Nancy F. Cott
Cott, a history professor at Harvard, is director of the Arthur and Elizabeth Schlesinger Library on the History of Women in America at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study, Harvard. The library is home to the papers of the late, great Julia Child, who would be 100 years old tomorrow. For her centenary, the library is sponsoring a symposium Sept. 21, free and open to the public. The day-long forum will focus on three “sites” that she inhabited.
Q. Tell me something people don’t know about Julia Child.
‘She really is a figure in American social history, not only a recipe designer. She’s kind of a force.’
A. Her address was 103 Irving St. in Cambridge, very near Savenor’s, where she shopped. This is something I just learned: at some point, she signed her signature phrase, “Bon Appetit,” in the (wet cement) sidewalk outside Savenor’s, with her initials. In reconstructing Kirkland Street, they have put red markings around that piece of the sidewalk so it will be preserved as a historical marker.
Q. Why is the symposium divided into three parts?
A. It made sense to me for us to feature certain elements of her life, her times, her places rather than focusing directly on the food itself. She really is a figure in American social history, not only a recipe designer. She’s kind of a force.
Q. Talk about those three sites.
A. The first is France, obviously. That’s a focus on the period of time after World War II when she married Paul Child. It’s about what France was then and how she learned what she learned. Cambridge seemed an obvious thing. She was here for a long time and has many friends who remember her. It’s a larger look at what it meant to have her in this community.
Q. And her television life is the third angle?
A. Her impact on television is important. She made it such an important genre. We’ll have her former producer here and he’s going to talk about how food had been shown on TV before Julia. He’s going to show some clips of earlier TV personalities, of whom there were not many and none of whom are known today.
Q. What will people learn about the essential Julia?
A. I hope they will get a much more holistic sense of her as a personality, what her grit was, what her aims were. My sense of her is that she had tremendous persistence and determination to pursue what she thought she was good at or should be good at. It took real fortitude on her part to become the kind of cook she became. She had to face a lot of male French resistance when she first trained, and her book took at least 12 years to write.
Q. Did you ever use a recipe from her iconic cookbook, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking?” Many of those recipes are pretty intimidating.
A. Yes, I did. I like her boeuf bourguignon and I loved her recipe for onion soup, but I got tired of spending 30 to 40 minutes stirring onions.
Q. Why do you think Julia had such lasting appeal?
A. Many people think — and this makes sense to me — that she made cooking fun . . . and I think that affected and infected many people, that spirit. They saw they could regard cooking in a really creative way and have fun even if they made mistakes. There’s that infamous scene of her dropping a whole fish on the floor.
Q. When her influence was strongest, in the ’70s and ’80s, what was her message about food?
A. There are two angles to how she complicated cooking for most Americans. On the one hand, she really changed Americans’ taste and what they looked for in good food. She educated American palates in very positive ways. On the other hand, there are people who argue that her complications of cooking moved in a direction against feminism.
Q. How so?
A. Because they tended to require that women, if they were the cooks in the family, stay in the kitchen a lot longer. I think that’s far too simple. What she spawned has brought many more men into the kitchen, too.
Q. Will the symposium offer any of her dishes?
A. At the close, the reception will offer food not by Julia, but in the spirit of Julia.
Interview was edited and condensed. Bella English can be reached at English@globe.com.