If you're alone in the kitchen and you drop the lamb, you can always just pick it up. Who's going to know? - Julia Child
When I was in the fourth grade, I had an assignment to create a product, make its packaging and then pull off an advertising campaign for it; a bilboard, radio ad, magazine ad, and a television commercial. I created Food Fix, an edible tape you could use to repair broken food. The prototype was really just a wad of Saran Wrap re-rolled around some gadget from my extensive Lego collection and the ad campaign was pretty rogue. I had seen enough episodes of Julia Child's The French Chef to know that Julia had a mischievous spirit and a laissez faire habit of dropping and flinging things around the kitchen, so it was only logical that I would make her my Food Fix spokesperson, and only logical that I would play her in my radio and TV commercials. I'm pretty sure I was the only fourth grader who knew who she was. I'm not even sure Mr. Woolsey, my teacher, had any idea what I was doing.
Fast forward to my life now, as a food writer and recipe developer: I work a lot from home, as I imagine Julia did.
My apartment is where I keep the food where it all begins, the knives that cut it and the fire that cooks it, so the kitchen is essentially my office. But wait a minute, I also write, and until a month or so ago, like many of us in this business, I didn't have a place other than my butcher block or the floppy couch where I could sit down with my laptop. So a goal for early 2012 was to set up a real place at home to write: a little carved out space with a desk, shelves, proper lighting and a chair. It's been happening in stages and believe me, it's a real revolution.
A few weeks ago, with books lining the walls and files finally tucked neatly away I felt like a grown-up, but I wasn't finished. In all of my work spaces, I always surround myself with a few reminders to keep me motivated and inspired. In the kitchen that's easy: it's the ingredients themselves, but also music for when I'm cooking, and the faces (live and in photographs) of the people I feed. But around the corner, this new office space was lacking.
So I spent a recent afternoon doddling around online, tapping in the names of food luminaries who might have some kind of relic languishing away in the halls of eBay: Elizbeth David, Laurie Colwin, Escoffier, MFK Fisher, and of course, Julia Child. That's when I stumbled across a company called i-Concepts in Wellesley, Massachusetts who prints and sells photographs of Julia for the Radcliffe Institute at Harvard, the institution that houses the papers and photographs of Julia Child and her husband, the photographer Paul Child, and it hit me that I wanted some of his photographs of Julia working to hang in the space where I work.
I bought three photographs and the bill was less than $50.
What I love about the image above is how it shows that despite appearing to be on her set alone for her television show, The French Chef, she actually had a team of people at her feet, literally, helping her bring it all together. This is a good reminder for someone like me who isn't great at asking for help.
This next image made me gasp out loud when I saw it. Here she is truly alone, kneading dough on vacation, in a bikini top. It struck me because there are many similar photos of me doing exactly the same thing with pie crusts and paella pans. Nevermind an apron, the sweat and bugs of summer are part of the charm and sometimes even the flavor.
These are the moments of cooking I love the most. When there's no notepad or laptop nearby tracking each teaspoon and procedure with a deadline looming. It's when I'm slow dancing with the food, infusing it with a nourishing intension through my fingertips. It's not always work, after all. This is an important one to hang in my little New York City walk-up nook as I ask myself each and every day why I do this work.
This last photo reminds me of what a deep experience it is for two people to teach and learn from each other in the kitchen. This is a perfect moment: I hope we've all had one like this. It's warm, a window is open, an elder is teaching us about how to do something with our hands or our hearts, by cooking or building or crafting or even just being. For me it was the grandmother who taught me knitting on my parents' rust velour couch, the grandfather who showed me the ropes of poker in a lake house in Idaho, the brother who showed me how to glue model airplanes together in our shared bedroom, and the aunt who used to cut my hair on our brick patio, teaching me about how to be a good woman. As a mother of a similarly long and blonde little girl who loves cake with pink frosting, this photo has literal meaning too. I gaze at it and remember who this is all for.
Sure, my office is tiny, but it now has another spirit sharing the space with me, tapping me gently on the shoulder and reminding me that it's supposed to be fun, that we're supposed to laugh and that we're also imperfect. We do drop our potato pancakes on the floor and we do pick them up quickly and check to see that no one saw.
I look to Julia a lot these days, and these photographs are my way of inviting her, as a quiet six-foot-two grandmotherly muse, into my new space, so she can remind me that when I make mistakes, I find my recipe. When you get lost, you start to have good stories to tell.
Julia, thank you for prompting me to stand tall, to sweat into the food, and to show people what I know about making things taste good.
• Purchase Julia Child prints from i-concepts.org
• Related: Weekend Meditation: The Kitchen Altar
(Images used by permission from the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University)