Julia Child, probably America's first, most influential, and most beloved TV chef, would have been 100 (one hundred?) on August 15; and Bob Spitz's splendid new biography Dearie is just one of many commemorations taking place.
Julia's centennial birthday has inspired food-fueled and author-filled celebrations across the United States. Despite Julia's love of butter and cream, she lived just a few days short of 92 years, and in 2000 she was awarded the French Legion of Honor. How did this very tall young woman from an upper middle class background, a woman who grew up in the middle of the 20th century, when well-brought-up women didn't have jobs, much less run off to join the spies in France and wind up cooking French food on television, profoundly changing U.S. attitudes toward food and cooking, if not toward the French themselves?
Bob Spitz, a well-known biographer whose best-selling Beatles book was deservedly well-received, does a wonderful job of showing both the private sources of Julia's achievements--her fierce dedication to detail, her refreshing self-confidence, and her deep joy in food and faith in her audience--as well as the larger effects of her success--a revolution in American eating habits that took place amid a number of very strong societal forces, including increasing exposure to Europe after World War II, women's liberation, and the rise of TV as a mass medium.
As a lover of great cooking and an inveterate collector of cookbooks (only a few of which I actually cook from), I must say I value my copy of The Way to Cook most highly. Together with Madeline Kamman's The Making of a Cook , Child's instructions formed the core of my understanding of how to turn raw ingredients turn into delicious meals, how to take raw eggs or raw chickens, apply heat and butter, and make things of beauty and joy.
As a grammar, punctuation, and style professional, I can't help but admire the lovely, clear, consistent treatment of amounts and ingredients in her work. In my career, I've worked on many cookbooks and with many writers, and the sheer terror of first-time cooking authors contemplating how or whether to abbreviate "teaspoon" is akin to that of the proverbial college graduates who know only how to boil water and suddenly have to feed themselves.
I'd have to say "relax." The grammar and style of cooking instructions in print follows a fair number of established conventions, but none are set in stone, and none are defended by red-pencil-wielding grammar school English teachers. Yes, there are "wrong" ways to write a recipe, if by "wrong" one means unclear and confusing, but there probably aren't as many rules about periods and commas or odd prescriptives about abbreviations and contractions.
Niceties of grammar and punctuation aside, Julia's books are themselves a joy to read; her long-ago editors were masters, letting her exuberant voice and infectious love of food, her confidence and brio shine through the prose to bring a whole nation to the stove and the table, knowing at last that the true way to cook is with love--for ingredients, for precision and imprecision in balance, for flavor, and for the joys of our senses and the things they can perceive in this world.
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Ellen Scordato has 25 years' book publishing experience as an editor, copy editor, proofreader, and managing editor. She's now a partner in The Stonesong Press, a nonfiction book producer and agency. In addition to her work at Stonesong, Ellen has taught grammar, punctuation, and style at the New School for more than 12 years in the English Language Studies department and taught English as a Second Language at Cabrini Immigrant Services and the College of Mount Saint Vincent Language Institute.