Fortunately, Julia Child was honored in life as she is now being honored in death. She was rightly known for her TV cooking shows, her fabulous cookbooks, and her magnificent sense of humor. To some, mass culture is an oxymoron, to which we can add another, equally threatening, oxymoron: democratic elitism. For that is a defining characteristic of Julia Child's life; she democratized what had been the historic province and exclusive privilege of a tiny elite. In fact, today in our cuisine as well as our daily life, we enjoy much that even elites of prior times never experienced. The true genius of Julia Child was not only in writing a French Cookbook allowing others to participate in haute cuisine but in recognizing that the technology and affluence of the economy of that time, allowed an ever-growing number of her fellow citizens to participate in it.
To master the art of French cooking or any other advanced cuisine required modern kitchens with temperature-controlled stoves, a variety of kitchen utensils, and a diversity of ingredients. Today we take these for granted, but this has not always been the case. As Naomi Bliven recognized, most of the items and their wide distribution for use in home baking and elegant cooking are results of twentieth-century technology. As Bliven comments on those who pine for a lost past that never existed of "preserving, cooking, and baking in the home": "the present is the good old days" (Bliven, 1982, 104).
Many who pick up Julia Child's cookbooks today probably already have many of the ingredients in their cupboard and expect to encounter no trouble in buying the other ingredients (fresh) at the local supermarket. Following Child's lead, our kitchen shelves are replete with innumerable cookbooks from cuisines around the world using once-exotic ingredients that we also rightly expect to find in our local supermarket.
Making Do, Demanding More
Julia Child's contemporary Marion Burros first published her Elegant but Easy in 1960 using ingredients that were easily available to her readers at that time (Burros, 1960). Burros, no cheerleader for modern technology, recently had to admit that there has been a dramatic change in food availability compared to the time of her earlier editions (Burros, 1998b&c). Her revised book included a number of fresh spices and cheeses, smoked fish, and any number of items that are widely available in the United States. Her recipes now call for these fresh and pure ingredients where previously substitutes such as salad dressing were used because the fresh or pure items were not widely available.
It is fair to say that not only was Julia Child at the dawn of this revolution, she was a vital element in creating it. When I worked in a supermarket as an undergraduate, the produce department carried about forty to fifty items. Today, most supermarkets easily carry ten times that number, with some as high as 600 to 700 items. This reflects revolutions in agriculture, transportation, marketing as well as immigration and globalization but none of the availability of diverse foods would have been possible unless Julia Child and others had not created a demand for these products by offering recipes in which they could be used.
The trends that Julia Child set in motion with her cookbooks and TV programs were very much in line with the transformations in agriculture, transportation, and globalization. It is also clear that she was very much aware of them and their implications. The tributes to Julia Child mention her activity in the various chef associations but failed to mention Child's opposition to those chefs who mixed anti-modern ideology with their culinary advocacy. These are the chefs who broke away from the mainstream organizations to form collectives that advocate a return to earlier forms of agriculture and trumpet their opposition to genetically-modified food crops and their preference for the natural and local. They purport to be egalitarian but in reality they are the new anti-democratic elitists. They urge a lifestyle that only the tiniest fraction of society can afford, particularly if there is any attempt to make "organic" and local the dominant form of food production.
Julia Child, Defender of Modern Abundance
Julia Child deserves to be revered for what she fought against as it was inseparable from what she fought for. She opposed what Greg Critser called the "Mean Cuisine." In contrast, we might call Child's cooking the "cream cuisine" as cream is that part of the milk that rises to the top.
Critser asks the question as to "Why, in a time of unprecedented abundance for everyone? Vine ripened Mexican tomatoes for $1 a pound! World class reds and whites from Montepulciano d'Abruzzo for $5 a bottle! An international glut of inexpensive extra virgin olive oils and cheeses and nuts and fruits at Trader Joe's and Price Club! Why oh why are the chefs of America so dour, so chary, so very very very bummed out?" (Critser 2001). "Why the big change," Critser asks? "Ten years ago, a pint of cold pressed, extra virgin Italian olive oil would set you back about $20. It was scarce, and so it was the chef's preference. Today one can buy a gallon for the same price. Today, of course, imported oil is not the chef's choice" (Critser 2001). The answer is abundance, and abundance is a threat to the values of snobbery that motivate the critics of modernity: "The snobfest itself flows from what the great historian Richard Hofstadter called 'status anxiety,' the sinking feeling, often felt after, say, actually speaking to the maid or the gardener, that the world is changing, expanding, and in the process making one smaller, less important" (Critser 2001).
Critser adds that the "culprit is globalization." The foods, particularly those that were once imported at a price beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, have now become common and relatively cheap in supermarkets across the land. Globalization has been the mechanism by which the increasing global food production provides greater diversity of available foodstuffs and therefore greater choice, but it also deprives the elitist of that sense of exclusivity for the items they consume. Technology has made for improvement and greater availability of high-quality items such as fine wines (Feiring 2001). In a world of increasing free trade and technological advancement, the food snobs seek to pursue an anti-trade ("buy locally") and anti-technology agenda in order to preserve their status and self-esteem. They aren't helping to feed a growing world population or making the technologies of accessibility and "technologies of abundance" available to those who have not had the opportunity to benefit from them. Rules that make items more expensive restrict access to them, and thereby make them (and those who can afford them) more prestigious.
Abundance and Refinement Not at Odds
For what Child and others have shown is that excellence is compatible with abundance and the once rare and refined can become widely available. She was the enemy of snobbery and the threat it posed to the expansion of the domain of gracious living. Child was elegant, sophisticated, talented, charming, and had all the characteristics that gave her the right to feel superior to the rest of us, but it was simply not in her nature to be anything but loving, friendly, and genuine, with the kind of personal humility that recognizes the humanity that we all possess. Her innate sense of humanity allowed her to feel good about herself and others without the need to feel that others were inferior.
Some have suggested that we pay her homage by using her cookbook and preparing an elegant feast. But that is only part of her legacy. The revolution that she initiated has only just begun. Throughout the globe, there is greater diversity of food availability and ever greater access to excellence in most all human endeavors, including eating. Though tens of millions directly can use her cookbooks, many millions more do not have the affluence to access the technologies of excellence that she espoused, and still others experience hunger as their daily lot in life. Her fight is our fight, which is to counter the anti-science, anti-technology movements that would reverse her legacy. We must work for the continuing advancement of science and technology so that an increasing number of earth's inhabitants can experience the excellence of abundance and a truly democratized elitism.
Julia Child, your love for humanity is a beacon for all of us to follow, giving us the courage to carry on the fight for mass culture and the globalization of all that which is excellent in eating -- and excellent in all of our endeavors as humans. Child's legacy is very much a part of the agenda of the American Council on Science and Health and she honored us by serving on our twenty-fifth anniversary dinner committee as much as we honored her.
Bliven, Naomi. 1982. Home, Sweet Home. Review of Susan Strasser's, Never Done. 1982. The New Yorker 58(25):104-106, 6 September.
Burros, Marian Fox. 1960. Elegant but Easy: A Cookbook for Hostesses. New York: Collier Books.
Burros, Marian Fox. 1998a. The New Elegant but Easy Cookbook. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Burros, Marian Fox. 1998b. Book Interview, All Things Considered, National Public Radio, 14 December.
Critser, Greg. 2001. Mean Cuisine: Gone Is The Joy of Cooking. Today's Celebrity Chefs Are Serving Up a Menu of Global Doom and Politically Twisted Snobbery. Washington Monthly, July/August.
DeGregori, Thomas R. 2002. Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety and the Environment. Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute.
DeGregori, Thomas R. 2002. The Environment, Our Natural Resources and Modern Technology. Ames Iowa: Blackwell Publishing Co.
Feiring, Alice. 2001. For Better or Worse, Winemakers Go High Tech, The New York Times, 26 August.
Thomas R. DeGregori is Professor of Economics, University of Houston and a member of the Board of Directors of the American Council on Science and Health. He is author of a number of recently published books and articles including Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety and the Environment (Washington, D.C.: Cato Institute), The Environment, Our Natural Resources, and Modern Technology (Ames Iowa: Blackwell Publishing Co.), and Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate (Ames Iowa: Blackwell Publishing Co.). Visit his homepage.
See also: ACSH president Dr. Elizabeth Whelan's farewell to Julia Child.