Reflections on Food and Eating Through the Lens of Julia Child

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 Those who know me well know that I harbor an unfettered love for the legendary American chef Julia Child. I plowed through her memoir, My Life in France, and still occasionally watch old tapings of her television program, The French Chef. I paid tribute to her culinary greatness when I saw her legendary kitchen on display at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Though I did not offer a stick of butter at the altar of her extra-tall kitchen counter like Julie in Julie & Julia, I nevertheless stood in reverence of the undeniable uniqueness of one of America’s most famous culinary geniuses.

Child wrote with incredible levity — both in her cookbooks and her memoirs — and her TV show highlighted invaluable life lessons while serving up scrumptious recipes. Julia Child taught me and countless others that mistakes happen, and that the joy of doing often overpowers the accident itself. A great cook is confident in their abilities, but forthright in their errors. In her own words, “One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”

I find tremendous satisfaction in Child’s words and try to live by her wisdom in my everyday life. We celebrated Women’s History Month in March, but I still want to highlight Julia Child as someone whose culinary and cultural legacy deserves to be appreciated by all. While there are many other women who also deserve to enter our cultural and intellectual lexicons — particularly women of color and others whose rich experiences have been erased by oppressive systems — Child’s distinguished contributions to media and American cuisine remain relevant and should still be acknowledged by 21st-century foodies.

Child demystified French cuisine for the American public with an air of vivaciousness and exuberance that should be applied to how we all think about food — even on a campus dominated by dining halls and fast-food culture. To Child, eating excellent food was an experience characterized by pleasure and joy. An excellent meal made with fresh, simple ingredients could transcend time and place. I don’t think that one could possibly compare a mouthwatering meal constructed by a bona fide French chef with a boxed pizza from DeCafé. However, I think there is something to be said for seeking intentionality and mindfulness when it comes to what we eat as college students. 

Everyone eats differently — that is an undeniable fact. Rejecting this is the foundation of food policing, a phenomenon I’ve witnessed during my time in the Oberlin Student Cooperative Association in particular. We must make strides as a society to not judge what another individual eats or does not eat, and strive toward body acceptance and positivity. Still, there is merit to understanding what we are putting into our bodies, where it comes from, and how a dish we are eating was prepared.

The benefits of such intentionality are plentiful; by seeking out a connection between ourselves and food — and its underlying environmental, social, and political influences — we can become more in touch with the world around us. Julia Child encouraged her readers and audience to “savor [food], analyze it, and discuss with your companions, and then … compare it with other experiences.” 

While she may have merely been ruminating on the importance of butter for a particular dish or describing a complex culinary technique, we may still draw conclusions about the relationship between cuisine and other aspects of society. Being informed about the food options available to us enables us to make more responsible — or at least more conscious — decisions.

I commend the work by the various environmental and food justice groups on campus that are fighting for a more equitable and ethical world through food. I respect and appreciate those on campus who feel connected to food in other ways — for example, those who serve as head cooks in their co-ops and dream up inventive meals, or people who study food in academic settings. 

Perhaps unlike any other aspect of our existence, food connects us in permanent and far-reaching ways. For some, it is merely sustenance; for others, simply pleasure. In any case, Oberlin students should continue exploring their own relationships to food, and seek out deliciousness whenever possible and ethically permissible. As Julia Child would say, bon appétit!

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