BY CAROLYN O’NEIL
The August release of the film “Julie & Julia” and commemoration of Julia Child’s birthday on Aug. 15 inspired me to reflect on food and nutrition lessons learned from time spent speaking with and reading about the late culinary icon.
While working on the manuscript for my book, “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!,” I asked Julia — who was then well into her 80s and known for her love of butter and cream — what advice she might have for planning a healthy dinner party menu. She offered a stealth strategy. “If you serve a health-conscious meal to guests, don’t say so. Don’t mention it at all. You shouldn’t let nutrition get in the way of planning a good meal. Think taste first!”
Sensible. Her advice, whether for chopping celery or whisking a bowl of meringue, was always sensible. During an interview in 1997 at my home in Atlanta for a CNN profile, she shared that moderation was the key to eating a healthy diet, but here was her delicious twist: “Everything in moderation, I say — even excess! You can splurge every once in a while.”
She continued with a stronger observation. “I think a lot of people have an immature attitude. They hear you shouldn’t eat a lot of butter or red meat and so they give up eating butter. They give up eating red meat. The secret to healthful dieting is to eat small helpings and a great variety of everything. And above all, have a good time.”
So what about all that butter? If you’ve seen the movie or read either of the two books on which the script was based (“Julie & Julia” by Julie Powell and “My Life in France” by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme), you know Child adored the way butter can transform a dish. In a pivotal scene where Julia, played by Meryl Streep, first tastes sole meunière that arrives frothing with hot butter in a Paris restaurant, she declares her dedication to cooking.
But when asked during my conversation with her about the overall healthfulness of French cuisine, she leapt to its defense. “When they speak of French cooking they say, ‘Oh! All of those heavy sauces!’ I think people have a complete misconception of French cooking. I think they’re thinking of tourist cooking.”
To set the recipe record straight, Child’s many cookbooks give loud applause to the appeal of produce. In her 1995 cookbook “The Way to Cook,” more than 100 pages are dedicated to vegetables and salads, with a chapter introduction in which she declares, “The truth has dawned that fresh vegetables are not only good for you, they can be the glory of any meal, when lovingly cooked.”
Her fascination with cooking vegetables was top of mind during my interview with her, too. On tour for “Baking with Julia,” she lamented that she couldn’t wait to get back into the kitchen to cook spinach. “I’m doing a study of spinach. It was bitter when I sautéed it last time. So I blanched it first and it was still bitter. I’ve got to work it out.”
A final gem from Julia on living a healthy lifestyle was her advice shared via a phone call with me about enjoying pre-dinner cocktails with gathered friends. “I wish I was there. Tell everyone to have a wonderful time and not to mix their drinks too much.”
Carolyn O’Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of “The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!” E-mail her at email@example.com.