Never mind the whining and complaining from foodies who believe Julia Child’s legacy “deserves more than being tied to a Nora Ephron-penned (romantic comedy) about a lowly cubicle worker who blogs and struggles and cries and gets a book deal”. As the familiar voice trilled its way into my consciousness and pulled me into the living room I experienced a fleeting, absurd hope that the doyenne of dough had raised herself from the dead like one of her famous souffles. Unfortunately, it was only the trailer for Julie and Julia, the charming if potentially overdone tale of a remarkable woman and one equally remarkable devotee.
Watching the exquisite mimetic art of Meryl Streep, I was captivated in an instant. The story of Julie Powell, a dissatisfied office worker who set herself the task of preparing all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking is intriguing, astonishing and revolting in turn. (The things done to lobster in the name of cuisine can be distressing.)
But it wasn’t Julie Powell’s story that piqued my interest. What astonished me as I watched the movie clip was the sudden realization that I miss Julia Child, just as I miss my beloved Aunt T who so closely resembled her. Had it not been for T and Julia dropping advice, humor and an alternative view of the universe into my life like so many bouquets garnis, it might have taken far longer for me to move beyond the bland certainties of a 1950’s childhood into a more delightful and adventurous world.
As America emerged from WWII, most future baby-boomers grew up among practical, thrifty and reasonable folk. It was considered poor form to “put on airs”, and very few did. The daddies went to work, the mothers cleaned their houses and the children completed homework, school projects and chores before playing outdoors until supper. The sun rose, the sun set, and the days settled into a comfortable routine that was punctuated by comfortable, routine meals.
In those days, chickens were purchased whole and cut up at home, but they always were fried, with flour or crushed corn flake coating. Tuna hot dish – canned tuna, cooked noodles, canned English peas and cream of mushroom soup – was considered perfectly acceptable, as were “salads” of lime jello with crushed pineapple and cottage cheese or cherry jello with fruit cocktail and marshmallows. Appetizers were celery sticks stuffed with a vibrant orange pimento-cheese spread that came in little glass jars, and fancy dessert was ice cream on top of anything. It may have been pedestrian, but it fulfilled a need, and everyone was satisfied.
In the same way, if we needed underwear, shoes or school supplies, our needs were satisfied. If we wanted licorice, water colors or comic books, we had to save. Everyone had a coin jar for spare change, a little box for pennies or a serious piggy bank. Made of metal, with removable plates so tightly screwed down few children could get them undone, the piggy banks even looked serious. Only determined children with passionate arguments could persuade their ever-so-thrifty parents it was time to tap the funds, and no one ever questioned the system.
No one, that is, but my Aunt T. She was exotic, unpredictable and the very definition of “the other end of the spectrum”. If we were tuna hot dish, T was bouillabaisse. If we were Lawrence Welk, T was the Rat Pack. While we put down roots into the cornfields of Iowa, T married and moved to New York, putting down her roots on West 16th at the very edge of the dissipation and weirdness known as Greenwich Village. Her husband was from New Jersey, with an accent so thick we sometimes imagined him a gangster. Tall, slender and taciturn, he was the very opposite of my aunt, who was a plump, perfumed steamroller. They traveled in airplanes and vacationed at the Jersey Shore, and when they swept into town for a visit everyone in six counties knew they’d arrived.
T doted on me. She always arrived with far more than hugs and kisses. She’d bring salt-water taffy and Dutch chocolate in the shape of tiny wooden shoes. Once there were glass bead necklaces, and a wonderful pop-up book filled with jungle animals and princesses. When Christmas came, her presents were the most anticipated. I remember a rhinestone bracelet, a whole “book” of lifesavers and my first bottle of perfume. But no matter what I unwrapped, there always was a card tucked alongside, and it always held a five dollar bill. Best of all, there was a predictable note written in the card, directed toward my parents: “Let her spend this on what she wants. Don’t make her stick it into that pig.”
Eventually, I began to amass capital in earnest. Between my allowance and payment for special chores, I’d pick up fifty cents here, a dollar there. One month I earned ten dollars, and mentioned the fact to Aunt T during summer vacation. That year, the holiday mail brought a Christmas box that was larger than usual. When I opened it, there was another, beautifully wrapped box inside. It didn’t rattle, it didn’t clunk, and it didn’t weigh a thing. I couldn’t imagine what it was.
When I finally opened the box on Christmas eve, I squealed with delight at its contents. It was Aunt T’s version of a piggy bank – a delicate, bejeweled and floral-encrusted elephant with a rubber stopper in the bottom that could be removed easily without adult supervision. This time, the accompanying note was for me. “Put this next to your piggy bank,” she advised. “When you earn a dollar, put half of it into your pig for things you’ll need, but put half of it into your new elephant for things that will make you happy.”
As the years passed, the toys, games and dolls – all the detritus of childhood – slowly dropped away, but the Jeweled Elephant still is with me. She sits on my dresser and travels with me during hurricane evacuations, cosseted and coddled in bubble wrap and towels as befits a true treasure.
She’s a reminder of my aunt, who taught me the importance of embracing life with eagerness and appreciation. Growing up as a self-conscious child who anxiously measured her words, who believed impracticality might be the eighth deadly sin and whose emotions and world-view were constricted by circumstance as much as by nature, I never was certain when my aunt blew into town whether she was a breath of fresh air or a tornado bent on destruction. What I did know was that other adults were bent on diminishing her influence in my life. “Oh, that’s just T,” they’d say. “That’s just the way she is. Don’t pay any attention to her.”
What I didn’t realize until years later is that it wasn’t “just T” who preferred exuberance to restraint or delighted in the little extravagances of life. Walking past a dorm television room during my first year of college, I noticed some girls clustered around the set, apparently transfixed by a warbling, insistent voice. Stepping in to see what was so compelling, I got my first glimpse of Julia Child and recognized her immediately as a soul-sister to my Aunt.
I followed her program for years, less for the cooking than for the attitude: the cheerfulness, the fearless awkwardness, the good-humored acceptance of failure as a part of life. Twenty-five years later, interviewed by Linda Greider for The Washington Post, she hadn’t changed a whit.
“I’m afraid if we don’t get out of this terrible food-fear hysteria,” she says over salad, “it will be the death of gastronomy.” In case the word “gastronomy” conjures up a picture of a puffy-eyed, red-nosed blimp wallowing in wine and pork fat, a description of Julia at 77 might be helpful. Despite the fact that she refuses to touch oat bran, here is a robust, slim, vastly energetic presence who not only washes her own car and writes her own copy but answers her own phone, cleans her own lettuce and does her own dishes. Watching her work, it’s hard to argue with her philosophy of food-as-pleasure.”
In this world, it can be easy to forget the importance of pleasure, not to mention the pleasure of extravagance. As I watch friends, acquaintances and perfect strangers become increasingly fearful, living increasingly constricted and measured lives, it occurs to me what is dying in our culture is true, good-natured humor, the willingness to embrace the stranger and a conviction that differences are to be celebrated rather than defined out of existence. Fearful of using the wrong phrase, eating the wrong food, supporting the wrong cause – eager to make only correct and useful choices – we’re beginning to look more and more like my pig, and less and less like my elephant.
Watching the recent health care debates, I’ve been reminded of a time-worn saying: The question isn’t whether there’s life after death. The question is whether there’s life before death. Julia Child always was on the side of expansiveness and life, not to mention the exuberant, uncalculated gesture.
In her honor I’ve decided on a tiny little extravagance, spending both money and time to see Julie and Julia in the theater. I won’t be doing it because of the food or because of the of story any more than I’ll be doing it because of Meryl Streep or Julie Powell. This is for Julia – as irrepressible, unapologetic and cheerfully loving as my aunt and as bejeweled and sparkling with joie de vivre as my little elephant. Both of them helped teach the same lesson – save for the future, tend to your needs, but invest in your happiness, too.