Food Biz: Julia Child for entertainment, packaged food for dinner

A few weekends ago, I was too ill to spend my weekend running to the farmer's market, tending my "victory" vegetable garden, canning jam, and baking bread, my typical weekend fare. Instead I went on a marathon of old episodes of The Next Food Network Star, culminating in a challenge, during which the final three contestants went to a private screening of Sony Pictures' Julie & Julia.

The trio was instructed to cook a three-course dinner party meal that reflected their own passion for cooking. Melissa D'Arabian, who ultimately won her own cooking show, made two kinds of pastries. World-famous pastry chef François Payard liked it, and called her an "artisan," who we see in the kitchen rolling out cream cheese-butter pastry and placing little mounds of jam in the centers. Other contestants went for old-style slow-cooking, with braised ribs and risotto; they both failed, since two hours is not enough for classic peasant cuisine.

Cut to an advertisement for Special K crackers (cereal: it's not just for breakfast, lunch and midnight snacks any more!) and "skillet meals" by Bertolli, which are full meals in foil packages that you "cook" by warming them in a skillet for 10 minutes. The mind-bending juxtaposition was analyzed deeply by food journalist Michael Pollan, in his New York Times piece, "Out of the Kitchen, Onto the Couch." He asks, "How is it that we are so eager to watch other people browning beef cubes on screen but so much less eager to brown them ourselves? For the rise of Julia Child as a figure of cultural consequence . . . has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking."

Nowhere is this odd dichotomy more apparent than on the Food Network itself. Here, we have video clips of a modern young woman discovering her true passion by cooking for hours every night using plentiful quantities of butter and actually chopping things. There, we have perky chefs encouraging you to take shortcuts to keep your meal prep under 30 minutes (and reminding you that you can always go out to Red Lobster or the Olive Garden if your cook-at-home efforts fall short): buy Bertolli pasta sauce and already-cut-up chicken bits and pour jars of Smuckers jam over cheesecake from The Fresh Market and voila! you've cooked.

But Julie & Julia, as the New York Times' separate movie review points out, is about the very formidable -- but, in Julia Child's hands, made do-able -- achievement of mastering the art of French cooking. "The point, to invoke the title of a book whose author has an amusing cameo here, is the joy of cooking." And it is a point most underscored by the Julia Child of 50 or 60 years ago; not the modern Julie, who is, the reviewer remarks, forgettable, cast in a role that's condescended to. In Julie & Julia, we are meant to fall in love, not just with Julia Child (again), but with the passion of her life: cooking. Cooking really, really, well, from scratch. Real scratch. Not 10 minutes in a skillet. Chopping, dicing, whisking, emulsifying, trussing, from scratch.

This can not be a good thing for the Food Network's advertisers, or any of the other corporations who have made a century's worth of progress in making food that gives us the illusion of cooking, without actually doing so (Pollan makes the example of the cake mix makers, who learned cooks wanted to do one thing to maintain the conceit of baking -- cracking an egg was sufficient, even though the mixes could easily be designed with dehydrated eggs).

Not that they're worried. Pollan writes, ". . . convenience foods have been sold to women as tools of liberation; the rhetoric of kitchen oppression has been cleverly hijacked by food marketers and the cooking shows they sponsor to sell more stuff. So the [Food Network] shows encourage home cooks to take all manner of shortcuts, each of which involves buying another product, and all of which taken together have succeeded in redefining what is commonly meant by the verb "to cook.""

Will America, as taken with Julie & Julia as the reviewers, take up their whisks and reject Banquet Homestyle Bakes? Pollan hopes so. I hope so. But corporate America doubts it, seriously. As Harry Balzer of the NPD Group told Pollan, cooking will one day be as insane as going out and killing a chicken for dinner: "something people used to do when they had no other choice. Get over it."

Sarah Gilbert is a former investment banker. She is now a finance and food writer living in Portland, Oregon, where she has several friends who raise chickens in their backyards to kill, cook and eat. Get over it.


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