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Are TV Dinners Really That Bad?

What does this summer's Julia Child renaissance mean for our home cooking habits? Julia Child, the late cookbook author, public television...

What does this summer's Julia Child renaissance mean for our home cooking habits?

Julia Child, the late cookbook author, public television star, and gawky giant with a high-pitched voice who changed the way Americans think about food, about home cooking, and about boning a chicken, has been catapulted back into the spotlight.

Last week, Child's gigantic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cookery, reappeared on the bestseller list in large part because of Nora Ephron's much-hyped film Julie & Julia. Although, as Slate's Regina Schrambling wrote, the book's elaborate, multi-page recipes might not really serve any function beyond home décor in the time of twecipes.

As Child's legacy resurfaces, so has the debate about tuning in and turning on TV chefs. Is watching the creation of glossy, effortless meals food porn? Does sitting around watching the Food Network result in a nation full of fatsos? Or is food TV just innocuous chewing gum for the eyes?

In a lengthy piece for The New York Times Magazine, food guru Michael Pollan wrote that the proliferation of food coverage and the cult of chef-worship has led to less cooking know-how in the home kitchen. "For the rise of Julia Child-along with Alice Waters and Mario Batali and Martha Stewart and Emeril Lagasse and whoever is crowned the next Food Network star-as a figure of cultural consequence has, paradoxically, coincided with the rise of fast food, home-meal replacements and the decline and fall of everyday home cooking."

Not everyone thinks it's quite so cut-and-dry. "I don't think there's a cause-and-effect relationship-because of popularity of cooking shows, we don't cook," says Kathleen Collins, the author of Watching What We Eat. "I think that's ridiculous. Just because the TV is on doesn't mean people aren't cooking. I guess I'm more of an optimist than Michael Pollan."

Looking back to pioneering TV cooks, like Julia Child, there's a message of authenticity. She showed that food is messy, that kitchens were places where accidents happen. "She was very comfortable with blundering around in the kitchen," Collins told me. "And she let us share the mistakes. You never see that anymore." Cooking is about con?dence, showmanship, and a curiosity that drives one to learn from mistakes. That's the messy truth. And in the wake of a film about a blogger who recreates Child's book, the messy truth is that television can't really be blamed for a proliferation of upscale restaurants, a downturn in the sale of casserole dishes, or the mothballing of the nation's kitchens.

Arguably, few people who bought Child's recently re-released cookbook because they saw Julie & Julia will be doing multi-step recreations of sole meunière. But maybe that's not the point, as Mark Bittman pointed out: "Just as you need not be Rafael Nadal to play tennis, you need not be Gordon Ramsay to cook a decent meal." Julia Child can inspire some, just as others might put sticky notes on the pages of Alton Brown's Gear for Your Kitchen.

The bottom line is: we idealize and fantasize recipes, whether that's in a book, the silver screen, or the idiot box. It's the undeniable appeal of thinking you can effortlessly cook something, that anyone can replicate food that looks too good to be true.

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