Julia Child and Jeanne Villa from My Life in France; photo by Paul Child
Though I have often read fulsome accolades for women gardeners and designers, and I have contributed to some of those accolades myself, I confess now that there is no woman gardener whom I truly admire as much as I admire Julia Child. There. Is that shocking?
I have no idea how much of a gardener Child was. Though I think she may have had a decent kitchen garden in her vacation home in Provence, most of her interaction with fresh grown flowers and vegetables took place at local farmers’ markets, in France, Cambridge, and other temporary or longer-term homes. What she grew or did not grow has nothing to do with my admiration. I just finished reading My Life in France, which came out some years ago and was dictated by the ailing Child to a great-nephew. It is an incredible story of determination, ambition, and integrity.
To make a long story short—it’s one you all know—Child, a middle-aged diplomatic hostess, decided to write a serious and detailed treatise on classic French cooking for the use of American housewives. And—against the most implacable odds—she didn’t stop until that incredible book was published. And became popular. And changed the way we think about food and cooking so profoundly and completely that many of you will have absorbed it (through subsequent generations) to an extent that you do not even know what I’m talking about. Not to mention that Child had outspoken and well-researched opinions about the importance of fresh, locally raised and grown food.
Is there a twenty-first century gardener about whom I could say the same? Sure, many have mastered the elements of every possible tradition of garden design, but who is inspiring a generation of possible gardeners? I’m not sure. Sometimes it seems to me that the majority of home gardeners take their cue exclusively from what’s on sale at Home Depot and Lowes.
And yet, that was the case in the 50s as well. Everything was made out of jello or canned mushroom soup. Oh sure, maybe a lot still is, but the world of food and cooking is different now and I give a lot of that credit to Julia Child. I sometimes wonder if what we need is a different version of her, who could galvanize the masses into enthusiastic home gardening the same way.