The Julia Child Effect
The Julia Child Effect
By: Lauren Bolden
I did not grow up watching Julia Child on TV. I have only recently begun discovering the joy that is watching Julia in her kitchen thanks to reruns on a local public television station. One of my favorite episodes of Baking with Julia features Chef Gale Gand and her recipe for "Not Your Usual Lemon Meringue Pie." The episode starts as all Baking with Julia episodes do, a few bold notes played on a piano and the scene opening with Julia welcoming you to her kitchen. Her guest stands by, a slightly awkward smile upon their face, as they wonder how they got so lucky to be baking with such a culinary legend while also trying to recall all of the talking points they memorized to attempt to impress Julia.
In this episode, Julia was an onlooker as Chef Gand walked her through a recipe for the pastry chef’s take on Lemon Meringue Pie. Instead of a pie crust, Chef Gand uses phyllo dough. Rather than the typical structure of a pie: crust, filling, topping, Chef Gand layered phyllo dough, lemon curd, toasted meringue, and then more phyllo dough, creating a layered lemon dessert meant to be served amongst silverware of multiple sizes. Essentially, this pie was fancy.
There is an entire generation of cooks, eaters, and food lovers that are familiar with the name, Julia Child, but they could tell you nothing about her actual life or influence on American cooking. I was in this camp for many years, having been born in the early ‘90s and not finding my love of food television until around the age of 12 when my parents finally decided to commit to cable television. I would watch hours of The Food Network, and fantasized about sitting at a table while Emeril Lagasse cooked and danced on Emeril Live, or visiting the Hershey’s factory to learn how it is made with Marc Summers on Unwrapped, or flitting around a tablescape with Sandra Lee of Semi-Homemade enjoying a green bean casserole made with (shhhh!) canned green beans. Of course, until Sandra noted that you could make this dish with canned green beans I had not realized there was an alternative.
It wasn’t until I was entering my early 20’s that I paid attention to Julia Child. In 2009, a movie came out titled Julie & Julia. It was based on the book of the same name written by Julie Powell. Julie told the story of hating her job and feeling the desire to work towards something she was passionate about. She began an online blog and committed to cooking all 524 recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 365 days. I found both works to be heartbreaking and simultaneously inspiring. Until Julie & Julia, I believed that Julia Child was the celebrity chef of the generation before me and only meant for people who have an interest in French cooking, so therefore she had nothing to offer me. Watching the story unfold, I realized that I was wrong about Julia Child, that she is just as important to my generation of food lovers as she was to the generation before me.
Similar to Julia, I believed the same notion of “heard of it, but not for me,” could also be said about Lemon Meringue Pie. Kids in the '90s were not served slices of pie for dessert after dinner. Instead, we ate Nutty Bars and Swiss Rolls, and if we ever encountered anything like a meringue, we automatically assumed it was meant for "some old person," and secretly felt sorry for them. The yellow, gelatinous filling under a blob of white foam did not appeal to me in the slightest until I was twenty-five years old. Similar to Julie Powell, I was unhappy with my work life and needed an escape. I also found comfort in food, pie specifically, but instead of committing to a year-long cooking project, I decided to commit to learning how to perfect one genre of food: pie.
I threw myself into baking pies with the same gusto that Julia Child describes in her memoir, My Life in France, when she enrolled herself in cookery school in Paris or when Julie Powell committed to cooking through Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Similar to both Julie and Julia, I wanted to pursue something that would make me feel good about myself.
I had been baking pies for about six months before I decided to attempt a Lemon Meringue Pie, a flavor that had failed to previously hold my interest. It was my husband, Cody’s 25th birthday, and I wanted to make something special. I had seen a photo of a Lemon Meringue Pie in a cookbook not long before and found myself admiring the beauty of the lemon curd and the pillowy meringue. What I had previously seen as outdated, I now understood was classic. Similar to Chef Gale Gand in the episode of “Baking with Julia,” I zested and juiced fresh lemons for the lemon curd. I whipped egg whites and toasted meringue. As I brought the completed pie to the table with a single lit candle I began questioning whether I had made the right decision or not to make this pie. Cody sat quietly as I sang a hushed happy birthday to him. When the song ended, he blew out the candle. I held my breath as he gently cut into the pie.
Julia Child did not enroll in Le Cordon Bleu in France until her late thirties, yet she fell in love with and mastered a style of food that is not known for its accessibility. She found a passion for French cookery and committed to sharing it with others. She connected with so many people at that time and still to this day because she represents something powerful. She was willing to put herself out there and try something different and new to her. Julia Child had moxie.
As Cody removed the slice of Lemon Meringue Pie, I giggled with glee. It was beautiful. The meringue stood tall and had a perfectly toasted exterior and pure white interior. The lemon filling was bright and only had a slight give to it. We each took a bite and realized how wrong we were to never have tried Lemon Meringue Pie. Was the pie perfect in its presentation and technique? No, but that didn’t take away any of the joy I felt.
That moment savoring a bite of pie that I had previously written off showcases the beauty of both Julia Child and Lemon Meringue Pie for me. Julia was herself, always. She had fallen in love with the food of France and wanted to learn how to make it. When Julia moved back to The United States and began teaching French cooking on television, she was not trying to be anyone except herself. If something went wrong while cooking, she let it show, because she was not interested in trying to persuade people to see the value of what she was doing. She believed in what she was doing, and that was enough. Her attitude towards trying new things and then working to improve her skills in real time made her more of a person her viewers could connect with instead of an expert that was always perfect. Since its invention in the late 1800s, Classic Lemon Meringue Pie is still made up of the same components of bright lemon curd filling and fluffy meringue no matter what format you serve it in, because once people gave it a chance, they realized just how special it really is. I found solace in Julia Child and Lemon Meringue Pie during a period in my life when I did not know what was next. Julia encouraged me to try something I had never done before and not give up when it wasn’t perfect. This is the effect of Julia Child and it has lasted across generations of cooks.
Today would be Julia’s 109th birthday. I re-watched the “Baking with Julia” episode with Chef Gale Gand, and although she said that we would “go mad” over Lemon Meringue Pie, Julia did not say that she loves Lemon Meringue Pie. Maybe it is a coincidence that today, August 15th, is also National Lemon Meringue Pie Day, but I like to believe that maybe it is not. Instead of wondering if Julia loved Lemon Meringue Pie, I choose to believe she did. So today, I will zest and juice lemons, I will whip and toast meringue, and I will put a candle in a slice of Lemon Meringue Pie. Happy birthday, Julia. Bon appétit.
Photo: March 12, 2015. Cody Bolden's 25th birthday.