Julia Child: The French Chef

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Julia Child: The French Chef

Julia Child: how to make your T square work for you

Julia Child joyfully hammers a dish into submission.

Julia Child: how to make your T square work for you

Julia Child joyfully hammers a dish into submission.

As a child, I was fascinated with the French Chef, Julia Child. Although I should have been impressed with her knowledge, it was her voice that captivated me. Sounding as if her larynx was stuck in the middle of her throat, it took some time for me to realise she wasn’t sporting a French accent: she just utilised her accent differently to anyone else. When she was calm, her voice purred almost like a contented cat. When excited, she had the tendency to seize an unsuspecting syllable and throttle it. Her voice seemed to become most agitated when talking about butter—and she talked about butter an awful lot. The result was that her speech had an unpredictable way of rising and falling and certain words burst from her mouth in triumph whilst others tumbled out as if on their last legs.

By the time I entered university, I had my Julia Child impression down pat, clearing my throat several times to get my larynx in the right position: “And to-daaaaaaaaay,” I would say in the dinner queue, “We have chicken kiev—that’s chicken breasts stuffed with fresh garlic and herbs, pressed into fresh bread crumbs baked on the premises, mashed potatoes made with real dairy cream and (eyes roll heavenwards) butter, freshly chopped green beans sprinkled with, ah, (deep gasp) butter flakes and ground black pepper. . .all to be washed down with a refreshing strawberry kool-aid, vintage 1986.”

Julia McWilliams was born 15 August 1912 at 23:30 in Pasadena California to well-to-do parents—and hired cooks to dish up typical American fare. Like her mother, Julia felt no need to go anywhere near a stove whilst she was growing up. Nonetheless, she made her name in television as “The French Chef,” a remarkable feat for someone who was neither French nor a chef. Julia’s gangly six foot two frame, her tremulous voice, together with her adventurous cooking techniques, made for compelling television viewing in the 1960s.  So how does someone who was not a classical beauty make it big in the vain world of television? How was she able to speak to a live studio audience when she did not even possess a suitable voice? Added to this was that she was well into her thirties when she discovered her life’s calling and on the wrong side of forty when her show first aired.

With Saturn on her ascendant, and also the apex of T square between Chiron and a Venus-Mercury conjunction, a young Julia had difficulty overcoming feelings of inadequacy. By the time of her first Saturn return, she had settled for life as an “old maid” and simply accepted that she was far too tall to be attractive. However, Julia had natal Jupiter in its dignity in Sagittarius almost exactly on her descendant, indicating the people she met would introduce her to opportunities of foreign or ecclesiastical wonder. All she really needed was to meet the right person to help her blossom. And she did. Julia met Paul Child in the summer of 1944 in Ceylon when they both worked for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), a precursor to the CIA. They married in 1946. Paul was ten years older than Julia, worldly and possessing the fussy palate of a gastronome, a by-product of being the son of a bohemian cook. He wasn’t impressed with Julia’s first food offering as his wife: the calves’ brains in red wine she had prepared were “messy to look at and not very good to eat.”[1] Still, Paul’s Sun and Jupiter, conjunct in Capricorn, opposed her Neptune in Cancer. We can hear the astrology echoing through Julia’s words when she said: “I was lucky to marry Paul. He was a great inspiration, his enthusiasm about wine and food helped to shape my tastes. . .I would have never had my career without Paul Child.”[2]

After their marriage, Paul carried on with his work with the US government whilst she wondered what to do with herself and eventually he was posted to Paris in 1948. They shared their first French meal together near Rouen: sole meunière. The moment was a defining one for Julia: “It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: “Bon appètit!” I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”[3] Occurring 3 November 1948, at about 2:30 pm in Rouen France,[4] Julia came to refer to this meal as “the moment of sensual delight.” With her progressed Moon hovering over her natal Uranus, it changed the direction of her life and with transit Saturn on her Venus-Mercury conjunction (an aspect crucial to her work) and progressed Mercury on her natal Mars, it was a calling to her life’s work.

The MC of the meal was also on her natal Jupiter. It was truly the moment her life opened up to the publishing opportunities that would present themselves to her over the next few years. As an American in Paris, Julia would find she would face a culture and culinary challenge that would appear to be insurmountable. Although she came to adore the French cooking available in restaurants, her limited French vocabulary barred her from accessing obscure recipes and their ingredients, thus preventing her from replicating what she had enjoyed in her own home. Even after taming her Californian twang, Julia came to understand that most French people firmly believed that Americans could not cook. And who can blame the French when the height of American cuisine at the time was frozen TV dinners?

Longing to roll up her sleeves and dive into French Cuisine, on her 37th birthday she was given a copy of Larousse Gastronomique from her husband. The book was packed full of recipes, drawings, definitions, stories and information on gastronomic technique. She knew she had found her life’s passion. “By now I knew that French food was it for me,” she wrote in My Life in France. “I couldn’t get over how absolutely delicious it was. Yet my friends, both French and American, considered me some kind of nut: cooking was far from being a middle-class hobby and they did not understand how I could possibly enjoy doing all the shopping and the cooking and the serving by myself. Well I did!”[5]

Julia had Venus conjunct Mercury in Virgo and so demonstrated the love of precision seen in her careful duplications of French recipes. She became a cultural icon well before anyone recognised what sheer, dogged commitment it would have taken anyone to replicate then translate traditional recipes from arcane French into accessible modern English, re-calculate the quantities of ingredients from metric measurements to imperial ones, organise the recipes into logical chapters and then make it all appeal to American audiences who were firmly committed to convenience foods. Astrologically, part of her appeal to American audiences could have been attributed to her Neptune being conjunct to the chart of America’s Mercury. Further, her natal Mars is only a few degrees from the US Neptune, making it seem that it was what she did and how she did it that fascinated American audiences.

According to Vanity Fair magazine, on July 26, 1962, her half-hour show called “The French Chef” was aired at 8:30 p.m., and a 49-year-old star was born.[6] The show marked a Chiron return for her and with it was a conjunction to Jupiter. Natally, Chiron is opposite to her Mercury-Venus conjunction in Virgo and it was on this day her unforgettable, tremulous voice was unleashed to audiences. For Julia, it was a time of healing and the chance to for her to take a stand in what she believed: it was another attempt to overcome the trials that having Saturn as the focal point of the T square with Chiron and the Mercury/Venus conjunction in opposition. In time, several of her passions would be revealed to viewers: the perfection of French cooking, a love of good wine, a staunch defense for the liberal use of butter, an “impeccably clean kitchen towel” and the importance of using fresh ingredients. And of course the “Bon Appetit!” that ended every show.

Of course, Julia was not known for her perfect presentations. Uranus was not only the most elevated planet in Julia’s chart but the handle of its bucket shape. On her live shows, she fluttered about her television kitchen, knocking things over and encouraging the cooks at home to “go ahead and make a mess.” She dried lettuce leaves by waving them around, splashing herself, the cameras and her crew with water. She beheaded huge fish with giant meat cleavers, brandished knives like something from a medieval nightmare and introduced the poultry she was about to cut as: “Mr Broiler, Mr Stewer and Mr Roaster.” She mixed eggs with a comically oversized whisk and sloshed them everywhere. Once, when she tried to flip over a potato pancake, half of it missed the pan and hit the stove. “Now you see,” she told us, scratching her head on live TV, “I didn’t quite have the courage of my convictions.”

During one episode on Late Night with David Letterman, Julia Child was revealed as his special guest. By this time, the old girl was pushing eighty years old but she seemed as relaxed in front of the cameras as she did forty years before. She was, she told us, going to show us how to cook a hamburger on a hot plate. Unfortunately, the hot plate didn’t get very hot. “I’m changing my recipe,” she announced, “To steak Tartare!” Sliding the raw meat to a plate, she covered it with cheese—and then pulled out a blow torch to melt the cheese. It was sheer comedy genius. Who would have though a little old lady from Pasadena California could wield a blow torch with such skill? Even better, she got Letterman to have a bite of the hot cheese with the cold meat beneath it. She explained to us the importance of working with mistakes rather than letting them get the better of us. Someone who could reduce the normally sarcastic Letterman to respectful awe had more going for her than anyone could have ever imagined.

There is a story that Julia entered a dining room bearing a roasted duck. Just as she was about to place the bird on the table, she slipped and dropped it on the floor.

“Oh heavens!” she trilled. “It’s a good job I roasted two! Just let me, uh, clean up!” With that, she picked up the bird and took it back to the kitchen where she re-arranged it and brought it out again to be served. With Saturn on her ascendant, Julia had learned to never to apologise and to never, ever admit defeat.

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[1] Child, Julia, “My Life in France”

[2] Child, Julia, “My Life in France”

[3] Child, Julia, “My Life in France” p. 18

[4] Date taken from “My Life in France”, p.11

[5] Child, Julia, “My Life in France”

[6] http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/features/2009/08/julia-child200908?currentPage=3

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