Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com

Dinner, The Best Umbrella

The night that the superstorm Sandy took the power out, there was still dinner to get on the table. I suppose I could have served sandwiches, but something warm seemed in order. With the winds blowing at 70 miles an hour outside, firing up the grill was out of the question. Instead, I got out my chafing dish and set it over five squat candles that I had arranged in an aluminum tray. In went a can of condensed soup and some water, and about 45 minutes later—voila!—lukewarm soup. My other chafing dish yielded warm slices of buttered French bread. I cup an apple into wedges and dinner was served. There we sat, my daughter and me, eating our soup, bread and apples by candlelight. The storm taunted us from outside, but inside, the familiarity and comfort of family dinner prevailed.

Having written two volumes that fall into the burgeoning category of books about cooking with and for children, I’ve become convinced of the importance of family dinner. And I’m equally convinced that that the style of the dinner matters far less than the fact of sitting down together to eat it. I’m a happy producer and consumer of books to help with every permutation of the evening meal, for every taste and every occasion: multi-course extravaganzas that are cooked from scratch with organic, local sustainable ingredients; quick affairs that are assembled in 20 minutes from jars and boxes; or special, kid-themed dinners that feature foods with silly names, whose architecture makes them fun to make and eat (as in my two books). But—dare I say this in a blog post about books?—I don’t think you need a cookbook to do family dinner. The occasional take-out meal or hurricane-chafing-dish-improvisation will also qualify.

The important thing is to sit down with your kids as often as you possibly can, to share a meal, talk about the day, talk about life and just be together. I could cite many studies that have proven the social and public health benefits of family dinner (and reserve the right to do so in a future post). But now, days after the hurricane that barged in on so many lives, in so many ways, I’m just thinking about family dinner and how it’s such a sweet simple, refuge from whatever storms rage around us, no matter what’s on the table.

Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com, The All You Can Eat Literary Buffet

The Most Important Meal of the Day

When I was growing up, it would have been hard to imagine the proliferation of cookbooks that offer today’s cooks instruction in the art of the family dinner. In the past few years, food personalities like Rachael Ray, Laurie David and Sara Moulton as well as other less prominent folk (myself included), have issued volumes on quick dinners, slow dinners, special dinners and everyday dinners.  Each author takes a unique approach to the subject of dinner, and each book offers its own charms.

Back when I was growing up, family dinner was just what you did. Every night. Mom cooked a hot meal, the kids set the table, Dad came home from work and everyone sat down to eat and talk about the day. (Paging Norman Rockwell!) Sadly, for too many families today, the evening meal has gone missing, lost somewhere between soccer practice, the PTA Council and the 987 texts, emails and Facebook updates that come bleeping to the table as soon as we sit down.

 

But it’s worth taking time for family dinner, because, like the fresh produce my mother taught me to eat, it’s good for us. More specifically, it’s really good for our kids.  I’d always heard this said, but when I sat down to research the topic in preparation for a conference earlier this year, I was astounded by the number of honest-to-goodness public health studies that proved the point, over and over again. I’ll spare you the academic citations and sum up: regular family dinners reduce kids’ risk of alcohol use, tobacco use, obesity, and even violent and criminal behavior. Regular family dinners also promote well-rounded nutrition and, not surprisingly, better parent-child communication.

 

So bring on the books about family dinner! Our mothers and grandmothers didn’t need them, but it seems that we do. With the stakes so high and the rewards so great, why not seek some inspiration to get back to the dinner table together?

 Note: This blog post originally appeared on BookTrib.com