You can trace the food revolution in the U.S. back to a few sources—none perhaps more influential (not to mention, fun!) than Julia Child, a self-taught cook who ostensibly introduced Americans to French cuisine. Starting in the ’60s, light years before arugula, kale, quinoa, Whole Foods, and our current farm-to-table culinary landscape, Child taught us about esoteric ingredients—endives! asparagus!—and a European approach to an epicurean life. Cosmo caught up with this American Master in May, 1990, while she was promoting what she called her final book. Okay, so she was a little off: There were still ten more to come. But still, at 77, Child was in a position to look back on her life of cooking and see how it informed the way we think and feel about food. Those observations resonate to this day.
In the three decades since she first came bounding onto our television screens as “The French Chef,” Julia Child has been this country’s culinary cheerleader. But it was spying, not cooking, that was her first career choice when she graduated from Smith College in 1934. Hoping for adventure, she joined the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor to the CIA) and was promptly dispatched to Ceylon—as a file clerk. She never did become a secret agent, though it was there that she met and married a dashing foreign-service officer, Paul Cushing Child.
After World War II, the newlyweds were stationed in Paris, where Child first encountered the second love of her life: French cuisine. So, at thirty-three, driven by her newfound enchantment with fine food, she embarked on a second career—one that would eventually change the way millions of Americans cooked and ate. She enrolled in the famed cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, taught cooking classes for Americans in Paris, and then wrote the classic Mastering the Art of French Cooking, with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. By 1960, when the Childs returned to the U.S., another nation of aspiring gourmets were awaiting her instruction as well.
Now, Child’s latest and, she says, last book, The Way to Cook, a back-to-basics primer geared to the busy and health-conscious, has been greeted with the hoopla generally reserved for a best-selling novel. Hale and hearty at seventy-seven, she has been on a whirlwind book-promotion tour, beginning with a visit to San Francisco. Her next stop: New York, where she paused to chat with Cosmo before a day packed with interviews and personal appearances.
Your books and television programs are credited with simplifying and demystifying French cuisine. What did you do that other cookbook authors and television chefs couldn’t?
I was lucky to arrive at the right time. The Kennedys were in the White House with their wonderful French chef, Rene Verdon, Americans were traveling abroad in large numbers. French cooking was the thing, and I put it in terms the average person could understand. People looked at me and thought, “Well, if she can cook, I certainly can!” If you watch people who are too expert, you think you could never do it. But if you see a sort-of-normal person cooking, it makes you feel more confident.
I had learned to cook at a mature age myself, so I understand that beginners need a lot of details. At that time, a lot of recipes were very brief. They’d say put a chicken under the broiler and leave it for twenty minutes. Well, I remember the first time I did that. When I came back, the chicken was all burned up. I’m sometimes laughed at for having long, detailed recipes, but if you don’t know how to cook, you really want to know how far under the broiler to put the chicken, what to baste it with, how hot the oven should be. You need to know that when you brown beef, you either have to clarify the butter or mix it with oil so it doesn’t burn. And that you have to dry the meat and not crowd the pieces together, so it doesn’t steam. My recipes are teaching recipes.
How have you cultivated your famous down-home, carefree cooking style?
That’s just the way I am. I don’t have to fake anything. Enough terrible things happen when you’re cooking. People insist they saw me drop a chicken on the floor and pick it up, which I never did at all. It’s odd, isn’t it? Once, however, I was flipping a potato pancake and it fell into the stove, so I did pick it up and put it back in the pan. When I started out on educational television, there was very little money. If we stopped, it would take half an hour to start in again, and we’d be paying overtime. So unless a terrible disaster happened, we just left it in and went on. That’s what gave the show its informal touch.
What were your most embarrassing moments on television?
One of the most disappointing things happened when I was doing an Apple Charlotte. It’s a lovely dessert made by lining the sides of a high baking dish with strips of buttered bread and filling it with a very thick applesauce. After you bake it and unmold it, it’s supposed to stand high and look beautiful. But as I was talking, mine started collapsing. So I had to say I didn’t want it so firm and dry anyway. In my book, there’s a picture of a partially collapse Charlotte. It’s an illustration of “Don’t worry” cooking.
In the nearly thirty years that you’ve been cooking, writing, and teaching, how have your attitudes toward food changed?
When Mastering the Art of French Cooking came out in 1961, people were filled with wonder at French cuisine. Then nouvelle cuisine appeared, and food was supposed to look like a Japanese flower garden. Then there was cuisine minceur, a kind of diet cooking everyone got mixed up with nouvelle. Next was organic cooking. Now we’re into fear of food. People have a terrible fear of fat and cholesterol. They view the dinner table as a trap rather than a source of pleasure. It’s useful to warn people about unhealthy diets, but you don’t have to scare them into not eating anything at all!
Nevertheless, the health revolution has arrived. Have you changed your own eating habits?
I’ve had to change, or I’d be Mrs. Six-by-Six in no time at all. I eat smaller portions. I watch my fat intake. I believe it’s terribly necessary to have a balanced diet, and I’ve learned to eat sensibly. When I started out, nobody paid anything attention to butter and cream and cholesterol. In my new book, I’m very conscious of fat and calories. There are lots of things like fish and chicken poached with aromatic vegetables and wine.
Do you have a microwave?
Yes. I wouldn’t be without one. But I don’t use it for real cooking, and I don’t like the taste or texture of microwaved green vegetables, even though I know many people think they’re wonderful. I use it mostly for defrosting or to heat up cups of tea or melt butter. Sometimes I start baked potatoes in the microwave and finish them in the real oven. But I just don’t enjoy cooking in the microwave. I like to smell and feel and poke the food I’m cooking.
What are the basic things every cook should learn?
How to cook green vegetables, sauté meat and chicken, roast a chicken, broil a fish, and prepare a very simple deglazing sauce.
What is the worst thing about American cooks today?
Most Americans don’t take cooking seriously. They don’t learn how to do the basic things that make cooking so much easier and more pleasurable. And most people don’t know the different between feeding and dining. If you’re just eating fast food or frozen TV dinner, that’s feeding. That’s why I want to give people a sense of the joy of preparing something delicious to eat. We all have to eat, so why not do it in the most attractive way possible? Also, don’t worry. It’s all right to make a mistake. Just don’t apologize. Nobody ever notices.
What were your goals when you wrote The Way to Cook?
I wanted to make sense of cooking for the reader. So I arranged things according to method as much as possible. Instead of putting all the veal in the same place, I put veal chops in the same section with pork chops because they cook the same way. When you understand a stew is a stew and a roast is roast, cooking begins to make sense. If you learn techniques, you’ll be able to cook anything.
What’s the best approach to a recipe?
You should read a recipe all the way through and visualize what you’re doing to make. Then you should get your stuff out—all your pans and bowls and tools—and assemble all your ingredients. That makes it easy and efficient. You may have to go back and refer to the recipe, but you won’t need to stand there reading line by line. The idea is to make a recipe part of your vocabulary. It’s a building block.
What advice do you have for young people who have no idea how to cook?
Don’t be afraid. Just start cooking. Maybe you can practice with a friend who’s a good cook. Call up and say, ‘I’d love to come over and help. I’ll peel or chop or do anything you need.” It’s important to learn all the dog work so you can do it very fast. It’s like learning to play the scales on a piano. You could also use a book, but I think it’s easier to do it with a friend who knows what she’s doing.
What’s the biggest mistake novice cooks make when they attempt a dinner party?
They try to be too elaborate. If you’re just beginning, do something simple that can be prepared in advance. Spend your time on the main course.
Could you suggest a simple dinner-party menu for four?
Start with something cold, maybe artichoke bottoms filled with a few marinated shrimp. Then prepare a chicken with red wine and onions in the oven. For a vegetable, have fresh green beans. You can make them ahead of time and just sauté for a minute before serving. You could just have some French bread or make a potato gratin or even mashed potatoes. And here’s a very simple dessert. Place a scoop of store-bought vanilla or coffee ice cream in a bowl or big wineglass. Pour a little bourbon whiskey around it and dust the top with powered instant coffee (pulverize the coffee in the blender to get a powder). This is very nice, and people don’t realize how easy it is. Then just serve a cookie with it.
What’s your idea of a perfect meal?
I think the one I just described is very nice. And of course, I’ve never forgotten that first meal I had in France—oysters and sole meunière and really good wine, which I’d never had before. I literally fell in love with the food.
Is the way to a man’s heart still through his stomach?
One of the very best ways to find a man is to be a good cook. You don’t have to be a fancy cook, but you should know how to put together a good meal. You’re not going to get a man with a frozen TV dinner. Of course, I didn’t know how to cook at all when I met my husband, and he married me in spite of it. I was lucky that way.
You have said The Way to Cook is your last book. What do you want to do now?
I’m interested in promoting food as a career for young people. There are all kinds of jobs now—teacher, food writer, chef, product developer. It’s such fun. It takes every ounce of your intelligence and creativity. And, best of all, you can eat your work.