Domestic Labor and New Cooking in the Age of Julia Child

Friday, January 3, 2014: 9:10 AM
Columbia Hall 2 (Washington Hilton)
Tracey Deutsch, University of Minnesota Twin Cities
This paper considers the position of paid and unpaid labor in the teachings of Julia Child.  It argues that Child’s life can illuminate a larger story—about how the pursuit of fresh food and celebration of laborious cooking came to matter so much to middle- and upper-class identity in the late 20th century US.

Often credited with making home cooking leisurely, I argue that Julia Child forwarded a notion of cooking that also celebrated the work involved.  Child was convinced that producing good food often required significant labor, both procuring food and also preparing it. This was in strong distinction to earlier and contemporary popular cooking shows and cookbooks (e.g., the Can Opener Cookbook or the I Hate to Cook Book).  By the late 1960s, Child was part of a growing chorus of authors and influential chefs who, despite profound differences, each promoted meals that required large amounts of time, attention, and sometimes physical labor from home cooks. In her focus on method and her comfort with time-consuming recipes, Child had much in common with people like Alice Waters, health food writers like Adele Davis, and members of alternative natural foods co-ops and movements.  All emphasized the critical importance of cooking labor to taste, to the success of a meal, and to larger social and political projects.

Setting Child’s life in the context of 1960s and 1970s America, this paper reveals how laborious cooking became a celebrated prescription for middle and upper-class domestic life and politics. In addition to Child’s forceful personality, I contend that her success also reveals this broader transition to a  moment in which domestic, effortful cooking became increasingly important to the markers of class and responsible citizenship.  This linking between laborious cooking and responsible citizenship is one with which we still wrestle.

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