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Julia Child Discusses Cooking, Food and Eating Habits - 2002-09-18

When chef Julia Child's cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published 40 years ago, critics praised it for her precise almost scientifically-detailed recipes. But millions more know Julia Child for her casual teaching style on her televised cooking classes beginning in 1963. Ms. Child came to Washington, D.C. recently for the opening of a display featuring her actual kitchen and utensils from her former home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. She spoke with a group of reporters about a wide range of culinary topics.

In one area of the Smithsonian Institution's sprawling Museum of American History, it seems as if a group of visitors are talking and laughing with a tour guide.

In fact, the crowd is watching and reacting to a video display of highlights from Julia Child's televised cooking lessons from past decades. The large television screen sits in front of the full-scale set-up of Ms. Child's kitchen, and many visitors marvel at seeing the actual countertops and utensils that they recall from her broadcasts. Julia Child herself seemed pleased that her kitchen was preserved, after she recently moved from her long-time Massachusetts home to California. "It's very nice," she said. "I thought when we sold the house, I'd never see that kitchen again. I always loved it; we had it for over 40 years. It was designed by my husband and was my favorite room in the whole house."

As a specialist in French cuisine, Julia Child's recipes often included food and ingredients high in fat, such as butter and red meat. Asked whether the current medical warnings to lower fat intake concerns her, she replied that such efforts have gone too far. "They managed to ruin the beef industry," said Julia Child. "It's very hard to get a marbled steak. They're fast ruining the pig industry. They've got these very lean pigs that don't really have any flavor. In the last month, there have been quite a few articles about people being afraid of fat so they give up meat and give up butter. And they find they aren't satisfied, so they aren't full so they fill up on carbohydrates and get fat."

And talk about fatty foods leads Ms. Child to exclaim what she believes would greatly improve American eating habits. "No snacking! I think when you see pictures of people walking through Disneyland, they're always chewing on something," she said. "And they're fat people. We have to be careful about that. If you eat properly, you're not going to run into trouble. Snacking, certainly, is one of the worst habits."

Rather than eating snacks and "fast foods," Julia Child says Americans should embrace the philosophy of French diners: that meal time should be a chance to slow down and really appreciate what they eat. "One of the things the French teach us is the beauty of a meal," said Julia Child. "It's interesting to see two French businessmen go into a restaurant for lunch. They carefully go over the menu and discuss it with a waiter and decide what wine to have. It's an important part of their life. If anyone loves to eat, as we're beginning to [in America], it's worth taking the trouble over it."

On the subject of training tomorrow's chefs, Ms. Child says that besides learning from televised cooking shows such as her own series, attending a culinary school is still an important part of a chef's education. "One of the great importance of culinary school is that it teaches you the right way to use a knife and the right way to prepare things," she said. "It also if it's a good school, gives you the whole repertoire. If you're just working in a restaurant, there may be a whole group of things you never do [prepare]. It [culinary school] can be a short cut to experience. I think a lot of people don't realize that a really good culinary career is just like [studying] medicine; you have to count on a good 10 years."

As far as teaching the general public about food, Julia Child believes that such education should begin early. For decades, she visited elementary schools throughout America, using slices of different apples, crackers and other foods to show children how to appreciate texture, sweetness and other taste characteristics. Although, at the age of 90, Julia Child has stopped participating in this program, she still stresses the importance of early childhood food education. "Children, if they're unfortunate to be brought up in families that are not interested in food and just dump a hamburger or something at them, they don't develop any sense of taste," she continued. "Or they don't discuss it. I think it's important to have a family that loves good food. Anytime you have something on the table, you discuss what it's like and how it was made. I think it's terribly important for one's appreciation of food as an art form. And it should be an art form if you're eating it every day, including breakfast."

Finally, Ms. Child says she encourages anyone interested in a culinary career especially women - to pursue it with gusto. "Men are better than women as chefs," she said. "For some reason, many women are afraid of failure. A man is inclined to 'bullet through,' which I think is a great help."