I’ve been deeply interested in all things food for at least 10 years, but until recently, I never knew much about Julia Child. I didn’t grow up with a mother who discovered French food via Julia and her Mastering the Art of French Cooking books; I never watched Julia’s seminal television show, “The French Chef.”
In fact, I hadn’t really been aware of Julia at all, until the Julie & Julia blog-book-movie phenomenon of a few years back. It’s Karen Karbo’s new book, Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life, that brought Julia to life for me.
What fascinates me now about Julia is how her passion for food and cooking so thoroughly absorbed her. I don’t think I have the aptitude or the desire to spend as many days attempting to make mayonnaise as she did, but her example frees me to embrace the things I do love. And that’s what Karbo’s new book is about: learning how to embrace life and live like Julia. In other words, to be bold, adventurous, and delighted.
Karbo distills Julia’s life down into 10 rules to live by, many of which can be practiced in the kitchen. If, for instance, you don’t have the opportunity to sail to Sri Lanka on a ship of 3,000 men and eight women, as Julia did in 1944 (Karbo’s example of Lesson Number Four: “Obey Your Whims”), try something closer to home: “It’s a little thing, opting to make beef pho when you thought you were headed in the direction of a nice lasagna, but it keeps your impulse-following muscle in good shape for the day when something more momentous comes your way.”
I love the idea that the decisions we make in the kitchen, the dishes we bring to the table, prepare us for “more momentous” things in life. I was at a midway point in my life, stuck between the past and an unknown future, when I read about obeying whims, and so I decided to see how spending time in my little green kitchen might lead me to bigger life decisions.
Many of us taking part in the project wrote as much about Big Life Events as we did about cooking. Julia’s legacy, it turns out, isn’t just her transformation of American food culture and her identity as a beloved icon; it’s also her larger-than-life personality and her strength of character.
“My theory is that our real attachment to Julia is less about her cooking, or even about what she did for the cause of serious cuisine, and more about our admiration for her immutable aptitude for being herself,” Karbo writes. “Julia’s real genius wasn’t in breaking down the nine million steps in cooking a mind-blowing beef bourguignon, or assembling a thousand-page cookbook, but in having the confidence to stand in front of a camera, week after week, without trying to change one thing about herself.”
Julia charms us to this day because she made no apologies — not for her towering height, trilling vocal style, or her staggering fame, and most especially not for her cooking. Not even when other chefs demeaned her abilities.
Rule Number Eight in Karbo’s book is “Cooking Means Never Saying You’re Sorry.” I interviewed Karbo, and she told me that this is the rule modern-day cooks most need to embrace. If we are going to learn to Live With Abandon (Rule Number One), we have to learn to take risks, to say “yes” before we really know what we’re doing (like starting a TV show at age 51), and to accept failures.
Some of Julia’s food failed miserably. She regaled Paul with a story about blowing up a duck in the oven when they were still just pen pals, and she made a few brilliantly awful meals for fellow cook and food writer James Beard. He adored Julia in spite of her not apologizing for those unpalatable meals (and even though his own TV show failed before hers aired).
Karbo’s witty and honest storytelling reveals a woman with an accepting temperament, who finds joy and opportunity abroad. Where someone else might find only homesickness, Julia found stimulation; in fact, “difficult circumstances brought out the best in her,” Karbo observes.
Julia, it seems, saw nothing but the bright side in often challenging situations. (Sure, she lived in Paris, but her apartment was so cold the water pipes froze regularly. Paul was often moody and bleak, and she spent 14-hour days working on a book publishers rejected multiple times.) How does someone have such lasting spirit, such an eternally positive outlook?
Sounding as envious as I feel, Karbo asks, “More important, is there any way we can reverse-engineer our own lives in order to see whether we might extract any Juliaesque essence that will help us live as fully and gaily as she did?”
Reverse-engineering is exactly what Karbo does in Julia Child Rules, going all the way back to Julia’s girlhood and her party days at Smith College to uncover the traits and experiences that created such a vivacious woman. Her 10 engaging rules help us reverse-engineer ourselves, starting in our very own kitchens.
Oregon-based writer Trista Cornelius is currently pursuing creative projects while taking a leave of absence from Clackamas Community College, where she has been teaching writing, literature, and food studies. Follow her adventures at All But the Kitchen Sink.
Culinate props open and ponders cookbooks, nonfiction, memoirs, and other books about food.
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