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By Timothy Hagy, Paris Editor

PARIS, November 15, 2004 - Julia Child, the queen of Franco-American cuisine, may no longer be with us, but her legacy lives on, even through distracted culinary and geopolitical times.

Julia came to the television screen when all things French were de rigueur. Jacqueline Kennedy had just arrived in the White House, bringing with her, not only a collection of shimmering haute couture gowns, but René Verdon as head chef. Even the dream of a European getaway had become an affordable reality, with new commercial jet service making Paris a six-hour flight away.

Somewhere, in between the basement of the Boston Electric Company, where the first episodes of "The French Chef" were taped, and the hallowed halls of the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., where her Cambridge kitchen was ultimately reinstalled, Julia became an American icon.

Her credo, which was to eat beautifully prepared food, in moderation, eventually came up against a diet-crazed American society, where the word "lite" has been translated into million dollar marketing campaigns, and the word "French" has become the equivalent of one of Dick Cheney's expletives.

In the end, and with the benefit of research, it would appear that Julia had the recipe right all along.

Scientists have long been puzzled by the "French paradox": the enigma of why a country addicted to high caloric cuisine can boast such a slim population. Only 7% of the French are classified as obese, by comparison with 22% of all Americans. The cases of heart disease and cancer are also proportionally lower.

What's more, the French adore their food - each morsel of foie gras, every bite of caramelized quail, every spoonful of purée de pommes de terre, teaming with butter and topped with white truffles. Add a heavenly bottle of Cru Bourgeois Médoc, and there you have it. Dining in France is tantamount to participating in a sacred ritual, a communal celebration that savors every flavor with relish.

The key to the mystery is in proportion. A report published in Psychological Science proves the point. "Mean portion size across all Paris establishments was 277g (9.8oz), compared with an average in Philadelphia of 346g (12.2oz) - about 25% more. Only in the Hard Rock Cafe chain did the Parisian portions match the US ones."

In France, there is no such thing as an "all you can eat buffet", "a bottomless doggie bag", or a carton of "super-sized fries"- even a McDonald's Big Mac is diminutive in magnitude, when placed alongside its American cousin. Though the French diet may be higher in fat, Americans consume far more calories each day. Multiply that by a lifetime of excess, and you see the results emerging from many an SUV, parked as close to the entrance to the Picadilly Cafeteria as mall rules will allow.

Julia understood the theory of less is more long ago,
when her cooking show was broadcast each Saturday in my hometown in Southwest Virginia. Her spirit of adventure in the kitchen, her love of the exotic world of French cuisine, offered evidence of the magnificent possibilities that lay just beyond the horizon.

According to an elegy by R.W. Apple, Jr., published in the New York Times, Julia was "a paid-up member of the generation that truly believed, as she once remarked, 'that we could change the world.'"

Perhaps that spirit of idealism came from John Kennedy's New Frontier optimism, perhaps from her own experience in the Foreign Service, but it is that 'can do' side of Americana that lives on, albeit feebly, as a ray of hope in some of the darkest corners of the planet.

Whatever the ultimate menu for Thanksgiving might be, giving thanks for Julia's enlightened raison d'être should be the first course.


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