A Recipe for the Good Life
by Ellen Jordan
With the same matter-of-factness that she uses to whip up a souffle or create a master dessert, America's culinary legend Julia Child dealt with cancer thirty-two years ago. After finding a rather large lump in her breast, which she describes as "the size of a lima bean," she went straight to her doctor and quickly had it "lopped off." The cancer has never bothered her since.
"With a simple breast cancer, where the cancer is self-contained, it is usually one of the easiest cancers to take care of. I think people are unnecessarily scared with all the media attention about it," Child says with fervor. Since her radical mastectomy in 1965, she has not had "the slightest problem." But even if she did, she would simply deal with it and go on enjoying her life.
And what a life she has. Julia Child, 85, has so deeply influenced our approach to preparing and eating food that she is one of America's most respected icons. Through the years, she has lovingly and painstakingly taught us to appreciate the fine art of good cooking: fresh foods, made-from-scratch recipes, fine French cuisine, and good wine. Because of her, the American eating experience has become a celebration; she has made a good meal one of the happiest and most fulfilling occasions of life. She advocates "comfort food" and reveres good American home cooking, like steak and baked potatoes, fresh salads, and luscious apple pies. And yes, a little pat of butter to enrich a sauce.
With the same matter-of-factness that she uses to whip up a soufflle or create a master dessert, America's culinary legend, Julia Child dealt with cancer.
Child's first book about cooking appeared in 1961: Mastering the Art of French Cooking (co-written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). She quickly followed its tremendous success in 1962 with the widely-appealing public television series called The French Chef. The program immediately launched her amazing career as America's reigning queen of cuisine. There is no medium that she has not entered over the last thirty-six years to tout the joys of cooking. She co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food with Robert Mondavi in 1981. Her many television series have included Julia Child and Company, Julia Child and More Company, and Dinner at Julia's and Master Chefs. With the splendid book and video series entitled In Julia's Kitchen With Master Chefs, it is obvious that her influence on world-class as well as unknown chefs is clearly unparalleled. She has graced the cover of Time magazine as "The Lady With The Ladle" and has had dozens of speaking engagements around the world to talk about the wonders of food.
Child has eagerly kept pace with modem communication vehicles to spread her gospel of the good life. Her new CD-ROM entitled Julia Child Home Cooking with Master Chefs has been another tremendous success, and she has even gone online to allow food lovers to cyber-chat with America's all-time favorite chef. She has come into our homes and lives so much to teach us how to enjoy life more that she is like a regular, welcome dinner guest. What a delightful one she has proved to be. Her warmth, down-to-earth attitude, and respect for the gift of life, both in and out of the kitchen, are rejuvenating.
Growing up in Pasadena, California, Julia learned early to love fresh vegetables in great variety, including litchi nuts. She deplores America's current fastidious obsession with fat-free foods and constant dieting. Her recipe for a healthy diet and a happy life is moderation. "You simply have to have a well-balanced diet and eat small helpings. I am a very enthusiastic meat eater. I don't eat lots of butter. You have to do everything in moderation. Eat small portions and eat a variety of foods," she advises. Her mother did not do much cooking. The family had a cook who prepared basic American cuisine. But in 1948, she and her late husband, Paul Child, moved to France, where food is taken very seriously. She enrolled in Cordon Bleu to learn about French cooking because her husband appreciated good food, and she wanted to please him. It opened a new life to her, and she absorbed everything there was to learn about how the French prepare food. It also changed everyone else's approach to food, too.
When asked if she believes diet influences good health, Child quickly advocates a balanced diet for optimum health. She also thinks genetic makeup plays a role in good health. "Your genetic makeup has a lot to do with things. My father's family were tough, pioneer people. My mother's people were from western Massachusetts. All of them had high blood pressure and most died at around age 60. All my father's people lived well into their late nineties. But, we've made tremendous strides in medicine, remarkable strides," she adds. No one in her family had ever had breast cancer, so she did not have a genetic predisposition. She feels lucky to have found the cancer in time to be completely cured and recommends mammograms and self check-ups for all women. "If it's a simple cancer, it can be taken care of simply," she reiterates.
The best advice for women facing the possibility of breast cancer is not to fear, Child insists. "Having a mammography is essential. Back when I had breast cancer, very little was known about it. Mammography is wonderful for finding it early when something can be done about it. If anything feels suspicious, see your doctor and take care of it."
Child also recommends staying busy. After her mastectomy, she returned to work "just about immediately, in two or three weeks." Having a loving family is also important. Her husband was very supportive after her surgery. "He said he didn't marry me for my breast," she says with a laugh. She continues to have regular annual mammograms and check-ups.
In fact, Child says, breast cancer is probably the least lethal of cancers when caught in time. "Of course, it's not nice having your breast removed, but all of this hysteria in the media is awful. People are probably worried needlessly. I am very glad to be fine. I don't do a lot of public speaking about it, but I am always happy to tell my story if asked. It wasn't talked about when I had it. Think of the countless people who could have been saved by early detection."
Child's remarkable common sense approach to everything, from carving a roast to kneading dough, prevails. "I don't like the whole idea of calling someone a 'survivor'. It is a scare word," she says emphatically. "The important thing is do something about it immediately. If you have a questionable mammography, don't delay. Time is of the essence. Don't hesitate."
For the energetic Julia Child, each tomorrow is a very busy day. She is planning more television shows, "TV things" she calls them, and has lots of new writing about cooking to do. Like a carefully-followed recipe, her life yields a concoction of joy.
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This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, November/December 1997.