I do hate to jump on the whole Julia Child bandwagon, as she has been discussed and deified ad infinitum due to the whole Julie/Julia thing, but I have to admit that Michael Pollan's article in the New York Times Sunday magazine this past weekend got me thinking.
I'm not sure that this was his overriding point, but what stood out to me was Pollan's implication that one of the major differences between food shows "back then" (i.e. Julia Child in the 1960s) and now (i.e. Food Network) is that the ones "back then" were meant to inform and the ones today are meant to entertain. I would agree with that. Every story you hear about Julia Child seems to revolve around the idea that mothers everywhere were newly inspired by her to learn to cook and to do so well.
My own mother, who like so many adventurous, vaguely bohemian women of her generation moved to France in the early 60s, cites her landlady there as a culinary influence (chicken feet are a stockpot's best friend!) more often than she does Julia Child. But she does marvel occasionally at how new the information that the great warbler brought to America was, at how deep our culinary knowledge deficit was and how dire the need for true culinary information was.
In a way it feels as though as a country we're back to that place again. Despite the intense focus on food in popular culture, home cooking is, on the whole, a relatively rare phenomenon when you get right down to it (although I'm not sure it is quite as rare as sources cited in the article believe). Rather than TV dinners we rely on Trader Joe's, the prepared food case at Whole Foods or local takeout spots. We have cooking shows telling us how to impress our friends with a meal made in the shortest time possible, how to feed our families with the fewest ingredients possible...which all seems to imply that cooking is a chore to be minimized, rather than a pleasurable activity to revel in.
Julia Child (and others, I'm sure there must have been at least a few) took clear joy in teaching and seemed to derive inspiration from cooking. She ended her shows happily sitting down to eat what she had made by herself rather than running around serving it to a group of friends, clearly comfortable with the idea of spending time preparing something delicious for herself and no one else. She relished the process of cooking and had no desire to shorten or bypass it. It is this attitude that we as a nation seem to have lost, and presumably is one of the reasons we've allowed our food supply to be hijacked by corporations that don't respect basic things like the integrity of a fruit or vegetable.
Do we have a hero on the horizon anywhere? Julia II? Anyone?