Why you should care
Because Julia Child just wanted us to enjoy our food. And massage chickens.
Julia Child certainly knew chicken — among all matter of meats and fish and fowl. But the quick-witted, unflappable and larger-than-life master chef was definitely a chicken expert — and lover. As she once famously said: “I always give my bird a generous butter massage before I put it in the oven. Why? Because I think the chicken likes it — and, more important, I like to give it.”
Child elevated the daily slog of meal prep to a pleasurable, playful task.
Child’s poultry prowess emerged in recipes from her iconic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the 1961 recipe tome that launched her career, and in her 10-year PBS series, The French Chef. Both introduced French cuisine to the American public, making fine food preparation accessible and liberating women (not “housewives,” a term Child shunned) from lackluster 1960s casserole cooking. Child elevated the daily slog of meal prep to a pleasurable, playful task.
In one infamous show (well worth revisiting during the holiday season, heavy with turkey and ham), Child gives a hilarious lesson on how to identify the different types of chicken — from a broiler to a caponette. Six “chicken sisters” sit on the kitchen counter in what resembles a police lineup. Each of the group (known as a “peep”) is identified with measurements and ages, and, of course, cookability factor. But the roaster is the star of this show. With trademark exuberance Child seizes upon the episode’s star bird — one which has reached the “full glory of its chickendom” — and gets on with cooking one of her signature dishes, roast chicken. Butter massage included.
When Meryl Streep played the beloved chef in the 2009 film Julie & Julia, she says she learned that after 30 years of roasting chicken she had ”been doing it wrong.” By adopting Child’s fool-proof recipe, it meant the “difference between doing it pretty well and doing it great.”
But for Julia Child, cooking was not about doing things absolutely right. She didn’t wield her chef knife like a culinary tyrant (no Gordon Ramsey expletives here). Indeed, she set standards for procedure, with correct steps to follow and science to respect. But there was also a wide berth for creativity. Exploration. Playfulness. And screwups. Which sometimes required a blowtorch to fix.
We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.
A diet naysayer and food-police frowner, Child worshipped at the altar of salt and heavy dairy (“If you’re afraid of butter, use cream”). She was also a big supporter of pork fat, bacon and just about everything else on the healthy heart no-no list. And while she scorned what she saw as the evolving “fear of food” and reminisced about the “halcyon days” of the ’60s, when people ate what they wanted, she also stressed the importance of eating fresh food and eating in moderation.
”We should enjoy food and have fun. It is one of the simplest and nicest pleasures in life.” Amen to that.
And perhaps this is why Julia “Butter Never Hurts You” Child advocated for the use of fats right into her 90s. She saw this, plus having strong opinions (she was, after all, a feminist trailblazer) and a sense of adventure in the kitchen as the keys to a long, happy life. Which she enjoyed, right up until age 94. And, incidentally, she did not die of a heart attack.
Watch Julia Child introduce the “chicken sisters” and serve up her famous roast chicken. Bon appétit!