Thanksgiving, the Julia Child Way

Julia Child. Credit: Paul Child, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard UniversityJulia Child. Credit: Paul Child, courtesy of Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
The New York Times
November 16, 2015
By Julia Moskin

At the height of Julia Child’s fame in the 1970s and ’80s, Thanksgiving guests often felt the need to tell her she should get her home number removed from the public directory. (This was an analog tool called a “telephone book.”)

“The phone would ring all day,” said Sheryl Julian, now the food editor for The Boston Globe, who celebrated Thanksgiving dinner in the Childs’ home in 1976 and 1977. “Every time she hung up, it would ring again, and it would be another total stranger with a turkey problem.”

No matter how busy, Mrs. Child would hand off whatever kitchen task she was doing, take the phone and talk the nervous cook down from the ledge. (This could be nerve-racking for guests, Ms. Julian said, who sometimes choked under the pressure of whisking a vinaigrette or topping and tailing green beans for the author of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”)

But Mrs. Child refused to unlist her number or turn off the phone; instead, she embraced the role of national Thanksgiving commander-in-chief.

“Whatever they seemed to be saying, she usually just told the callers not to worry,” Ms. Julian said. “I even heard her tell people that turkey wasn’t meant to be served hot. She just wanted them to relax.”

This Thanksgiving scene illustrates details about Julia Child that have sometimes been forgotten since her death in 2004: that she remained entirely approachable even at the height of her fame; that she was famous as an expert in American home cooking as well as in French cuisine; and that she was not especially fussy about what people ate at home — even her own home.

Mrs. Child is now most famous for that magisterial first book, with its two weighty volumes and alarmingly detailed recipes; just preparing the ingredients for her cassoulet or ratatouille has driven more than one American home cook to drink. Many people today think of her as a rigorous enforcer of elite French cuisine.

But, like most great hosts, she generally was very relaxed about cooking in her own home. “Her food was very good but very simple, and she used very little for seasoning except for salt and pepper,” Ms. Julian said. “You wouldn’t necessarily walk away thinking that was the best meal you ever had.” 

Julia Child in The French Chef episode 246, "How to roast a turkey." Photo by Paul Child, courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryJulia Child in The French Chef episode 246, "How to roast a turkey." Photo by Paul Child, courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Even on Thanksgiving, she said, dinner was served at the big kitchen table, with guests stuffed elbow-to-elbow around its perimeter. Mrs. Child put out Goldfish crackers, not foie gras or canapés, to nibble on with her favorite “reverse martini” cocktails: vermouth on the rocks with a floater of gin.

And although Mrs. Child devised a famously complicated “deconstructed” turkey to solve the eternal problem of white-meat-dark-meat cooking time, she usually roasted a whole bird, Norman Rockwell style, at 325 degrees until done. (She preferred an unstuffed turkey, to better control the cooking.)

When Mrs. Child and her husband, Paul, lived in France in the 1950s, they didn’t go to the great lengths then necessary to cook a traditional Thanksgiving meal, said Alex Prud’homme, Mrs. Child’s great-nephew, who helped write her memoir, “My Life in France,” just before she died in 2004. Eating turkey was still unheard of in France. “They would have oysters and Champagne and call it a night,” he said.

But from the moment they returned to the United States and settled into a house and kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., in 1961, Thanksgiving dinners at the Child house, say friends and family, were resolutely American, with classic dishes and unpretentious tastes.

Even though she grew up in Pasadena, Calif., Mrs. Child was a daughter of New England, with the patrician accent to prove it. (Her mother’s family line can be traced back to the Plymouth Colony.) Most of the holiday recipes she published reflect a fondness for Early American staples like oyster stuffing and pumpkins, adorned with extra butter and cream and frequently spiked with rum or whiskey.

“I think of the late 1970s as the time that she starts getting away from being ‘The French Chef’ and embraces her American roots,” said Mr. Prud’homme, who is writing a book about this period in his great-aunt and uncle’s life.

In the 1970s and ’80s, she became a huge presence in the American mass media. When “The French Chef” ended in 1973, she expanded westward from her kitchen studio, renting a huge house near Santa Barbara, Calif., to cook with West Coast chefs like Wolfgang Puck and Bradley Ogden.

For the first time, she wrote a book in her own voice (“From Julia Child’s Kitchen”). As she accumulated airtime on PBS, she also did regular food segments on “Good Morning America” and other shows, and wrote a column for Parade from 1982 to 1985, when the magazine had a circulation of almost 30 million.

From her Thanksgiving columns over those few years, it’s clear that her style was becoming less classically French and more worldly and speedy. She came up with a brilliant method of shaping two boneless turkey breasts and bread stuffing into a vast sandwich. Wrapped in turkey skin and cheesecloth and basted with butter, it becomes a golden, burnished roast that cooks in two hours and slices like a dream.

By 1985, she was putting fresh garlic and ginger into her rutabaga gratin, serving broccoli and encouraging Thanksgiving cooks to buy pre-made mincemeat and “spiffy it up” into a spicy fruit sauce to pour over vanilla ice cream. That said, she never messed with her Aunt Helen’s pumpkin pie, with its subtle edge of molasses and bourbon.

It was during a Thanksgiving cooking segment with Jacques Pépin on the “Tomorrow” show in 1978 that she cut a large slice out of her finger, just before going on camera to demonstrate how to remove the breasts from a whole bird. For a full-time cook, it wasn’t much of a cut; but the horrified reaction of the host, Tom Snyder, to her bleeding hand made for dramatic live television.

The episode was quickly parodied on “Saturday Night Live,” with Dan Aykroyd playing Julia Child. (He has said it was easy, having grown up watching her show and eating her recipes; his aunt, Helen Gougeon, a popular food columnist in Toronto in the 1960s, is sometimes called “The Julia Child of Canada.”)

“Julia liked nothing better than handling a whole animal on camera,” said Geoffrey Drummond, who directed many of her later shows, like “Baking With Julia.” “She had a great sense of drama, and with her size and her knife skills, she could really take almost anything apart.”

This was when turkeys and chickens were the only whole animals American home cooks regularly confronted, and the skills of deboning a bird or breaking down a suckling pig were rare even among restaurant chefs. “Using the whole animal, nose to tail, is another idea Julia brought to America before its time,” Mr. Drummond said.

She wore her knowledge lightly, and hoped others would do the same.

In 1982, she spoke in an interview about the profound power of good simple meals, especially applicable to a family gathering like Thanksgiving.

“A meal doesn’t have to be like a painting by Raphael, but it should be a serious and beautiful thing, no matter how simple,” she said. “What nicer way for a family to get together and communicate? Which is what life is all about, really.”

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