Six Lessons I Learned From Julia Child

(Excerpted with permission from: The Perfect Pantry)

By Lydia Walshin, The Perfect Pantry

In my family, the cooking gene skipped a generation. My grandmother nourished all of us with a steady diet of kosher, chicken-fat laden, soul-satisfying food. The gene passed over my mother’s generation and landed somewhere off to the side of me, but it took years to discover that I liked to cook and wanted to learn more about it.

Julia Child taught me everything I know about cooking. During college, in the early 1970s, while my friends cut classes to watch afternoon soaps, I inhaled every episode of The French Chef. I bought her cookbooks when I could find them at the used bookstore in town. I couldn’t get enough of Julia, cooking teacher extraordinaire, who dropped, spilled, flung and goofed, but also infused new-to-us recipes and techniques with her special joie de vivre.

Though she passed away in 2004, two years before my first blog post, Julia Child also taught me every important thing I know about food blogging.

So, as The Perfect Pantry celebrates its sixth birthday and the food world prepares to celebrate Julia’s 100th birthday in August, here are six lessons about food blogging I learned from Julia Child.

1. Work hard.

Nobody worked harder than Julia, who tested, retested, wrote and rewrote, to make sure her recipes were clear and precise, and — most important to her — that we would succeed at recreating them. She wanted us to have fun, but also to learn. Julia’s work ethic allowed for no shortcuts; quality came from methodical testing, note-taking, revision, proofreading.

When Julia published a recipe in a cookbook, there it stayed, forever etched into the page, and any mistakes stayed with it. Bloggers have the chance to fix their mistakes, and I’m especially grateful when readers point out my errors to me. However, my goal is to get it right the first time, to present recipes that are as clear and easy-to-follow as Julia’s own recipes. I don’t publish recipes that don’t work in my kitchen, because I want the recipes you find here to work in your kitchen.

2. Use real ingredients.

Butter, eggs, salt, good cheese and chocolate. Julia Child might have been the original whole foods cook. She taught us to respect real ingredients, real seasonings, and good wine, and to buy the best ingredients we can afford because it really does make a difference to the outcome of a dish.

While I appreciate some store-bought convenience foods (think broccoli slaw, wonton skins, puff pastry), I don’t believe that canned cream of mushroom soup or instant mashed potatoes are ingredients. I do use artificial sweetener when I’m cooking for diabetic kids and friends, but 99.9 percent of the recipes in The Perfect Pantry use real, whole food ingredients. I want you to stock your pantry with real food, too.

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Julia’s famous on-air potato pancake flip.

3. Keep calm and carry on.

Do you remember the episode of The French Chef in which Julia exhorted us all to have the courage of our convictions and attempt the frying pan potato pancake flip, only to overshoot the pan and watch it land on the stove top instead? She calmly slid the pancake back into the pan, tidied the edges with a spatula, and kept right on cooking.

At times, both in cooking and in blogging, things go wrong: the mayonnaise breaks, the chicken burns, the photos are out of focus, or for some reason your blog page takes forever to load, and you don’t know how to speed it up, or it suddenly goes completely and horribly blank. I don’t always keep completely calm, but I carry on until I figure out what happened. That’s what Julia would do.

4. Don’t give up.

When Houghton-Mifflin rejected the original manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Julia persevered until the book found an editor (Judith Jones), a publisher (Knopf), and an audience.

Some food blogs find an audience right away, but most take weeks, or months, or sometimes years to connect with the readers who stay with them. To fellow bloggers, I say: If your thoughtfully crafted posts haven’t found an audience, keep at it. Create great content, give your blog value, and make it easy for readers to use. Hosting giveaways or contests can attract more readers, but it’s great content that will keep them coming back.

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Julia delivering the commencement address at a local homeless shelter.

5. Be generous, and inspire others.

In 1995, my husband Ted and I attended the graduation ceremony for ten formerly homeless men and women who completed a year-long food service training program at Pine Street Inn, a large Boston shelter that provides emergency housing, job training and health services for the homeless. A standing-room-only crowd of 250 family and friends, neighbors, supporters, and local chefs listened to Julia Child’s five-minute commencement address. She shook hands with the graduates, speaking a few words to each of them, and then shared in the buffet of refreshments the students had prepared.

Julia didn’t have to take the time to come to this event, but she did, lending dignity and gravitas to their graduation ceremony and celebrating their entry into the food service industry she loved. Had the graduation been at Harvard, she could not have been more gracious to the graduates and their families. In her lifetime, Julia mentored dozens of young chefs all across the country, with the same enthusiasm and encouragement she shared that day at a shelter for the homeless.

When I started blogging, I reached out to more experienced bloggers like Elise Bauer and Kalyn Denny for help and advice, and I’m forever grateful to them, and to many others, for sharing their expertise. Kristen Doyle created an adopt-a-blogger program that matched new food bloggers with mentors, and through that, I adopted three bloggers and helped them over a period of years. I try to answer questions whenever someone writes to me for blogging advice, and I hope I inspire other food bloggers to do their best, share what they know, link generously to others, and spread good blogging karma.

6. Be yourself, always.

Julia Child was, some said, too smart, too tall, too creative, too witty, too adventurous, and too independent of spirit. She was, also, always herself.

Cooks can find recipes anywhere, but Julia Child taught me that people come to The Perfect Pantry to get my take on a recipe, my ideas, my stories, my confessions, just as we all turn to Julia’s cookbooks to get her point of view. If my recipes aren’t the most complicated, or my photos don’t look like the ones on the fancy photo sites, I’m okay with that, and I know that if you keep coming back, you enjoy my take on pantry ingredients and fun ways to cook with them.

Birthday cake

As I say every year, because it’s true, you are the most important ingredient in The Perfect Pantry. Thank you all for being here.

And thank you, Julia, for everything you’ve taught me about food blogging.

Illustrations created with Paper for iPad by Ted Chaloner (known to readers of The Perfect Pantry as my husband Ted).

About Lydia Walshin

Lydia Walshin lives in Rhode Island most of the time, in a small log house with a great kitchen where she teaches cooking classes and loves to gather groups of friends to cook together. For the past 20 years she’s been a food writer, but she’s been a writer, mostly for nonprofit organizations, for her entire career. And she has been writing The Perfect Pantry since June 2006.

You can find Lydia at her website The Perfect Pantry, as well as on Facebook and Twitter.