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Food for Thought

Julia Child: Her Magnificent Obsession

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Is NYPL obsessed with food? Maybe, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. The popular Lunch Hour NYC exhibition at the Stephen A. Schwarzman Building opened June 2012 and runs through February 17. It celebrates over a century of New York lunches. Don't miss the online exhibit and the menu collection. In conjunction with the exhibit, NYPL has hosted multiple programs, events, and blogs about food, including book talks by cookbook authors on everything from pizza to the history of salad, cooking demos, and food-related lectures ranging from Civil War rations to Jewish delis in America. The program at Mid-Manhattan on January 29 explores how long New York City has been eating organic in "Eat the City: A Tale of the Fishers, Foragers, Butchers, Farmers, Poultry Minders, Sugar Refiners, Cane Cutters, Beekeepers, Winemakers, and Brewers Who Built New York."

As part of this series, author Bob Spitz presented an illustrated lecture and led a discussion about his recent biography Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, published in 2012 on her hundredth birthday. Spitz is the award-winning author of The Beatles, a New York Times best seller, as well as seven other nonfiction books and a screenplay. In 1992, Spitz traveled with Child in Sicily and in his own words "developed a powerful crush" on Child. His book offers an affectionate look at Child's life but is not an air-brushed portrait. He details her early years where she admittedly lacked direction and drive until she focused on French cooking and drove herself to perfecting its technique so that American housewives could replicate it reliably. Spitz includes the Notes from Dearie as well as its bibliography and reviews on his website, including information about his other works.

Starting from her years in Paris after World War II, Child was obsessed by food, specifically French food and French cooking. At that time it was unusual for a woman to train as a chef at Le Cordon Bleu, and she was the only woman in the class. She was in her late thirties then and had never really tried to cook before. As a child of wealth and privilege growing up in southern California, she always enjoyed eating but had never learned to cook, never needed to, nor showed any interest in learning. In fact, Child herself remarked on her extended adolescence. It wasn't until the beginning of World War II that she left the country club social scene and moved to Washington, D.C. to assist in the war effort. She wound up working for the Office of Strategic Services (the wartime precursor to the CIA) half a world away in Ceylon. There she met Paul Child, another OSS officer, with whom she fell in love and married in 1946. When he was posted to Paris in 1948, he introduced her to French cooking, and she fell in love a second time.

Child's first book, followed by Volume 2 in 1970, is still considered the definitive cookbook for amateur cooks. To promote the book, Child appeared on a book review show in 1962 and demonstrated how to cook an omelet. From there, the game was on. Child's groundbreaking television show The French Chef aired in Boston on WBGH in 1963 and was soon syndicated nationwide. Spitz thinks that Child's success as a television personality whose name became a household word derived from her genuine enjoyment of the cooking process, not a quest for culinary perfection. She accepted herself, flaws and all, and thrived in the spotlight; she didn't hold back from her audience and they responded accordingly. Before Julia Child, there was no Food Network, no Iron Chef America or Iron Chef Japan television series, and no celebrity chefs like Emeril Lagasse or Rachael Ray or Bobby Flay. Full episodes of The French Chef are available on DVD and online.

Although Child died in 2004, a memoir called My Life in France, written in collaboration with her husband's great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, was published in 2006 and became a bestseller. It is basically a love story about her marriage and early married life in Paris, but it also provides a chronology of the process she used to learn to cook in the French style and how she translated and clarified the instructions for American cooks.

A movie version followed in 2009 entitled Julie & Julia, starring Meryl Streep as Julia (an unlikely but winning casting considering Streep is five feet six inches tall to Child's six feet three inches) and Stanley Tucci as Paul (inspired casting). Streep was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actress and won a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her portrayal. Nora Ephron directed the movie and wrote the screenplay, combining Child's memoir and the story of Julie Powell's year-long project to cook every recipe in Child's first book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Powell also described in her daily blog and subsequent book Julie and Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen: How One Girl Risked Her Sanity to Master the Art of Living (retitled in paperback as Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously).

Please stop by the Lunch Hour NYC exhibit or attend one of the programs. Join the obsession! As Julia Child would say, "Vive La Kweezeen!" Bon appétit!

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