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A matter of taste

In today's image-obsessed world, Julia Child would not be a Food Network star

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Julia Child's 100th birthday was celebrated last week, with respect, affection and maybe a gateau a l'orange et aux amandes here and there.

The irrepressible, irresistible Julia changed the way North Americans thought about food, being one of the first chefs to connect to the growing power of television. The subsequent rise of foodie media has brought us the Food Network, the superstar chef and the glossy coffee-table cookbook.

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Ironically, if Julia were around today, she probably wouldn't be allowed into the world she helped to create. With her odd, wonderfully unpredictable presence -- that towering height! that swooping voice! -- Julia Child wouldn't fit into the slick, smooth, celeb-obsessed 21st-century food scene.

And that really is too bad.

As Meryl Streep played her in the 2009 film Julie & Julia, Child could be described as "a handsome woman." As Dan Aykroyd comically impersonated her on Saturday Night Live, she was a jolly linebacker with a very sharp knife.

In real life, Julia Child was tremendous fun to watch -- an inspired cook, a natural teacher and a born performer. But she wouldn't have made "The 20 Hottest Chefs" list.

It's no coincidence that many of today's top female TV chefs happen to be knockouts. Nigella Lawson, Cat Cora, Sara La Fountain, Giada De Laurentiis are all beauties. Catherine McCord is a former Victoria's Secret model, for pity's sake.

And many of these chefs are over-exposed, in more ways than one. You can find photos of Rachael Ray taking a turkey out of the oven while wearing a black bra and a mini. There are shots of Padma Lakshmi wearing lingerie and Aussie chef Cindy Sargon posing nude, giving another angle to the term "food porn." Certainly, there's a lot of suggestive spoon licking going on.

It's not that these pretty people can't cook, but that the substance of cooking has been surpassed by the need for sexy camera-ready surfaces. It's part of a larger trend in which beauty is now demanded for things that used to require only skill.

And the shallow values of television have bled over into publishing. The 1961 cookbook that started everything, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Child wrote with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, is a marvel of labour and research. But it would probably have a hard time finding a publisher now, when most cookbooks are sold by TV tie-ins, beautiful famous faces and sleek visuals. Utterly lacking in seductive food styling, Mastering the Art of French Cooking is just text and text and more text, with the occasional sober line drawing demonstrating how to truss a chicken or fold beaten egg whites into a soufflé mixture.

After Julia's book was published and her public TV show took off, she did become famous, of course. But her celebrity seemed like a byproduct of her passionate service to cooking: The food always came first. A cheery proselytiser, Julia convinced North Americans that really good food could be part of daily life, back in an era when tomatoes came in cello tubes and garlic was considered dangerously "ethnic."

Julia was a perfectionist, but she was also accessible, retaining admirable sangfroid in the face of a potato rosti that refused to flip or a fish head that needed extra whacking. And she did it all with infectious joy. "I just love to muck around in the kitchen," she said modestly.

It's a different world now. Even though Julia Child helped to popularize cooking -- with her bestselling books and top-rated TV shows -- she would have been dismayed by some of the directions that popular foodie culture has gone recently. Even back in the 1970s, Julia had written to a friend that "food is getting too much publicity and is becoming too much of a status symbol and 'in' business."

It sure is an "in" business. And I have the feeling that if the wonderful Julia were starting her career right now, she'd probably be kept "out." All that experience and enthusiasm and knowledge and sheer joy in the act of cooking wouldn't mean anything stacked against the photogenic imperatives of 21st-century food TV.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 E3

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