Julia Child, a Devoted Life

Thumbnail image for julia childHappy birthday, Julia! To commemorate her 100th birthday, I’m republishing my paean to the great woman:

As a kid growing up on Long Island in the 1960s, I don’t think I ever actually sat through an episode of “The French Chef.” I know the now-iconic PBS series not as a memory but as an immutable fact, like the yule log and the Million Dollar Movie. Only recently, with the release of Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” and the re-release of Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, am I getting to appreciate the French chef herself.

Of course, I’m not alone. The joyful buzz that the movie created both in the mass media and in online tweets and status reports bespeaks the fact that stories about grown-up women by grown-up women for grown-up women are in short supply. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that “Julie & Julia” is based on two memoirs. Memoirs, at their best, unfold in a reflective rather than declarative mode and invite their readers to thoughtfully reconsider–and maybe even reimagine–their own lives.

My Life in France is one of those memoirs. And despite the film’s broad, comedic styling, it does manage to convey Child’s sense of wonder and exuberance. In our 21st-century world of calculated blogging and branding, tweeting and linking, Child’s success is an argument for the magic of being present.

Because the truth (and beauty) of it is that Julia Child became a household name by accident. She stumbled onto French cuisine when she accompanied her husband on assignment in Paris. She stumbled onto what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking when she met two women who were already writing the germ of that classic cookbook. She stumbled onto “The French Chef” before she even owned a TV set.

In each case, she embraced the possibilities with a fathomless reserve of curiosity and adventure. Recalling the pilot for “The French Chef,” Child writes that: “We knew this was a great opportunity for . . . something, none of us was exactly sure what.”

Child never lost that gusto, even when, pushing 80, she closed up her beloved Proven?al country home for the last time:

Now I was moving forward again, into new experiences, in new places, with new people. There was still so much to learn and do–articles and books to write, perhaps another TV show or two to try. I wanted to go lobster-fishing in Maine, visit a Chicago slaughterhouse, teach kids how to cook. [ . . . ] In short, my appetite had not diminished.

Julia Child convinces me that Joseph Campbell had it right. Life isn’t about assigning meaning or enacting a grand purpose. It’s about feeling alive. Following your bliss.

Once Child was seduced by a possibility, she was dogged about pursuing it. I’ve been thinking lately about the distinction between commitment and devotion, and it seems to me that Child epitomizes the devotional life. She poured herself into le gastronomie with her entire being, soul and psyche, well beyond the territory that current parlance describes as “commitment,” or even “authenticity.” It’s this palpable devotion to an ideal that rendered her a star, well before Meryl Streep showed up masquerading on the cover of Child’s memoir.

As a coach, I know that prime-time women are longing to find a sense of devotion. Or, as they call it, “passion.” I remember one woman who inquired about private coaching because she felt that she lacked such a “passion.” Like so many others, she felt she had fallen short in comparison to the rash of magazine stories about women who give up their day jobs to start a nonprofit and save the world. While these glossy profiles are certainly laudable examples of a life well-lived, they are the exceptions, not the rule. And I feel deeply for the many women who devalue themselves for not measuring up to this now-pervasive narrative.

Child’s life offers an alternative narrative. For one thing, she just loved to cook. She didn’t set out to change the world. She ended up doing so in the process of living her devotion. For another, she didn’t discover that devotion until later in life. Child was 36 years old when she ate that life-changing meal on her first day in France.

I’m often asked in question-and-answer sessions, “How do I find my passion?” As if it’s a choice between Google Maps and MapQuest. From now on, my answer will be: “Do like Julia Child. Leave the country.” Metaphorically speaking. You can’t discover devotion if you don’t leave the house. Change your scenery. Change your circumstances. Then be present, open, and dogged.

I understand now why Child, in the movie, reportedly dismissed young Julie’s project. To a woman who considered her recipes a “sacred trust,” the cooking/blogging extravaganza likely sounded like a gimmick. All commitment, no devotion.

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