maybe we won't pal around every weekend, maybe we shouldn't send e-mail every day. But I don't want to drive the long way around her house. I don't want to clench my teeth when mutual acquaintances mention her name. She is one of the funniest, smartest, most engaging people I know. And more. To quote Alice Munro, she is a friend of my youth. I want to know her. I want to keep getting to know her, even if it's from the polite distance of a semiannual cup of tea. I want to be in my nineties, like Julia Child, and be able to reminisce with this woman about the lives that we lived. We may not always get along in the present, but I have never not been fascinated by her stories, her jokes, the way she views the world. So I called her, and I begged her. We are two yolks poured into a bowl, I said. Please. Don't ask me to unbeat this egg.
Lesson 2: Laughter makes a woman beautiful.
Julia Child was born Julia McWilliams, in Pasadena, in 1912, to a family of California landowners. Like so many well-heeled girls of her age, she attended Smith College, the women's college. Her mother had been in Smith's class of 1900. Julia entered in 1934, with the vague aspiration of becoming a novelist and a perhaps unstated understanding that her ultimate degree would be an "Mrs." She wrote for the college newspaper, then moved to New York, where she took a job at an advertising firm. "I had a very good time doing virtually nothing," she has said of this time. "There was always lots of fun and laughter." I can imagine Julia carousing around New York in the 1930s to a soundtrack from a Cole Porter musical. Fun and laughter; it's free, it's magical, but it requires effort.
I've known so many miserable people. I have one friend who, whenever I call her, sounds like the somber receptionist at a very busy funeral home. "Hi, how are you?" I say. "Oh, I'm working," she says, in a voice that seems to imply that her work involves the unearthing of small bones in a mass grave in a war-torn land. This particular friend, in fact, has quite a nice job that I happen to know she loves, at an entertainment law firm. Call her at home, and the tone is no different. "Hi, what are you up to this weekend?" I might ask her. "Oh, I'm going to a party," she says. And the tone in her voice implies that she is a soothsayer being lured onto the Titanic.
Full disclosure. I am not a big fan of the phone. Call me at any given time, and I'm liable to answer the phone sounding like the Madwoman of Chaillot: hurried or morose but every once in a while, giggly. (I have a joke with an old friend: When we know it is the other person calling, we answer, "House of Beauty. This is Cutie.") At the same time, I've learned that joy is in the small things: how I answer the phone, how I greet the security guard at my office, how I ride up and down the elevator in my building. In every single moment, every single hour, every single day, I can make the decision to be happy or not. So if I'm having a crap day at work, I can choose to be miserable on the phone or I can be happy that I am on the phone with someone I like—as opposed to in an infernally long meeting with the weasel in accounting—and I can settle into the call and enjoy myself. "Happiness is equilibrium," Tom Stoppard wrote. "Shift your weight."
Scientists say that a smile, even forced or fake, sends a certain happy message to the brain. Sometimes when I am fighting the mean reds, I sit in my office or my kitchen or my bedroom and I smile. If a smile is the happiness equivalent of a cup of coffee, then laughter is a double-shot of espresso. I love it when a friend calls or my husband sends me an e-mail with a funny article and I laugh out loud. "Thank you," I call and tell them. "That was my first laugh of the day." That kind of belly laugh makes me feel lucky, like a gambler whose horse has come out on top at the races. Laughter is the best face lift, says the French writer Veronique Vienne, and when we watched Julia Child (or her British heir-apparent, Nigella Lawson) we're reminded: Laughter makes a woman beautiful.
When I was single and shy, I discovered that I laughed only around my friends. I was working in New York as a journalist and was often invited to swank parties, movie screenings and book launches, and parties at such legendary places as the U.N. and the Rainbow Room. I often met interesting, fascinating men but seemed unable to get them to ask me out. Of course, I thought that this was because I was not pretty, interesting, or fascinating enough. One day, my friend Cassandra, who is a guru of charm and fashion, looked me up and down with a very critical eye. "Have you ever noticed that when you meet a man you like, you scowl?" I was sure she was kidding. "Yes, you scowl. It's as if you were studying for a test." That night, I went home and looked in the bathroom mirror, imagining that I was engrossed in a deep conversation with, say, Kofi Annan. The expression on my face, which I had always imagined to be soft and slightly thoughtful, was actually pained and slightly worried. Some women brood beautifully—Nicole Kidman, Dorothy Dandridge, Ingrid Bergman. I am not, as it turns out, one of those women.
I went back to Cassandra. "You are so right," I told her. "What do I do?" She told me that when I meet a man I like, I should smile. "If he's across the room, then wink," she advised. This filled me with a kind of abject fear. Winking has never been my strong suit. I can only wink with one eye and it is not a sultry, effortless wink. It is the full-faced wink of a Little Rascal sending a message of mischief to one of his Little Rascal friends. Cassandra said that all I needed to do was practice.