Julia Child’s legacy, beyond tools and techniques

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CONCORD, N.H. — From the time-saving tools and French techniques she loved to a famously dropped dinner, Julia Child left a lasting impression on a generation of cooks.

In the forthcoming biographical movie “Julie & Julia,” Meryl Streep channels America’s first celebrity chef. As the movie opens, chefs and food magazine editors remember the real Mrs. Child’s vast contributions to American home cooking — a scholarly yet accessible approach to recipes, an enthusiasm for efficiency and, above all, a spirited sense of fun.

At the most basic level, Mrs. Child introduced home cooks to their stoves, knives, pots and pans, said chef Jacques Pepin, Mrs. Child’s longtime friend and collaborator.

“We’re in a country where we have to cook very, very fast with the microwave or very, very slow with Crock Pot cooking. Then you have the regular stove that’s lost in the middle,” he said.

He said he most remembers Mrs. Child’s great love for life and the great pleasure she took in cooking as well as eating.

“You often see people cook and never taste. For her, it was cook, taste, cook, taste, cook, taste — with a little sip of wine on the side,” he said.

Chef Alice Waters of Chez Panisse said Mrs. Child emphasized that cooking was important but need not be serious business.

“I think of her sense of humor, her joie de vivre about cooking and really about her interest in gastronomy — her academic insistence on writing the recipe right,” Ms. Waters said. “It was curiosity and exploration and learning all folded together to make food an art. That’s what she did.”

And she gave novices the confidence to try, added Art Smith, former personal chef to Oprah Winfrey. He made a whole meal out of blanched asparagus for his first girlfriend after watching Mrs. Child on TV.

Julia Child was not only an amazing cook but taught America that it could learn to cook,” Mr. Smith said. “That spirit continues to this day, and this why we have great cooking shows.”

Tina Ujlaki, executive food editor at Food & Wine magazine, said she often thinks of Mrs. Child when she has kitchen mishaps.

“I don’t think, ‘What would Julia do?’ I just do what she would do: Keep on going,” she said. “That was a really big part of the Julia liberation. Not only did she teach the techniques … she said: ‘It’s OK. Relax. It doesn’t have to be perfect.”

That said, there are certain processes or gadgets that Ms. Ujlaki associates with Mrs. Child. “I can’t cut up a chicken without thinking of her and how lovingly she would cut it up,” she said.

And Mrs. Child did not shy away from modern appliances or tools if they made cooking easier, she said. She put her blender to work on a variety of classic soups and once told Ms. Ujlaki that she even used a stand mixer to make mashed potatoes for a crowd instead of the food mill she favored for smaller amounts.

“She probably used more gadgets than they used in typical French cooking,” she said. “She was always very quick to embrace anything that made sense, but I don’t think she had silly gadgets or gizmos. She didn’t like clutter.”

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