Julia Child’s Children: a Legend’s Small-Screen Culinary Legacy

August 28, 2009
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Margaret Cho, in one of her stand-up routines, compared eating a meal while watching the Food Network to having sex while watching porn.

And she’s right: Tune in to one of the dozens of cooking shows each week on the cable channel and you’ll see lovingly shot (pork) loins, a salaciously bared (chicken) breast and lots of cream–calories be damned. This is food porn at its best.

This feast of tasty television we have today stands in stark contrast to the barren culinary landscape that Julia Child confronted when she tried to alter America’s attitudes on food nearly a half-century ago. At that time, bland home cooking and frozen dinners were de rigueur.

That began to change with Child’s groundbreaking book, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961 and a television show that kicked off shortly after. Child became an American cultural icon, recognized as a towering figure in the kitchen both figuratively and literally (she was 6′ 2″). And she’s experiencing an especially grand renaissance this summer with the Nora Ephron film “Julie & Julia,” starring Meryl Streep as the joyous, effusive, warbling chef. The movie in turn whetted appetites for Child’s classic cookbook, which readers ate up with such voracity that–after decades in print–it finally will top The New York Times’ best-seller list this week in the advice and how-to category.

In the past dozen years or so, the culinary roots Child planted have blossomed on the small screen. It’s no longer just Emeril screaming “Bam!” at his audience each time he grinds pepper on a dish or Martin Yan chopping stuff really fast with a cleaver. In fact, the Food Network has both a daytime lineup featuring cooking-instruction shows and a nighttime lineup of competition- and entertainment-oriented food programs. So you can watch Southern queen Paula Deen whip up one of her deep-fried specials in the afternoon (I once saw her make a bacon cheeseburger served–I kid you not–between two doughnuts) and at night watch a smorgasbord of shows: Alton Brown incorporates science and sustenance in “Good Eats” while “Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives” travels across the country to show that quality cuisine doesn’t come just from a fine-dining establishment. There’s even a show–“The Next Food Network Star”–to crown future generations of cooking personalities. The only show I really can’t stand is “Ace of Cakes” because I’m not fond of the idea of creepy misanthropes handling my baked goods (but that’s probably a topic for another column).

And it’s not just the Food Network that’s getting in on the act–in addition to PBS (the standard-bearer that featured Child’s cooking decades ago), we have the popular “Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations” on the Travel Channel, Bravo’s cook competition “Top Chef” and Fox’s rancorous reality program, “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Speaking of those last two shows, and as much as it likely would pain Child to see it, cooking has become a vicious, televised sport, of varying intensity and purpose–from the noble battle of knives in “Iron Chef America” to the chaotic kitchen combat of “Top Chef” to the obscenity-laden horrors of the aptly named “Hell’s Kitchen.”

Can you imagine Child taking on Bobby Flay in Kitchen Stadium? No doubt, if it were Battle Butter, she’d stand victorious while gently rolling her eyes at the inane actions of the chairman. But it’s hard to imagine her smiling at Gordon Ramsey’s histrionics on “Hell’s Kitchen.” This is ostensibly a food show, but it’s more about power and control, a military operation masquerading as a restaurant crew, with Ramsey the hardened drill sergeant. As a reality show, it’s never unwatchable, as it offers a heaping serving of humiliation and drama.

But I doubt I’d ever want to eat any of the edibles prepared on that show — and ultimately isn’t that the appeal of these food shows? To see culinary innovation unfold before our eyes? Imagine Mario Batali helping Rachael Ray whip up a holiday feast based on the secret ingredient of cranberries as they face off against competitors Giada De Laurenttiis and her mentor, Bobby Flay. Among the plates whipped up in only an hour: Pasta boiled in wine and served with a sausage-cranberry ragout; a cranberry-accented tamale; and Italian doughnuts called zeppole. And here I thought cranberries were only good as a juice to flavor cosmos or as that treacly sauce served on Thanksgiving. The show is a competition — the team of Batali and Ray took the prize that day — but the focus always is on creativity in the kitchen.

“Top Chef” does a decent job of balancing the culinary and competition aspects, with its intriguing “quickfire challenges” (everything from a test of who can chop onions the fastest to such unusual challenges as creating an amuse-bouche from vending machine fare) and bigger elimination contests. Especially appetizing this year was a spinoff called “Top Chef Masters,” pitting two-dozen of the nations best chefs against each other, many with James Beard Awards. With the high level of talent in this bunch, backbiting faded into the background, and we were left in awe at how a few simple ingredients can be transmuted into something magical in the hands of a maestro. Mexican food legend Rick Bayless (who has starred in his own shows on PBS) came out on top with the help of an Oaxacan black mole he says took him 20 years to learn to cook properly.

At this point, the simple beans and rice on my plate didn’t seem so tantalizing. The great thing about cooking shows is they encourage their audiences to seek out better ingredients and try new things in the kitchen. That’s something Child had to contend with in the 1960s, when the nation was used to bad, bland, probably boiled food. But somehow with her books and her popular show, “The French Chef,” she inspired a legion of new home cooks to tackle then exotic fare such as a coq au vin or beef bourguignon.

There are many disciples on the tube today, but few who command such authority. There’s the aforementioned Ray, the powerhouse of “30 Minute Meals.” While she doesn’t necessarily inspire good cooks to reach higher, she does an adequate job of getting the less-motivated among us to move beyond takeout and frozen dinners by incorporating quick methods and some store-bought items to make the task easier. Sandra Lee has fashioned a whole lifestyle behind that approach with her Semi-Homemade line of books and TV shows. While there’s some good to be found in her push to encourage busy families to make at least some of your own nutriment, the cuisine itself isn’t especially mouth-watering.

The closest to Child today in terms of cooking credibility and clout is Martha Stewart, the homemaker extraordinare who’s familiar with both mansions and the big house. Having put her prison time behind her, the domestic diva has re-established herself with her peerless magazines, books and television program. Where else could one see a lifestyle expert rub elbows with hip-hop elite? But there’s Snoop Dogg on Martha’s stage, whipping up a batch of mashed potatoes (to which he added liberally from a lady-shaped bottle containing his own line of cognac). Or there’s Martha making crockpot chili with Jimmy Fallon or Jennifer Garner asking Martha’s advice on getting butter to room temperature (Martha’s hint: Beat the hell out of a cold stick with a rolling pin). If Stewart can get well-pampered celebrities to roll out a sheet of dough or work a stand mixer, there’s something to be said about her sway in the kitchen. It’s always entertaining, and the recipes seem especially well-polished.

However, I think my two favorite food shows are straightforward cooking-instruction programs on the daytime lineup of the Food Network.

De Laurentiis, in her shows “Everyday Italian” and “Giada at Home,” presents simple Italian dishes that are based on her family’s traditional recipes (even though most of her family is in the film business, they love cooking). She brings these dishes into the modern day with her own twists. The emphasis is on a combination of ease and quality ingredients — whether it be fresh basil to accent a pasta dish or a fine Italian cheese for a comforting macaroni and cheese.

In the same vain, Ina Garten–otherwise known as the Barefoot Contessa–tapes her laid-back shows from her own home on Long Island. Again, the focus is on finding the best ingredients (why, oh why, do some bakers still insist on buying that imitation vanilla to save a buck?) and then presenting them in a delicious, attractive way. She shows easy tricks to layer flavors. She uses coffee to accent chocolate dishes and lemon zest as a flavor enhancer in myriad other dishes. She also offers easy entertaining tips, and the show ends with her sharing her food with friends and family.

De Laurentiis and Garten know that part of the joy of cooking–and by extension eating–is the pleasure that can be found in sharing quality meals with your loved ones. That’s something Julia Child could really stand behind. Best of all, the recipes these two provide each show are the ones I want to cook in my kitchen. That’s the power of food porn. Some sweet sensualists insist chocolate is better than sex. Not true, counter nymphomaniacs, but the Barefoot Contessa’s coconut cupcakes may help change their minds.

But whatever you may be eating, I’ll leave you with the words of Julia Child: Bon Appetit!

Colin Powers is a Madison, Wisconsin-based editor and graphic designer. He has more than a dozen years of newspaper experience, including a stint as Life and Arts Editor of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer before its demise in March.

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