Julia Child, Conservative

Five years ago, before the current Julia Child mania, I wrote the following reflections on the woman on another blog. I still think there’s a lot to this, so here it is, followed by the original link:

I just got finished watching a program on Julia Child on PBS. Made me think (as most things do nowadays) about conservatism. It occurs to me that Julia Child was, in a funny way, a conservative–in the most authentic and serious meaning of that term.

First and foremost, she stood for the importance and primacy of domestic life. At the time she was writing, large corporations were expending enormous effort to convince women that cooking was drudgery, and they could get around all the effort and time involved with it by using frozen and canned food. Julia Child attacked this idea directly, arguing that cooking was not drudgery, but a soul satisfying, meaningful human activity, and that something profound is lost when we lose our connection to food–and with it the deep human desire to feed others food that we ourselves have prepared. Domestic life is meaningful only to the degree that the home is the site of production–once nothing is produced in the home, it becomes simply a place where people sleep, not a place where real family life is possible. I think this also shows, once again, the “cultural contradictions of capitalism” that Daniel Bell pointed out, the way that markets can eat away at important–and conservative–mediating institutions like the family.

Second, Julia Child was an elitist, and connected to this, an anti-postmodernist. That is, she believed that there was a right way to do things, that some people knew how to do these things, and that if you wanted to do things right you should look to the people with serious training and understanding. Her programs were fun and seemingly unrehearsed, but she studied carefully in French cooking schools and worked hard to figure out exactly how particular dishes should be cooked. That is, she believed that there was a way to cook a chicken, and a wrong way–and that people ought to take the time to learn the right way. Cooking was a discipline, and even though she was a populist, in the sense that she believed that anyone COULD learn how to cook French food, learning involved time and a willingness to submit to authority (her!).

Finally, and connected to this, was a belief in civilization. Julia Child believed that classical French cooking was one of the great accomplishments of human endeavor, something that had evolved over a long period of time. While progress was possible, it was only possible once one inherited the accumulated knowledge of centuries of gradual development. That is, Julia Child was no Cartesian–no “I think, therefore I cook” kind of building off of nothing but raw rationality. One had to immerse oneself in a particular tradition before anything like real creativity was possible. This cut against the grain of powerful trends in American culture, but, in the American context, so does any real conservatism. She believed that high could be distinguished from low, and that to acheive great things one needed to begin, to paraphrase Matthew Arnold, with the “best that had been prepared and cooked.”

So let us pay tribute to Julia Child, a woman who, as much as anyone of the last half-century, helped to civilize America.


Author: Steven M. Teles

Steven Teles is a Visiting Fellow at the Yale Center for the Study of American Politics. He is the author of Whose Welfare? AFDC and Elite Politics (University Press of Kansas), and co-editor of Ethnicity, Social Mobility and Public Policy (Cambridge). He is currently completing a book on the evolution of the conservative legal movement, co-editing a book on conservatism and American Political Development, and beginning a project on integrating political analysis into policy analysis. He has also written journal articles and book chapters on international free market think tanks, normative issues in policy analysis, pensions and affirmative action policy in Britain, US-China policy and federalism. He has taught at Brandeis, Boston University, Holy Cross, and Hamilton colleges, and been a research fellow at Harvard, Princeton and the University of London.