Thursday, August 19, 2004

Julia Child as Conservative

I just got finished watching a program on Julia Child on PBS. Made me think (as most things do nowadays) about conservatism. It occurs to me that Julia Child was, in a funny way, a conservative--in the most authentic and serious meaning of that term.

First and foremost, she stood for the importance and primacy of domestic life. At the time she was writing, large corporations were expending enormous effort to convince women that cooking was drudgery, and they could get around all the effort and time involved with it by using frozen and canned food. Julia Child attacked this idea directly, arguing that cooking was not drudgery, but a soul satisfying, meaningful human activity, and that something profound is lost when we lose our connection to food--and with it the deep human desire to feed others food that we ourselves have prepared. Domestic life is meaningful only to the degree that the home is the site of production--once nothing is produced in the home, it becomes simply a place where people sleep, not a place where real family life is possible. I think this also shows, once again, the "cultural contradictions of capitalism" that Daniel Bell pointed out, the way that markets can eat away at important--and conservative--mediating institutions like the family.

Second, Julia Child was an elitist, and connected to this, an anti-postmodernist. That is, she believed that there was a right way to do things, that some people knew how to do these things, and that if you wanted to do things right you should look to the people with serious training and understanding. Her programs were fun and seemingly unrehearsed, but she studied carefully in French cooking schools and worked hard to figure out exactly how particular dishes should be cooked. That is, she believed that there was a way to cook a chicken, and a wrong way--and that people ought to take the time to learn the right way. Cooking was a discipline, and even though she was a populist, in the sense that she believed that anyone COULD learn how to cook French food, learning involved time and a willingness to submit to authority (her!).

Finally, and connected to this, was a belief in civilization. Julia Child believed that classical French cooking was one of the great accomplishments of human endeavor, something that had evolved over a long period of time. While progress was possible, it was only possible once one inherited the accumulated knowledge of centuries of gradual development. That is, Julia Child was no Cartesian--no "I think, therefore I cook" kind of building off of nothing but raw rationality. One had to immerse oneself in a particular tradition before anything like real creativity was possible. This cut against the grain of powerful trends in American culture, but, in the American context, so does any real conservatism. She believed that high could be distinguished from low, and that to acheive great things one needed to begin, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, with the "best that had been prepared and cooked."

So let us pay tribute to Julia Child, a woman who, as much as anyone of the last half-century, helped to civilize America.


Anonymous said...

I don't mean to be ungracious, but isn't it odd to praise Julia Child for her 'conservatism' without noting that in her case, the virtues that you charactize as conservative were compatible with being a lifelong passionately liberal Democrat? It reminds me (although far less offensively) of the current fashionable right-wing Orwell fad, in which the following chain of reasoning is followed: Orwell was sensible, forthright, and hated totalitarianism; socialists are all sniveling fools who adore totalitarian governments; therefore Orwell wasn't really a socialist -- an argument which I would love to have heard someone make when Orwell had a chance to respond.

Anonymous said...

I linked here via Mark Kleiman, and enjoyed the post.

Post 1 has a good point about JC's politics. If this is conservatism, then why was it easily consistent with a liberal political stance?

Another note: amateur artisanship often emerges at the same time as a task is automated and taken over by corporate businesses. Carpentry, cooking, or even Martha Stewart's appproach to living are more likely to emerge as hobbies once companies are providing standardized approaches to to these problems. Julia Child's reverent approach to cooking might have been unimaginable or laughable a century earlier when households required an incredible amount of work to just function at a sustainable level (not that it's easy now).

Tom Beck said...

She might agree with you that she believed in the importance of real cooking and learning how to do it right. But don't claim her as any kind of conservative, since she never defined herself that way in life, so you shouldn't get to do it in death.

Rather, maybe you should consider the possibility, at least, that the virtues you admire in her are actually LIBERAL virtues rather than conservative ones. Bit of a kick in the head, huh?

Anonymous said...

I've got to agree with the other posters --- there's nothing inherently conservative about any of the things you talk about, and in one case you seem to dramatically misrepresent what Julia Child was all about.

Let's take a look at your points one-by-one.

1. JC did indeed stand for the primacy of domestic life. She did indeed wage a long and impressive war against those who wanted to convince women that cooking was drudgery. However, by attacking that idea, she was by extension attacking the companies which promulgated that idea. Attacking corporate America seems an odd sport for a conservative. Moreover, as the other posters noted, there is nothing about the idealization of the home which is conservative, unless you buy into the trope that liberals all want to destroy the family, etc., etc., which the right in this country has been trying with some success to pass off as general knowledge. The family is not a conservative-mediating institution. It just isn't.

2. Julia Child was certainly not an elitist. She was precisely the opposite. An elitist would have thought, as many elitists did, that French cooking was too complex and sophisticated to be done by Americans. The joy of Julia Child was that she tore down the elitism by showing just how easy and joyous cooking can be. Yes, she thought there was a right way to roast a chicken -- or, as a simple perusal of her cookbooks would have told you, several right ways -- but that's only because there is indeed a right way. What, would it have been liberal to throw around the idea that you can cook a chicken any old way? Julia said there was a right way, but that the right way was easy, and therefore you should do it rather than popping open a can of Chef-boy-ar-dee. The reason people listened to her was not because she demanded submission to an authoritarian voice, but in fact the opposite. They listened to her because she wasn't authoritarian. She would drop things on the floor and use them anyway. She'd use too much vinegar and just throw some more stock in to thin it out. She was insistent that there was a right way, but she was also insistent that the right way was easy, and didn't need to be clouded behind arcane rules.

3. Yeah, I really have no idea what you're trying to say here. French cooking is good and liberals don't like good things --- conservatives do? Anyone with a tastebud can distinguish between good and bad cooking. Matthew Arnold? Please! Julia Child was indeed a great civilizing influence, and one of the few people who can genuinely say they made the world a better place, but to claim that civilizing influences are ipso facto conservative is to ignore a great deal of what goes on in the real world.

Other than that, though, nice post.

BTW --- my name's Collin but I just didn't want to go through the blogger sign-in.

Anonymous said...

Could too much be made of individual personality in terms of politics? Julia Child held decided opinions and imparted to us all a sense of fun and pleasure. She was part of a relatively old-fashioned marriage. She suggested to Larry King that there might be a chance death would not apply to her. She disliked grilled vegetables. The individual personality has a lot of variations. Julia Child was definitely metro and not retro, speaking of the Great Divide, which measures retro by religiosity and being in a state on the government dole. If you have no sense of fun, you could always denounce her as a limousine liberal or a wine-and-cheese liberal. If you enjoy wine and literate public discourse, you could raise a glass to Julia and vote for Kerry in November.

Anonymous said...

This argument seems semantical for the most part. I don't think the post was meant to imply that Child supported George Bush or was against same-sex marriage.

However, I also think the presented argument is inaccurate. Yes, Child had classical training, and used it often, but what was really important to her was how the food tasted. She didn't believe in complicated preparations for their own sake - what she did try to do was make preparations that seemed difficult more accessible for the inspired amateurs among us. She often phrased her instructions in that manner.

I didn't see the program on Child, but I've watched plenty of shows that she was in. I don't think she was an elitist. She wanted to educate people, but she didn't feel herself intrinsically superior to people who ate TV dinners. She just thought they might like food better a different wat.

Anonymous said...

That is, Julia Child was no Cartesian--no "I think, therefore I cook" kind of building off of nothing but raw rationality. One had to immerse oneself in a particular tradition before anything like real creativity was possible.

An ironic description - classical French cooking is an immensely Cartesian endeavor. Escoffier imposed an impressive order and system on the 'art' of cooking. Julia's real endeavor was making that system accessible to the untrained, largely by stripping away a good deal of the mystery that Americans attached to "fine" cooking.

I totally agree, though, with the rest of your analysis.