Life Itself Is The Proper Binge

an old gouache illustration I recently found in my sketchbook

Most people love Julia Child because of her contributions to the American culinary scene. Those of you who know Julia's work probably think of her cookbooks, her cooking show, or Meryl Streep's portrayal of her in Julie & Julia. Those who just know her via pop culture can probably conjure vague images of fluffy brown curls, a pearl necklace, a strange voice, and maybe that one SNL skit.
Yes, this tall, Amazonian woman with the reedy voice dragged Americans from their mid-century frozen dinners into the realm of classical French cooking. Her recipes are delightful, her cookbooks still very much in print, and her show streamable on several platforms. There are even a couple biopics and documentaries, the latest being “Julia” on HBO Max.
But really, her cooking and writing isn’t the reason Julia Child holds a top seat on my list of Women Who Inspire. In fact, I am the insufferable person who stands on the fringe of any casual conversation about Julia Child with a comment ready to hand: “Yes, but did you know Julia and Paul Child were in the Secret Service?”
In short, I’m highly annoying to people whose appreciation for Julia is of the garden-variety - they really just wanted to talk about coq au vin in passing but here I am with my FACTS and now they’ve got to listen patiently till I’ve finished. But truly there’s nothing of the rabid fan in me regarding Julia Child. Instead, I’ve grown an appreciation for the less-publicized aspects of her life. I suppose I identify with those parts more than the fame; the pieces of this spectacular life that weren’t showy enough to be turned into legend. These things make Julia relatable, someone to look to for guidance when we run into similar problems. In the same way one might crack open Mastering to check for instructions on a souffle, I wonder how Julia would react to the circumstances life hands me. I feel less alone in my trials, imagining Julia Child soldiering on beside me. Maybe you will too? Here, then, are a few of the very real things we can learn about her life.

  • Julia Child struggled with infertility: this is a sad fact to start off with, but one that I imagine more women understand than ought to. She and her husband Paul wanted children but were never able to have them. I have not researched the reasons behind her struggle to conceive, nor do I know if Paul and Julia ever did, as that feels deeply personal to the Childs and their private life together. What is clear is that Julia did wish for children, and was saddened by her struggle with infertility. However, she did not allow her grief to embitter her. By all accounts she was warm, generous, and even grew quite close with her nieces and nephews. I am sure there were times that Julia was less keen on being around other peoples’ babies than she let on, but I appreciate the fact that she did not go in much for getting stuck in a morass of self-pity. She created and mothered in a million ways that went far beyond biological motherhood, and I like to think that she has “children” all across the world through her work and the lives she touched.

  • Julia Child was bigger than her husband: Perhaps a bit odd for a factoid, and definitely something that was plain to the general observer, Julia Child was taller than her husband, Paul. Though not really overweight, Julia was well over six feet tall. Her kitchen counters (both at home and in the WGBH kitchens) were built to suit her great height. In the mid-1900s, even more than now, women were expected to be smaller and more delicate than their husbands. No one cared if a man was heavier or taller than his wife, but flip it the other way around and eyebrows raised. As someone who outweighs her own husband, I can easily imagine the relief a great many women felt when Julia Child appeared on their televisions. She was enormous, really, built on a completely different scale than women like Mary Tyler Moore. She moved through space with an equal measure of confidence and clumsiness, and she towered over her husband. Julia often reminds me that it is completely rational to take up space, to fill it generously, to be larger than your partner, to design a kitchen to fit your body if it comes down to it. Paul Child was deeply in love with his tall, leggy, clever wife and considered her his muse. Julia in turn, accepted his adoration with complete equanimity and deeply loved him in return. Their sex life seems to have been passionate, vibrant, and mutually satisfying, and their love for each other went far beyond the physical. Never once was there a question of whether Paul found Julia’s mind and body attractive or vice-versa; their love story is one of my favorites.

  • She began at least one important friendship via letters: Okay, so maybe this one is unfair to quote as a “fun fact” being that email did not really exist until the 1970s, so what else was she supposed to do? but I love that Julia clearly enjoyed writing letters. One of her most important friendships was with Avis DeVoto, whom she did not actually meet for the first nine or so years of their relationship, having struck up the friendship when Avis (acting as secretary) responded to a letter Julia had sent to Mr. DeVoto during the time she lived in France. In addition to her friendship with Avis, Julia kept up a lively correspondence with other friends and family, including her co-writer, Simca, with whom she wrote both volumes of Mastering The Art of French Cooking. Recipes, gossip, news, political discourse, vacation plans, and a myriad of other information flew back and forth across the Atlantic. I have several friendships I keep up via letters, so when my husband jokingly asks, “Doesn’t it feel weird to you that you’ve never met this person?” I have Julia’s own precedent to back me up. If Julia did it, it’s kosher. As Always, Julia is an excellent book to read if you want to descend cozily into Julia’s correspondence with Avis. I love epistolary writing: it’s all the fun of reading other people's mail and none of the criminality.

  • She loved the experience of life: If you know anything at all about Julia Child you probably know that she was exuberant and invested in the things that happened around her. “Life itself is the proper binge,” she would say. What a motto! If you’re going to overindulge in anything, let it be in showing up for life. Julia was curious, innovative, and determined. She loved new places, making her the perfect candidate for the wife of a man in the diplomatic services. She loved to eat, and had an enormous appetite. She loved sex, and fun, and friendships, and wine, and travel, and her home with Paul. She loved a good joke and strong opinions. Late in life when her health began to fail and her doctors suggested that she ought to go easier on the good food, maybe some bran, maybe some porridge, maybe some low-fat and low-sodium foods would keep her alive longer, Julia essentially responded, “Well no thank you. I’d rather finish up enjoying myself while it lasts.” And honestly? I get that. I really do.

  • She was comfortable being herself: is there anything better than a person who is self-aware but also entirely unconcerned about being liked by everyone? Someone whose confidence lies in their friendship with themselves. External approval is, at best, capricious. And though Julia became well-loved and famous, she had been Julia Child all along. Julia had a funny voice, tended to say inappropriate things (sometimes by accident, sometimes intentionally), liked to joke around in a totally undignified way, had a penchant for privately swearing, was married to a bit of a grump, and certainly never spent too much time on perfecting her outward appearance. None of this seems to have burdened her or made her self-conscious. I wish that I knew more about the early influences on Julia’s life, because it seems to me that to be born into the world Julia was - a conservative, early 1900s upper middle class family, shipped off to a girls’ college - must not have been the easiest breeding-ground for confidence and self-acceptance. Perhaps Julia didn’t give a hoot. Perhaps with her unusual height she quickly realized that she would never blend in. Even if she were to try to modify her unique personality, she would still be gigantic. Whatever the reason, I’m glad that she did not stifle the hilarious, lovable Julia the world would be blessed to meet. During World War II Julia signed up to do clerical work for the O.S.S and found herself in Sri Lanka where she met Paul Child. Between her experiences in the Far East, meeting Paul and other diverse characters, I think Julia realized that the world is better with as much color as we can throw into it.

  • Julia Child started late: in our own historic times, spurred onward by hustle culture and instant success, the modern era values nothing so much as youth. By the time you are thirty you ought to have your retirement planned out. You are free to switch careers, but you ought to be at least a decade into your first by now. You should be financially independent, but also hustle hustle hustle to make more money, and diversify your portfolio, and do something remarkable and become famous if remotely possible. It’s a lot. But the urge to be seen as successful and focused is not new. Julia struggled throughout her early life with finding her place in the world. In fact the queen of our kitchens did not know how to cook at all until her early thirties when she and Paul moved to France and she enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu. The first volume of Mastering took nine years to write and research - the first volume. At the time of publication she was 49 years old. Her television series, The French Chef, would not begin until she was 51. I want us to let that sink in for a moment. Calm your anxious professional guilt. Julia Child - a woman with a lasting and record-setting professional legacy - scarcely had a job until she was over fifty years old. I love this fact, which is why I saved it for last. Julia’s own path toward art, cuisine, her calling, and success was not at all linear, predictable, conventional, or even approved by the standards of today.

In my kitchen hangs a cutting board that my friend Jill painted with these words from Julia Child: “Find something you are passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” It is, perhaps, the best lesson Julia taught us: to pay attention to what we love and to value it. Her success did not come about easily, or without devastating troughs following the peaks. She was not lazy, entitled, or sedentary. She worked for what she loved, and found in loving it and investing in it that eventually it became something she was able to share on a larger scale. But even if the cookbook and the show had never come about, I fancy that Julia Child would have been Julia Child anyway: curious, passionate, surrounded by joyful exploration and abundance. This is the reason I will always love her.

1 comment

  1. I don't know much about her, but from all the facts you shared. I understand why your a fan, she sounds delightful and I love all her quotes.