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
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
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
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