Editor’s Note: this essay was scheduled prior to the announcement of the Ferguson Grand Jury’s decision. We have decided to publish it as scheduled, following the belief, expressed here, that love and pleasure are not the opposite of politics, rage, or grief, but rather are politically essential expressions of our humanness.
This is a difficult season, readers. But this much remains clear: we are grateful for you.
Every Thanksgiving, Julia Child is remembered for something she never did. The culinary maven who brought French cooking into American post-war homes reportedly dropped a turkey on the kitchen floor during the taping of one of her PBS shows, only to snatch it up, declare, “Remember, you are alone in the kitchen!” and continue to cook with it. According to snopes.com, the origins of this story long predate Child’s popularity, as it had been told about a dinner at President Coolidge’s, and indeed the story only began to follow Child toward the peak of her fame–post-1989, after nearly 30 years on the air and after more than 700 televised cooking shows.
Some of the staying power of this apocryphal tale may have to do with the fact that, by her own admission, Child harbored little fear of eccentric behaviors. “I had suffered bouts of feeling quite queer the entire time we’d been in France,” she recalled in her posthumously published memoir, My Life in France (co-written with her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme). Here, Child uses “queer” in its mid-century sense: odd, off, torqued, strange. It was this sense of the word that accumulated–very much around the same period of time–in its nominative value as a slur against homosexuals. But in this instance, Child meant no such thing. Feeling queer was a way to describe a bout of stomach pains. Feeling queer was just part of life.
Yet queerness in its other sense also followed Julia Child. Her memoir and her letters detail a postwar Parisian life that was fabulously bohemian. In 1948, the first celebrity she laid eyes upon in Paris was the lesbian novelist Colette. The Childs spent part of Bastille Day 1950 in the company of Alice B. Toklas (“She stayed only for a glass of wine before dinner,” we learn in My Life in France). In 1954, outraged at the red and lavender scares of the McCarthy years (what she simply calls “totalitarianism,”) Child wrote a frank letter to her alma mater, Smith College, protesting the dismissal of five professors (one of whom, the National Book Award-winning critic Newton Arvin, would commit suicide in 1963 after being forced from his tenured teaching position in a different queer-baiting scandal). In 1955, Julia’s husband, Paul Child, was summoned to Washington, DC to face a formal investigation on charges of being a homosexual; she had naively supposed he had been called back to get a promotion. Returning in the States in the early 1960s, she frequently collaborated with the openly gay chef and culinary authority James Beard, who used to stay with his lover in the Childs’ guest room.
At six-foot-two, Child’s body itself seemed an odd and unruly thing. She wryly claimed to have first become interested in the food markets of Paris because none of the city’s boutiques carried dresses her size. Her most celebrated portrayals have been in drag: Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live and later John Candy on SCTV. For some years, I am told, dressing as Julia Child was a popular Halloween costume among gay men of a certain age–though surely the expiration of this custom owes something to the rise in popularity of “sexy” Halloween costumes over the last decade; it would be a war of cross-purposes to attempt to dress as “sexy Julia Child.” Even Meryl Streep’s luminous character portrait in the 2009 film “Julie & Julia” displays a marvelous theatricality that borders on camp.
While not herself gay, Child was rather queer in the particularly academic sense of the term: she was promiscuous with her attachments. In her copious writings, she describes the experience of living in Paris, of eating a delicious meal, of inhabiting a particular domicile or employing a well chosen pot, as “love.” Like many of us, she loved people. But like many fewer of us, she displayed equivalent attachments also to places, rooms, sensations. It goes without saying that Julia Child loved food, but it bears repeating that not all people do. Child bound herself fearlessly to things that charmed her and gratified her, no matter how non-standard those attachments happened to be.
The same can be said of her interest in technique. French cooking is rightly associated with complex preparations, but Child often emphasized that these were processes of extraction. In her account, a chef’s love for her métier was in the truest sense Platonic: not for objects, but for their essences. In logic, “reduction” is often described as a species of oversimplification. By contrast, in her study of French cooking, Child would describe “reduction” as the slow simmering and condensing of flavors to their essential points. The great lesson learned from her time at Le Cordon Bleu, she wrote, was “to make, say, a roasted chicken taste really chickeny.” (Ed. note: go vegan!) Like a chirpy Nietzsche in a crisp apron, Julia Child saw the task of the chef as a kind of cultivation: to make food become what it is.
For its part, food returned the favor. Child had never been to Europe before she was 36, and had no interest in cooking when she arrived. Years later she claimed to feel la belle France in her soul. Hers was a love that began by chance, that sparked with aspiration, that proceeded through experimentation, that settled into the comforts of experience, and that then matured into ever more subtle refinements. Child’s pleasures aligned her world in way that was perhaps a bit perverse, but which she embraced with the heart and stomach of a king.
The crucial similarity between the love of food and the love of a person is that in both cases experience does not save us from mistakes. And thus, though it never happened, the legend of the dropped turkey speaks to the fundamentals of Child’s philosophy of life. It is playful, almost to the point of charming, while also being unquestionably bad form. The gesture is obstreperous yet harmless, uncouth yet efficient, vulnerable yet brassy. It is sublimely perfect as an instance of thorough-going imperfection. It is a mythology and not a love plot, but like any worthy love plot it approximates the truth of feelings much larger than the words we put to them. Whether a woman loves a man, a woman, or a turkey, the propulsive motion of love means that sooner or later she will find herself grasping for her object, fumbling it, and then attempting to recover.
Child’s writings remind us that cooking is a way of being attached to something. On her terms, whether you happen to prefer food or you happen to prefer people, rolling up your sleeves and making a meal is, unavoidably, ineluctably, and necessarily, a queer experience. Leftovers get packed up and eaten, and the dishes get done and put away, but love attaches to curious objects and endures in odd places. Remember, when you’re in the kitchen, you are never really alone.
Jordan Alexander Stein: Not always the theory guy.