Does it matter? A recent story in the The New York Times notes that despite her canonization as the unofficial ambassador for French cuisine in this country, most French people haven’t heard of Julia Child.
In a way, it makes sense. Her book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was always intended for an American audience. It was never translated to French for one obvious reasons — in theory, the French know how to cook their own cuisine.
I bought a copy in London in 2002 and that copy wasn’t translated to English, either, meaning that it had no specific shifts for UK cooks such as gas marks and English measures. Consider that on Amazon.co.uk, there are only three reviews for the seminal work, two posted by Americans living abroad. On Amazon in the United States, there are 134 reviews.
One thing that you learn as an expat is that celebrity — especially television celebrity — doesn’t always travel. I used to scratch my head in the market check out at the cover of OK magazine in London, since I didn’t recognize most of the people on the cover. After living abroad for a couple of years, I couldn’t recognize most people on People magazine, either. (Who is Jessica Simpson, and why is she famous again?)
The NY Times noted: “In an interview
in the French daily newspaper Le Figaro last week, [Meryl] Streep said:
“What surprises me is that the French don’t know her at all. While for
Americans, she was one of the best ambassadors of France … since
But that’s the thing about ambassadors. They aren’t often known as well in their home countries as they are abroad, unless something goes wrong. London newspapers routinely reported on the American ambassadors to the United Kingdom and to the United Nations when I lived there. Can you name the American ambassador to the United Kingdom
In her lifetime, Julia Child was recognized officially for her work distributing her love for French cuisine to the world’s largest economy by the French government, which awarded her the Légion d’honneur,
or Legion of Honor
. And of course, despite her issues with Madame Brassart, the battle axe at the helm of Le Cordon Bleu during her tenure, the current owner Andre Cointreau loves her. A beautiful portrait of her hangs in a coveted position in the hallway up to the kitchen.
Although Julia loved France, I wonder if she would be bothered whether they cared or not. I think she reveled more in the fact that people took her teaching to heart, evidenced by books battered by years of companionship in the kitchen. When I offered her my own tattered copy of Mastering the Art of French cooking for her to sign back in 1994, she laughed with glee at the duct tape reinforcing the spine. “Now, THIS is what I love to see!” she exclaimed.
The irony is that at the same time that Julie & Julia introduces a whole new generation to Julia Child, it may also be introducing her to the people whose cuisine she championed for more than half of her life, too.