Tuesday, March 16, 2010


I saw Julie & Julia last week and it brought back a flood of memories that washed over me like the tsunami in 2012. Aye, that kind of emotion is usually the harbinger for another Might of Right post. Like most of my posts this started out as an innocent tribute – this one for Julia Child hoping to punctuate that by highlighting the aspirations of one wide-eyed Julie Powell and her seeming high regard for Child. It turned out quite differently and wanders a bit - my apologies.

I had always been a fan of Julia Child (Julia McWilliams) as she reminded me of my somewhat eccentric, very tall and doting Great Aunt Nelchen. Child inspired my Mother, Elisabeth Alden Littlefield Buxton who was a great cook in her own right. As a single parent and Mother of three sons she was forced to improvise but more often than not, cooked up fancy casseroles and other like sophisticated dishes fit for royalty, her glorious open-faced SPAM sandwiches, notwithstanding.

Mother loved food, good food, and had an impressive collection of cookbooks including Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking and most of Betty Crocker’s mainstay offerings. Significantly, Mother presented me with a copy of the original 1961 English translation of Larousse Gastronomique (LG), the iconic French encyclopedia of gastronomy as a rite of passage gift in 1962. I still use it to this day and Food, then as now, remains an important part of my life - not just as sustenance but as inspiration. Maybe not so ironically LG’s English translation was printed and released in the same year as the offering of Child’s iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Seems a lot of folks were going after the American market…

Child was also an inspiration of another kind for us Buxton kids though as the eldest son and Colonel Ned Buxton namesake - much of it fell to me. Dad shared in a mostly matter of fact fashion his comments about some of the famous folks that worked with Grandfather Buxton in the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) in WWII including Julia Child. Many were the iconic New England/New York Friends and associates of the Rhode Island Buxtons including business partner William Casey. But, this post is all about Julia Child and one of her affected admirers (sort of).

I do want to note that Julia has been characterized as a spy for the OSS and nothing could be farther from the truth. It could be true that a lot of the OSS projects in the SE Asian theater would not have been as successful were it not for Child’s contributions. She always described herself as a “file clerk” and downplayed her OSS service as “government work” though she did bring a dedication and organizational abilities sorely needed by the agency. Their reality and the bottom line truth of their efforts is that like the British they were fighting for our very existence.

Of special interest is that early on in her career she worked in the Research Unit of the Office of War Information (OWI) in the State Department in Washington, DC where she engaged mundane clerical tasks including typing thousands of names on index cards as part of a rudimentary manual indexing system - a business necessity many years before the advent of the computer. The OWI had been spun off from the ambiguously named and FDR-established Coordinator of Information (COI) which not so ironically also spawned the Office of Strategic Services (OSS). William Donovan, the first COI, who went on to be the Director of the OSS was Friend to my Grandfather, Ned Buxton.

The OWI proved to be Julia’s segway to the OSS where she worked directly for OSS Director Donovan and Assistant Director, Ned Buxton. I have seen the OSS Headquarters office floor plan at 2430 E. Street in NW DC (the E Street Complex) of that period and noted Child’s desk located squarely between Donovan and Buxton’s offices. Wouldn’t you like to have been a fly on the wall? The work for Donovan and Buxton was mostly typing and clerical (same type of OWI tasks) though she performed it well and rose through the ranks. It also should be noted that Buxton was involved in the selection and hiring of many key positions within the OSS.

Julia worked in the OSS’ Emergency Sea Rescue Equipment Section where she among other tasks helped develop a shark repellant and then onto overseas assignments in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and China. As the Head of Registry of the OSS’ China office she had top secret access to communications detailing all manner of covert military matters. She organized files in the OSS registry and created systems that helped facilitate the OSS’ intelligence activities in Southeast Asia or what they then called the CBI (China-Burma-India) Theater.

Julia contributed positively to the war effort and as one Air Force Intelligence colleague put it Julia, “was privy to every top secret which required a person of unquestioned loyalty, of rock-solid integrity, of unblemished lifestyle, of keen intelligence." At one point Julia was considered for a more traditional intelligence gathering role but the bomb and the end of the war abruptly terminated thoughts of any such adventure. It is hard to imagine in a covert world dominated by the average looking “Janes and Joes” how a large framed, 6’ 2” American lioness who spoke in an endearing, warbling falsetto voice could blend into the wallpaper. I don’t think so

Tom Brokaw noted in his book, The Greatest Generation, “As it did for so many women, the war liberated Julia Child…” Indeed, it was in this environment that Child started to find herself - a process that was further facilitated by her collaborating, supportive husband Paul and her absolute, unashamed, indomitable love of France and French cuisine. Indeed, the OSS is considered by many historians as one of the great opportunities for women to showcase their skills and make the case for equality. While after the war many women returned to their traditional trenches, not so, Julia Child who entered the fray, eyes wide open.

I was disappointed that none of her OSS activities were covered in Julie & Julia save a dinner scene where the OSS was mentioned in passing though this biopic movie was admittedly more about the evolution of two personalities in two different times and worlds connected by the culinary arts.

As for Julia, when she and Paul moved to Paris in 1948 she became almost immediately disenchanted with housewifery. She then tried the now lost art of millinery (hat making) in the haute couture capital of the world – Paris, and rejecting that ran passionately into a French culinary school after husband Paul turned her on to French cooking via of her epiphany - that now memorable first French meal in Rouen. That school was the internationally famous Le Cordon Bleu where despite the resentment of being non French, a woman in a chauvinistic society and the obstacles erected by the schools "short, thin, rather disagreeable“ Director, Madame Brassart, Child became the school’s first female graduate in 1951. They are now exceedingly happy to claim her as one of their own… In 1980, Julia became the first woman member of La Commanderie des Cordons Bleus de France.

During this period Julia met the equally iconic Simone “Simca” Beck, who invited Julia to join the French women's gastronomical society, "Le Cercle des Gourmettes," and ultimately introduced Julia to Louisette Bertholle. Simca and Julia ultimately became extraordinarily close Friends. In 1951 the triumvirate opened a twice-weekly cooking school, "L'Ecole des Trois Gourmands" (The School of the Three Food Lovers) in Julia’s Paris kitchen for American women. Their ultimate collaboration, however, was the iconic Mastering the Art of French Cooking which accomplished its goal of demystifying French cooking for Americans.

Julia was special because of her generosity of spirit, honesty, absolute charm, lack of pretension, visceral passion and because you knew that she was always talking – just to you. It was always a personal experience when you visited Julia. She was the teacher who wasn’t afraid to make mistakes. To my absolute delight I remember Julia on the PBS’s The French Chef (1962-1973) repairing broken pie crusts or the one time where she flipped a potato pancake right out of the skillet and onto the stovetop. Julia invoked the two second rule, put it back in the pan and while piecing it back together counseled her live TV viewers, “But you can always pick it up, and if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see?” Her ultimate assurance was that we can always, “eat our mistakes.”

By the way, all those so called dropped chickens, ducks, fish, meats and cakes of all varieties? They never happened except in the collective imaginations of a generation of Americans along with the perceptions of the “tipsy” Julia who always quaffed red wine while doing her show. That “glass of red wine” was actually Gravy Master mixed with water. And, yes, she liked bourbon and gin…

Child went on to invent and then reinvent the TV food show on PBS and helped spawn an entire industry. She was able to write many more iconic cookbooks that continue to inspire us all. I think it appropriate that the PBS TV station (WGBH Boston) that gave her the opportunity and recognition she deserved has also been the font for so much quality programming including the now most popular Antiques Roadshow. Quality begets quality and Julia was on a very high plane. The rest including all her accomplishments and awards is a part of history.

So, what about Julie Powell? First of all, she’s a Texan, born and raised, from eclectic Austin and a graduate of Amherst College where she earned a degree in Theater and Creative Writing - pretty good credentials. What’s not to like? What we can say is that to compare the two as cooks, writers and human beings is oil and vinegar. Julie Powell might be able to carry Julia’s bags on a very good day, but that’s probably the extent of her capacity. To equate the two is to rip the fabric of the space-time continuum.

I guess Julie’s creative writing and theater degree should have been a giveaway as that’s what her effort was for me – theater. Now, please know that I like Julie and appreciated her edginess though her emulation of Julia Child seemed more campy than sincere, more an exercise in achievement not unlike my own mechanical peak bagging in New England as an adolescent trekker. It was like Julie was looking for a hook or gimmick, something to hang her hat on and develop. Now I don’t think that was what she initially intended, though it surely turned out that way. There was no Joy of Cooking here. It appeared to be a joyless though intriguing labor, chores and a doctor’s prescription for what she perceived as an empty, purposeless life. In one of her earlier posts Julie admits, “I really must conjure up a way to make money and influence people which isn’t directly dependent upon my being miserable. I’ll give it a think.” Hmmmm

Admittedly, I didn’t read her blog until after I saw the movie and found it, like many of the other food blogs that I have encountered, lacking real depth. I have also found some great food blogs though Julie doesn’t appear to be a part of that community.

Powell is very wordy (worse than me?) and her sometimes vulgar stream of consciousness blog reveals her true personality. I think that she has incredible potential as a writer but her potty mouth of the first order demonstrates a mind numbing lack of maturity. Good writers don’t have to resort to vulgarities to make their point. Mind you, sometimes it’s appropriate, but she comfortably and serenely occupies what for her is an everyday realm.

There is no doubt that my current take on Julie & Julia and Ms. Powell has been tainted by her most recent life experiences and the lack of character she displayed and self-flagellated in her newest book, Cleaving: A Story of Marriage, Meat, and Obsession. She uses Cleaving as a not so clever vehicle to chronicle her kinky two year affair with an old college flame she identifies only as “D” (her Obsession) and all within the subplot of butchery and a potential reconciliation? It reminded me of a recent north Texas business sign that highlighted its services as Tax, Uniforms, Beauty Shop, Insurance and Guns – something for everybody. Sometimes her metaphors look like they come from a real estate brochure for an upscale Frisco, Texas neighborhood…

I initially looked at husband Eric in the same light that Julia saw Paul Child - as a mentor and partner, albeit one with certainly less sophistication and life experiences. We now occupy a different time and place and the reality that Eric had been the one that came up with the idea to write the blog appears to have been too much for a superficial Julie to bear. She really doesn’t know about the soul of food (or committed relationships) save what she may have gleaned from recreating the recipes in Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Let her go to Johnson & Wales, CIA or even Le Cordon Bleu and feel the magic and earn a diploma.

Julie was portrayed in Julie & Julia as a somewhat saccharine, innocent personality though with a less than optimistic perspective on her future. Last year when Julie visited at the Dallas Museum of Art (Texas) she pragmatically offered that her portrayal in the movie while flattering was not a fair depiction of her true personality. Indeed. Powell offered that, “The reality is a little down and dirty." Powell had already disarmed her critics by her own less flattering self evaluation as a, “skanky, adulterous self-involved twit.” Her current blog is entitled, What Could Happen? Musings From A ‘Soiled And Narcissistic Whore’. It is what it is. In brief, she has a short fuse and the movie touches on this with her meltdowns over an aspic that fails to jell and later her inability to truss a chicken. This for me is the real Julie Powell (and that’s OK).

So what about Eric, the “long-suffering designated butter-eater” and mentoring husband to Julie? Well, he’s probably gone and why shouldn’t he? When people are young they make stupid mistakes (I did) and to her credit Julie freely and honestly admits them all for the world to see and judge. She does it without apology or contriteness and sometimes, alarmingly so, even as a badge of courage. Maybe that’s what bothering me. What is she taking out of all these experiences - salvation, redemption, forgiveness or just counting coup? She hasn’t asked for any slack or consideration.

I certainly have no idea if Julia and Eric are still together but I would certainly understand the pain and embarrassment he must feel from the very public revelations of Julie’s afternoon trysts, her fondness for Sadomasochism, drunken one-night stands, unabashed flirting and much, much more.

Julia Child passed to her great reward before Powell’s Cleaving was published, so that wasn’t part of any perceptions that Child may have had. If Powell really knew Child she would have understood why Child dissed her and her blog. We need to understand the hesitation of celebrities to embrace obsessive fans especially in this era of stalking. But, the truth is far more simple and obvious.

Julia Child protégée and soon to be culinary icon Sara Moulton, Food Editor at ABC’s Good Morning America, host of PBS’s Sara’s Weeknight Meals, former Executive Chef for Gourmet Magazine until its demise, a behind the scenes chef for PBS’ Julia Child & More Company and for six years Chef of the Food Network’s Cooking Live offered some insight.

First, Julia didn’t like Powell’s blog and though she never read it, thought it “opportunistic and gimmicky” according to Moulton with that seconded by another Child confidante and partner in the culinary arts, Chef Jacques Pepin. Her rejection wasn’t personal as Child was opposed to any commercialization or use of her name and even refused to endorse any products to include her unsuccessful attempt to stop Santa Barbara, California rose fanciers from naming a buttery yellow rose, Julia Child.

While the worldly Child knew and sometimes used some of the same “naughty” words, she did so appropriately and did not appreciate or celebrate Powell’s casual use of vulgarities.

Moulton and others including this writer are glad Powell embarked on her project for her blog, book and movie have done much to promote Julia Child, her legacy and the contributions she made to the culinary arts and, frankly, our overall quality of life.

It does appear that while Powell may assert that she was rescued by Child, she was not saved by her, rather thrown a temporary literary flotation device so that she could better fend on her own by example. We wish her the best and do hope she can mend her fences, do better the next time and more than just contemplate her navel from a selfish hedonistic, feminist viewpoint. And contrary to her disclaimer, yes, humans were harmed during the writing and release of Cleaving. Julia with her rock-solid integrity would never have let that happen.

Julia, lang may your soufflé rise…


Ned Buxton

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