Education Opinion

Food for the Body and Soul

By Susan Graham — August 18, 2009 4 min read
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Back in the spring my daughter plunked a book down on the kitchen cabinet as I was making coconut cream pie. “Can’t stay, but I had to drop by to bring you this. Read it, you’re going to love it.”

I put the book in my To Read pile and sort of forgot about it. Julie and Julia just sat around the house with me for a couple of months before I found time for the two of them, but once I started, we stayed up late together. Although they were separated by generations, they shared a desire to write, a love of good food, an interest in being a good cook, and a belief that of life was what you make of it. As I read, I felt that I might be the missing generational link in this sisterhood of cooks, writers and eaters who are at times frustrated, but who are trying to make meaning of their lives.

I felt rather protective toward Julie Powell and Julia Child as I waited anxiously for the movie to come out, pleased to see that they both had good actresses playing them. I was hoping a really good book wouldn’t turn into a really silly movie. It didn’t. To say one is touched by a movie that’s about a book that’s about a blog that’s about a cookbook may sound a little overwrought, but there were times when I came close to tears. After all, Julie and Julia and I have a lot in common.

You can’t, or at least shouldn’t, teach food preparation without being familiar with Julia Child. She really did transform cooking in America from a practical skill to a personal expression. I knew the story of her “secretarial work” for the Office of Strategic Services, precursor to the CIA. But I find it interesting that critics, both professional and social, are quick to say, “I loved her show because she was really fun, but who would have ever guessed that she was a critical link in a huge undercover intelligence operation?”

Yes, imagine! A mind that is capable of analyzing international events being intrigued by food preparation. Cooking, after all, is so basic, so commonplace, so domestic. I’m no Julia Child, but I can relate to not being taken very seriously. A school administrator once said, “I always knew you were nice, but I had no idea you were intelligent.” I think she thought I would perceive that as a compliment.

Then there is Julie Powell, the blogger and aspiring author. Of Julia Julia, she writes “She started [learning to cook] because she didn’t know what else to do.” Julie was in the same place when she began the blog. In an interview she says of herself,

…for me, the project was at least as much about finding my vocation as a writer....It meant so much more to me than learning to cook. It taught me a great deal about what I was capable of, how I could turn my life around.”

Julie Powell’s avocation for cooking provided a way to realize a career as a writer. She cooked so she could be a better writer. I write so I can be a better teacher. Like Julie, I’ve found that a blog provides a sort of literary discipline that benefits a would-be writer. Someone said that we don’t really know what we think until we write it down. Writing requires that I take time to update my knowledge, justify my opinions, and reflect on my practice.

While teaching requires constant human interaction, writing is a solitary pursuit. Like Julie, I sit alone in the wee hours of the morning trying to be insightful, informative, inspirational and also clever and witty. Like her, I sometimes wonder if anyone but my mother reads what I write. While every writer wants to be read, the odd thing is that, when a reader leaves a comment, or links to my blog, or quotes me, or walks up and says, “Hey, I read what you wrote the other day!” I find it slightly unsettling.

When I’m sitting there alone in the glow of my computer screen, writing my heart out, I sometimes forget that I have invited colleagues, critics and the randomly curious to peek in on my life and work and thoughts. Julie acknowledges that sense of feeling both exhilarated and exposed when she discovers she has a cadre of readers. I guess it’s called lurking for a reason!

The power and the responsibility of impacting the thinking of other people are shared experiences of writers and teachers. Julie always perceived herself as a writer. Teaching is my vocation, but I suppose writing has always been an avocation. However, I never really imagined that tomorrow someone would be reading what I’m sitting here in my pajamas writing tonight. It didn’t seem possible, but to become a real live writer at a point in life where I might just be counting the days down to retirement is pretty exciting. It makes me wonder what else might become of me.

On the day Julia Child passed away, Julie Powell wrote: “I would not have done it without Julia to tell me – ‘Go ahead – What could happen?’ There’s so much I would not have done. Because it would not have been there for me to do.”

In two weeks, once again, it will be my first day of school, and for the 28th time, I’ll have the back to school jitters. On that first day, when I ask my students what they most want to do in my class, the vast majority of them will say, “Cook and eat!” During the year, among a lot of other things, we’ll talk about food, we’ll learn to cook, and yes, we’ll eat. But at the end of the day, my primary concern is not what I’ve taught them about food history, or table manners, or food preparation, or even healthy eating.

What I care about most is how well I’ve prepared them to teach themselves to live intentionally. I hope I can convey the lesson Julie learned from Julia as she mastered cooking and the lesson I’ve learned as I’ve attempted to become a writer.

“Go ahead — What could happen?”

The opinions expressed in A Place at the Table are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.