Julie & Julia (& Ruth)

“We [have to] start educating America into a new way of [thinking about] food,” Ruth Reichl once told us in an interview. “We have to change the way that we eat.”

That was a little more than seven years ago, not long after she had left her influential position as restaurant critic for The New York Times for the equally influential job as editor of Gourmet magazine. Changing the way we eat was to become an important part of Reichl’s vision for Gourmet, a response to what she called the danger of a two-tiered food system where only the affluent could afford good, healthy food. But it was also rooted in her passion for the integrity of food and of cooking, and that is a vision she shared with a few others: Alice Waters for example, and of course, Julia Child.

As we enter the second decade of the no-longer-so-new century, our world is changing. From politics to popular culture, food is very much in the center of that change. We were struck recently by how those changes were reflected in two very distinct but, to us, related ways: the movie Julie & Julia and the loss of Gourmet. What makes the film so frustratingly successful is the contrast between Child’s wonderfully appealing combination of exuberant love of food and authentic, scholarly respect for the art of cooking and the thoroughly modern, “Iron Chef”–idolizing, multimedia environment inhabited by today’s wannabes like recreational chef and professional blogger Julie Powell.

Child taught many of us to cook. But fame was never her goal; it was to master the art of French cooking, and then to teach it to us. And whether we were in an apartment in Manhattan or a small, college-town rental, we were both mentored and inspired by Child’s knowledge, skill and ultimate respect for cooking. If we’ve undergone a cultural shift to finding our way back to an appreciation for cooking (in ways the movie Julie & Julia only clumsily hints at), Gourmet was one of the guides and tools, as it had been for almost seventy years.

Child taught America to cook and to think about food differently. Gourmet taught America how to eat. It chronicled the recipes, reviewed the restaurants and profiled the chefs. It featured the finest food writers in America, or anywhere in the world for that matter. Writers who, like Reichl herself, “put you in a place that makes you imagine you’re tasting something without using the very limited flavor vocabulary.” That’s not something found in Powell’s blog, to say nothing of “Rachael Ray Everyday.” It is a confounding contradiction that at a time when the world is finally having a serious discussion of food and food systems, cooking traditions and farming, we lose a resource like Gourmet.

To be sure, Reichl is not going anywhere. Like Child, public television is next for her, and at least for now she’s got the key to the library of seven decades of collected cookbooks and typewritten recipes. After all, Reichl said recently, “There’s never been a better time to learn to cook.” Especially with increasing access to better grown and raised fresh food, creative chefs and preservation-minded traditionalists, and, yes, even new technology. But food needs heart and soul as well, and resources like Gourmet and people like Child to teach and inspire and perhaps touch something deep inside us.

Recently we ran into former Washington Island Hotel chef and new Metcalfe’s Market executive chef Leah Caplan at the Willy Street Co-op. She had just seen Julie & Julia. With emotion showing in her eyes, she was holding a handful of fresh leeks. “I’m going home,” she said, “to cook beef bourguignon.” As we left the theater a few weeks later we said to each other, we know exactly how she felt.

Nancy Christy is the former owner of the Wilson Street Grill. She now runs the consulting firm Meaningful People, Places and Food. Neil Heinen is, among other things, her hungry husband. Comments? Questions? Please write to genuinearticles@madisonmagazine.com.

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