Did you know that Julia Child wanted to be a novelist?
It’s true! When she graduated from college, she planned on writing. But one thing led to another and she ended up, as you doubtless know, becoming the first celebrity chef. She writes about all of this in her charming memoir My Life in France. Of course, Julia did actually become a very prolific and talented writer, just not in the genre she had intended.
You might be wondering what in the world writing has to do with cooking — quite a lot actually. On the heels of that, you might also be wondering why in the world I am writing a post about Julia Child. It’s because I recently learned several valuable “writing lessons” while watching a recording of her PBS television show The French Chef.
The Potato As Antagonist
The first episode of season one is called “The Potato Show.” In it Julia divulges that there are over 200 classical French recipes involving potatoes and that she is going to demonstrate only four of these “wonderful recipes”. While demonstrating how to make a large potato pancake, Julia tells the viewer that it will soon be time to flip the pancake, but that it has got to be really good and ready to flip. She instructs the apprenctice chef that “whenever you flip anything you’ve really got to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass like this is.” Shifting the pancake in the pan, she goes for the flip and. . . . misses. Her first time on television — an accomplished, classically trained, and world-renowned chef — and she misses the flip. Wow!
But does she panic? Does she blush and fluster? No! She says, “You see there, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should have,” and proceeds to detail calmly how, if something like this happens to you at home “and you are alone” you can always pick it up and just change the plan, and now the potato pancake you were going to make is a potato under the broiler with melted cheese that wasn’t supposed to be evenly crisped to begin with because “when you’re alone in your kitchen, who will know?”
But the startling thing is that Julia isn’t alone. She had perhaps thousands of people watching her when the show was live on Boston Public Television way back in the 60s, not to mention the crew on the set. Not only that, but her missed flip lives on in posterity because I am watching it now on a DVD nearly 50 years later.
Yet, amazing as it was, it wasn’t the missed flip that struck me. It was her ability to turn adversity into opportunity on a dime. She was quick and handled the entire mishap with humor, skill, and aplomb. An admirable feat indeed — to this writer’s mind, much more admirable than a successful flip.
But Julia’s kitchen wisdom extends beyond the kitchen and into the mind of any artist practicing her craft. I learned three valuable lessons from watching “The Potato Show.”
Lesson 1: Control the medium
When I’m sitting alone and plugging away at my novel I have to remember to have the courage of my convictions. Keeping in mind that what I am doing is a “rather daring thing to do,” as Julia says of her flip, and that the mess of my ideas as I’m drafting is just as loose a mass as that potato pancake, I have to believe that I am a master of the words and all the tools of my craft. I have to know when and how to use them for particular effect, and not let the tendency to rush and push something that isn’t quite ready get the better of my judgment. In other words, and as Julia so subtly conveys, I need to be in control of my medium and not let my medium control me.
Lesson 2: Don’t fear failure
When faced with less than successful forays into the literary landscape, I also need to remember, as Julia pointedly reminds those in her viewing audience, that “I haven’t lost anything.” No one will know when I fail, especially if I turn those failures into something else. The only way I am going to learn to do anything is just by doing it. Because when I am working alone, and no one but me and God has seen my work, what have I to fear? It is the nasty demon of perfectionism and pride that causes me to be afraid of failure, to freeze up in my process, to flirt with the belief that I can’t do it and should just give up. In Julia’s kitchen, there’s no room for that kind of thinking — and there ought not to be room for that in my workspace either. Her episode with the pancake reminds me that I possess all the tools I need to address whatever problems arise in my writing and that if something doesn’t go according to plan, then I can always change the plan! She reminds me to be flexible. And, if someone sees my mistakes, and if I do not succeed and it’s laid bare for all the world to see? Well, there are worse things in the world than that. It would be worse to never have tried at all.
Lesson 3: Courage! Onward!
Julia closes “The Potato Show” by reminding her audience that she has shown us only four of the 200 recipes and that now we only have 196 to go! She says this with jubilant, knowing humor, as if the daunting task is a wondrous and lucky thing. But she rallies the withering and fearful novice with the cry of “Courage!” in her impeccable French and with such enthusiasm that the apprentice feels that just maybe conquering those 196 recipes won’t be so bad after all, that it actually may be within the realm of possibility to achieve this culinary feat within her lifetime. As a writer, it is easy to forget to be amazed at the slightest progress because I see only the challenges of how far I’ve still got to go — I can’t see the forest for the trees at times. It is easy to get lost in that, to become discouraged and to lose hope. Julia reminds me that my art is a process. Like mastering the art of cooking with spuds, mastering the craft of the novel is a long step-by-step process. I should be excited to discover every facet of that process and I should be amazed at each sentence I’m able to craft and each page that arises out of nothingness. I should hold that process in awe, as something that I am privileged to participate in. And I should not forget that each little step, just like each little potato recipe, will teach me a great deal and eventually lead to accomplishing the ultimate goal of completion.
In the world of The French Chef, and in my own world as well, cooking and writing have a lot in common. I have loved Julia Child since I was a little girl, watching reruns of her cooking shows on television, and cooking is one of my great loves. She has always been a model to me of joie de vivre and I am happy now to discover in her a mentor in the practice of my art, as well. Perhaps Julia was never able to write that novel she had dreamed of when she was young. But she managed to take her writer’s heart with her into the kitchen and into the writing of her numerous cookbooks. I am thrilled to sit with her at her table as an apprentice to her kitchen wisdom.
For those of you who are now thoroughly fascinated by the wonders and depths of “The Potato Show”, here it is, and well worth watching. Bon ecrivez!