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In Defense of Julia’s Food

January 27, 2010

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In Defense of Julia Child

Last week I read an article listing the five best and worst cookbooks of the past decade. Topping the list was “Paula Deen’s Kitchen Classics”; second was “Mastering the Art of French Cooking 13th Edition” by Julia Child. The list was created by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) a Washington D.C. based group that advocates for better health through healthy diet (

The article quoted Susan Levin, nutrition director of PCRM, stating “these high fat recipes help explain why America’s obesity-related medical spending doubled over the past decade.” The quote left me with something to chew on for several days. A friend asked me if I had seen the article, and if I had, what were my thoughts. Well, I couldn’t stop defending Julia Child and thought that the best thing to do was to blog about it.

I wanted to know how the group arrived at the conclusion that Julia Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking, 13th Edition” could be responsible for our nation’s obesity problem, so I searched the Internet for the actual PCRM report but couldn’t find it. Child’s book was first published in 1961. Could a 48-year old cookbook really be responsible for our nation’s current weight problem?  I then contacted the article’s author who said she couldn’t find the original press release, but she, too, was somewhat shocked at the findings. We both agreed we had never seen a fat French person so surely there must be some mistake in including Child’s recipe book.

Why, you might ask, do I even care? Well, like so many of us, I have been intrigued by Child’s book after seeing the movie “Julie & Julia.” Julie Powell did an amazing thing by recreating all of Julia’s recipes in a year’s time. So I bought the cookbook (mine is the 40th anniversary edition) and began in earnest to recreate Child’s recipes.

Yes, the recipes use more butter and cream than I’m used to using. They also take an enormous amount of time to prepare. I can’t see “Joe and Jane Average American” preparing French recipes more often than once or twice a month (my usual rate). I began to dig deeper.

I’m a doctoral student, and as such, I have been educated to go beyond the obvious and find the truth (or at least some other explanation for what is being observed). I’m also studying obesity and thought that perhaps Julia Child has been unjustly charged with our nation’s growing girth. Maybe there are other factors that could explain the increase in our expanding waistlines. So I thought about other factors such as fast food restaurants.

Child’s book was published in 1961. What else was going on at that time? Well, Ray Kroc began franchising McDonald’s in 1955 from the original “McDonalds” started by Dick and Mac McDonald in 1940. Taco Bell was founded in 1946 by Glen Bell; the company went public in 1966. Burger King was founded in 1954 by James Lamore and David Edgerton and began franchising in 1959. Pizza Hut was founded by Dan and Frank Carney in 1958 and is the largest pizza chain in the world. Tom Monaghan founded Dominoes in 1965 and in the same year Fred DeLuca and Peter Buck founded Subway. Dave Thomas started Wendy’s in 1969. Might the rise in fast food restaurants be the cause of the rise in obesity?

I think more people probably prepare their dinner by going to the drive through than they do by whipping up a ‘boeuf bourguignon.” But maybe I shouldn’t point my fingers at fast food. I mean even Jared (and now Shay Sorrells) lost weight by eating Subway sandwiches. So, what else is going on?

Ask Michael Pollan author of “In Defense of Food” who believes that perhaps ‘food products’ are the cause of obesity. Pollan discusses the likes of things such as fruit loops, fruit roll ups, gogurt and countless other ‘food products’ that line our grocery shelves. Don’t even get me started on all the ‘itos’ (Fritos, Doritos, Cheetos, Tostitos) that I personally enjoy from time to time. Pollan believes that if we all went back to eating real food (such as Child’s butter, cream, eggs) and do so in moderation, we might all be a bit healthier. His motto “Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants” is a directive I can certainly live with.

I’m not saying that Julia Child’s recipes aren’t full of fat. Some of them certainly are. I am saying that I think there may be more factors than the 5 cookbooks listed by PCRM responsible for our national weight gain. I also think that we should realize that not just the United States is getting fatter. Every country—and that includes developing countries—are experiencing larger waistlines. I think that rather than pointing a pudgy finger at cookbooks, restaurants, or food products, we should accept responsibility for what we put in our mouths. And as for Julia’s recipes—I’ve been cooking one recipe every week or so since Christmas and I have lost 5 pounds (for a total of 21). Maybe I should alert the PCRM.

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