I’ve had three real culinary “a-ha” moments in my life, and they all happened in my twenties, all thanks to Julia Child.
The first of these moments came in 2011 in a too-tiny Boston dorm room stuffed to the gills, but never messy. It was before the streaming wars, when Netflix was the trailblazer, and we still kept DVDs on our bookshelves. Earlier in the day, I’d scored a copy of 2009’s Julie & Julia, a Nora Ephron film starring Meryl Streep, Stanley Tucci, Amy Adams and Chris Messina.
It has to be said that I wasn’t a food person, not really. I loved to eat, and certainly appreciated food for more than just fuel, but my attempts to cook from bargain-bin cookbooks had only led to disastrous results. Like the soggy latkes that bended when handled because the recipe failed to tell me to wring out the potato-onion mixture. Or the metallic-y sugar cookies that were somehow still flat, despite the rather large amount of leavening agents the recipe called for. After too many heartbreaks and tummy aches, I hung up my borrowed apron, believing cooking would be one skill I would never, could never develop.
But as I sat in that dorm room, watching as a middle-aged woman, who also didn’t know how to cook, not only gain confidence in the kitchen, but then make a full career out of— something in me changed. I grabbed my shoes, headed to the bookstore and left with a used but well-loved copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” The recipes were too advanced (you can poach a fish? Also, what is poaching?), but I kept it with me as a reminder of what was possible.
The second “a-ha” moment was in 2012, as I worked a summer job temping in a decades-old cleaning products factory in the Midwest where the people were friendly and the air was often stifling. The pay was decent, but the tasks repetitive. On my breaks, I rewarded myself by escaping to post-war France via Julia Child’s autobiography, “My Life in France.” Few books have transported me as that one did, allowing me to feel like Julia was right next to me, giving me a fuller picture of her life which felt so different from mine, yet still relatable. She talked about her struggles, her triumphs and romanticized food and France in a way that made me feel a comforting warmth that had nothing to do with the triple-digit heat. And in reading those pages, I knew, I just knew, that working in food was what I needed to do. The question was, how was I going to make that happen?
My latest, but not last, “a-ha” moment happened in 2015, while I was sitting in a hair salon. For weeks, I’d been trying to figure out what I wanted to do, a soul-search that many people in their mid-twenties can relate to. I’d been writing and blogging about food for several years, owned countless cookbooks, subscribed to food magazines, watched all the food shows and studied as much as I could, but still hadn’t yet made food my career. I was a little aimless and looking for answers and had recently purchased a copy of “Will Write for Food” by Dianne Jacob. And on that day in 2015, as I sat, baking under the sweltering hair dryer, poring over the pages of that paperback, I had an epiphany.
Of the many helpful suggestions Jacob makes in her book, one is to go back to school. A few institutions are listed, but one stood out: the gastronomy program at Boston University, co-founded by Jacques Pépin and Julia Child. A few months later I was in a packed SUV headed back to New England.
Life is full of big moments, but often it’s the little moments that set the bigger ones in motion—we just don’t always realize it. How a random solo movie night in a college dorm could so significantly alter the course of my life still blows my mind, but I’ve got Julia Child to thank for being an inspiration and hero to late bloomers everywhere. It’s unlikely that anyone will ever make a movie about me or a TV show. But boy, would I be lucky enough to touch the lives of half as many people as Julia Child has, even decades after my passing.
I still have a lot to learn about life and food, but thanks to Julia, I know the best is yet to come. So, merci, Madame Child, and of course, bon appétit.
(Photos: Courtesy of Sydney Manning)