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Weary of Culinary Spectacle, Spending and Sport

A Commentary By Froma Harrop

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

I must be the only "foodie" who didn't love "Julie & Julia," the movie about Julia Child and the office worker she inspired, Julie Powell. Am I allowed?

And even though I grow heirloom beans and patronize local cheese makers, I remain dry-eyed over the imminent closing of Gourmet magazine. Put bluntly, I'm fed up with the transformation of the culinary arts into spectacle, spending and sport. For that, Julia Child and Gourmet share some blame.

The Julia Child fan club can back off. I liked her and have spent hours peeling pearl onions per her directions. Every Julia recipe I've done has turned out great. And I commend her for bringing fine cooking into American homes when so many recipes started with "Open a can of Campbell's cream of mushroom soup."

"Julie & Julia" is the usual Nora Ephron movie, which means it boings the heartstrings with a much-trampled plot in which romance only grows and every good person's dreams come true. But the movie did capture the hard-edged side of the Julia Child enterprise.

There's that memorable scene at Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, where she's violently breaking eggs to compete with the male students. Cooking is more marathon than muse, as reflected in young Julie's determination to make everything in Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" within one year.

As a professional Belgian chef told me, Child wasn't really a culinary original. She basically copied the classic French recipes and popularized them for an American audience. Nothing wrong with the classic French dishes. The standards in the Great American Songbook are also wonderful creations. But the piano instructor who teaches someone to play "Stardust" didn't invent the song.

Julia Child's success on TV led to phenomena like the Food Network -- a 24-hour loop of cooking shows where actual food preparation often takes a backseat to celebrities and their antics. You end up with "Iron Chef," where famous male chefs run around a stadium, flashing their knives and employing a theme ingredient as the clock ticks down. The scallops might as well be hockey pucks.

Gourmet first appeared in January 1941, a year that ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor. The food rationing of World War II had little impact on its recipes. (Gourmet told readers to save the issues for when rationing ended.)

Gourmet specialized in the high life, with its lustrous descriptions of cafe society and old-guard reverence for French everything. Gourmet was about canapes, crown roasts and champagne dinners for two on New Year's Eve. It was for epicures with money or do-it-yourselfers who wanted to recreate their pleasures.

There was a charming feature called Gastronomie sans argent , which means "fine eating without money." These articles never stinted in their use of fussy French phrases or mentioned anything's price -- they just had fancy-sounding recipes in which the ingredients weren't expensive.

In recent years, Gastronomie sans argent disappeared, as had Gourmet's meal of the month, a fantastical soup-to-nuts feast that nearly anyone with no day job could do. Gourmet became less about cooking and more about spending. It grew heavy with articles on luxury travel and expensive ways to eat out.

People who wanted recipes but a little more panache than Rachael Ray moved to Conde Nast's other food magazine, Bon Appetit. I was part of that migration along with other tired foodies, weary of celebrity chefs and scavenger hunts for the world's best persimmon pudding.

We just want to dine well in our own space. And we want the bounty of the land to be treated with a certain amount of dignity. Are we allowed?

COPYRIGHT 2009 THE PROVIDENCE JOURNAL CO.

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Views expressed in this column are those of the author, not those of Rasmussen Reports.

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