Tuesday, November 15, 2011

"Nothing You Can Do With People Like That": My Julia Child Dilemma

Whenever I’m in the mood for a laugh—or if I find myself feeling the urge to shake my head and wonder what the world has become—there’s nothing that I enjoy more than watching clips from Semi-Homemade Cooking with Sandra Lee, a Food Network Program that revolves around an alcoholic woman’s recipes for garish meals and cocktails that could put a grown man under the table.

Sandra Lee demonstrates her culinary mastery.

As mentioned in my last blog post, I’ve been in desperate need of amusement lately, and as such, I’ve witnessed more semi-homemade meals than any person should be subjected to outside of a torture chamber.  But there comes a time when even such classics as the Kwanzaa cake or “sensuous” truffles fail to amuse, and the viewer is left wondering what leverage the woman had on Food Network in blackmailing them to produce her show and when the American populace decided that dumping a bunch of processed foods and vanilla extract together—“It cuts out the packaged taste!”—constituted a meal.  Nauseated and longing for something that could make me respect the art of cooking again, I searched on Youtube for episodes of Julia Child’s The French Chef.

The first episode I watched, “Cook Your Goose,” had enough technique and skill—and a total lack of catchphrases or cocktails—to restore my faith in the culinary masters of the world.  The second episode, “Roast Suckling Pig,” got shut off at the halfway point.

As of tomorrow, I will have spent three months as a vegetarian.  At first, my decision had nothing to do with moral or health concerns: I simply realized, while I was gathering recipes to try when I moved into my apartment, that I didn’t like most meats, so I might as well cut them out of my diet.  Later on, I discovered some of the meat industry’s more objectionable practices, which strengthened my conviction in my dietary choices.  Still, I don’t mean to lecture anyone about meat being murder or how cruel/unhealthy their choices are.  My opinions will differ from others, and there’s no sense in trying to change that.  I know how appealing some meats can be, and it’s not as though my taste for that has disappeared.  In the past three months, meat has always looked appetizing, not disgusting.

At least, not until I saw a pig lying on a table, looking as though it could wake up and walk off at any moment until I noticed the gaping hole in its stomach that was being filled with spices.  All I could think of at that moment was how my cats would look shaved and set in a roasting pan.  After all, in some parts of the world, they’re food as well.

Fuzzy, ill-tempered food.

Still, I didn’t harbor ill will toward Julia Child for roasting a pig.  Pork was always my favorite meat before I cut it out of my meals.  I simply closed the browser and searched for “Julia Child vegetarian,” hoping to find her culinary skills applied to recipes more suiting my stomach.

Instead, I was surprised to find what I considered a very unpalatable quotation from the chef in the August 2009 issue of People magazine:

“We didn’t know many vegetarians years ago. Not eating meat became the thing to do some places in the ’60s, but the movement is much bigger in the ’90s. Personally, I don’t think pure vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more fear of food—that whole thing that red meat is bad for you. And then there are people who don’t eat meat because it’s against their morals. Well, there’s nothing you can do with people like that. I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?”
Of course, a vegetarian diet can be as healthy or unhealthy as any other, depending on dietary choices.  In fact, with proper nutrition, vegetarians may live longer than omnivores.  But chefs aren’t dietitians, I reasoned.  One only had to look at Paula Deen to know that.  Julia Child could have whatever diet she desired, and that’s not my place to judge.  What made my heart sink wasn’t her distaste for vegetarianism—it’s reasonable for someone so dedicated to food to balk at the thought of restricting it—but rather her comment that the food was lackluster.  As a chef who taught her viewers how to prepare delicious vegetable dishes, why would she think vegetarians wouldn’t enjoy food like everyone else?

Still, I tried not to get worked up over her comment.  She didn’t have to share my beliefs, as I didn’t have to share hers.  I went back to Google and happened upon another unsavory event, this time related by Child’s friend and food columnist Molly O’Neill in a video entitled “Julia Child Battles PETA, Animal Rights.”   O’Neill related a visit that she and Child paid to a veal farm: 

“There was this--there was this big thing about veal, and PETA was going crazy, and there were these terrible stories about veal. And Julia insisted that, um, that there was absolutely nothing wrong with the veal industry and that she and I would sail forth one day, and we would go and inspect a veal farm, which we did.

And, um, it was horrendous [laughter from audience] . . . I worked on a rescue squad, and that's the only reason I have seen worse things. And Julia thought it was great. And Julia would absolutely not bow to the fundamentalism of the animal rights movement because she didn't want to live in a world that was controlled by people getting power over other people and limiting a worldview. She had wonderful politics, social politics--she was a lifelong Democrat and very proud of it and very liberal--and she had some of the worst food politics I've ever been in a kitchen with [more audience laughter].”
I don’t support PETA’s methods of campaigning for animal rights—or their hypocrisy in those campaigns—and monstrous as I find the veal industry to be, I certain don’t want to create a world that’s “controlled by people getting power over other people and limiting a worldview.”  I have no right to try and stop people from purchasing meat, just as they have no right to shove steak down my throat.  What stung so much about the video wasn’t knowing that Child disagreed with the animal rights movement.  Rather, it’s knowing that she seemed to delight in the pain inflicted on the veal calves simply because it went against the morals of the animal rights activists.

I don’t expect the world to stop eating certain foods to suit me.  I just don’t think it’s too much to ask to acknowledge that each chicken leg or slice of bacon on the table was provided by the death of an animal.  And I expected that a chef who worked with that meat every day would respect that sacrifice.

It stings because I know that Julia Child was extremely skilled and I respect her talent.  She brought vibrant flavors and cooking techniques to an audience that had been content with TV dinners.  Even after death, her writings and cooking shows still influence both aspiring chefs and household cooks.  If it were Sandra Lee or Guy Fieri slamming vegetarianism, I wouldn’t care.  It’s only because of my respect for Child that her words hurt.

It’s an interesting dilemma and one I haven’t experienced before.  It’s easy for me to avoid the films of Roman Polanski or Lars von Trier, for example, because I don’t want to support a rapist or a misogynist, respectively, and I haven’t watched their films, so I don’t feel the loss of them.  I never read the Ender’s Game series, so I didn’t suffer for the lack of them when I decided to boycott the works of Orson Scott Card after his horrible comments regarding homosexuality.  But I do respect Julia Child.  I’ve witnessed and admired her work and laughed at parodies of her on television.  She even voiced a character in a cartoon I watched repeatedly as a child.  There’s no doubt that she’s impacted how I view the art of cooking.

In the end, I find that I can’t dismiss her knowledge entirely.  The cultural impact and knowledge she provided are far too great for me to brush aside, especially considering that I’ve learned things from her as well.  But educational as she’s been, I wouldn’t feel right spending money on her works either.  For me, Julia Child can only exist on the public domain, and always with the knowledge of just how much our moralities conflict.

Of course, just like my diet, my resolutions of conflict are only my choice.  If you disagree with my views on the situation, or have handled similar moral dilemmas differently, let me know.


  1. I did the vegetarian thing for a few months, to try something new and different, really. I felt pretty awesome for a while, but I started to get tired, and decided to go back to my normal diet. I like chicken and fish much better than I do beef, so MOST of the time I eat those, but if nothing else, I still think I learned something from the experience. I eat a lot more veggies now (I pretty much avoided them before), and I try to think more about what I eat now, and how.

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