Thursday, September 1, 2011

national icons: julia vs. martha

You know someone is truly an icon when she can go solely on her first name. Beyonce, Gisele, Marilyn. Such is also the case with both Julia (Child) and Martha (Stewart) -- two dominant, headstrong women who took the reins and used food and cooking to become TV superstars.

I hate to gender stereotype, but it is hard to argue with the fact that there still exist typically male and typically female character traits... at least in our perception. Despite androgynous vampires and Chaz Bono going on Dancing with the Stars, our societal norms are still situated in women as the 'softer' sex and men as the assertive hunters.

Both Julia and Martha possess decidedly masculine characteristics. Both are competitive, insistent, confident to the point of arrogance, and unafraid to give their opinions even when wildly unpopular. Yet, we remember Julia with fondness while Martha is prickly and rubs us the wrong way. And Julia was able to transcend herself to become 'the queen of cuisine' while Martha is forever mired in the quagmire of her own 'Martha-ness'... as 'Cruella de-Stewart' for example.

So what is the difference between these powerful women? Martha may have 2.3 million Twitter followers, but Julia has the entire country affectionately recalling her high-pitched voice and her awkward height and posture. And perhaps that is at the heart of it. Julia was capable of -- even embraced -- being imperfect, while Martha incessantly reiterates an image of the unattainable. Yes, you can try to be like Martha or create the 'perfect' Thanksgiving that she displays in her magazine spreads and on her show, but you can never achieve exactly what Martha does. No one is ever as good as Martha. Julia, on the other hand, was happy to let you see her drop a turkey on the floor and put it back on the plate to serve.

First, let's look at Julia. Julia is the queen of haute cuisine. Her Mastering the Art of French Cooking is frequently referred to as a 'Bible.' She has been parodied on Saturday Night Live by Dan Aykroyd, has appeared in a Nike Commercial, has been the subject of numerous comic strips (The New Yorker, Beetle Bailey, for example), and has been an answer in a New York Times crossword puzzle. She has been on Sesame Street and in a Boston Science Museum exhibit captivating children with an explanation of how DNA and the beginnings of life emerged from a 'primordial soup.' She has appeared in Life magazine, has been on the cover of Time, and has been described as more convincing than Walter Cronkite. She has transcended the realm of cooking to take her place alongside the Statue of Liberty and Florence Nightingale as bearer and protector of national values and culture, as author of history still not yet written. Ironically, Julia's fundamental 'American-ness' is paradoxically built around the emblematic figure of 'The French Chef.' I wrote an article as a graduate student at UC-Santa Barbara considering how this capture and redefinition of what is so essential to France (their particular cuisine and relationship to food) reveals how the project of national identity is situated always, as Stuart Hall explains, in "the gaze of Otherness. And there is no identity that is without the dialogic relationship to the Other. The Other is outside, but also inside the Self, the identity. So identity is a process, identity is split. Identity is not a fixed point but an ambivalent point." (Stuart Hall, "Ethnicity: Identity and Difference," in Geoff Eley & Ronald Grigor Suny (eds), Becoming National (1996), p. 345) In other words, this 'ambivalent point' of American identity corresponds to a congruent node of ambivalence in French identity -- the resounding chorus is that of two nations involved in a discourse wherein the definition of self circles around the negation and yet the very present-ness of the other. Through the mercurial relationship that exists (and has historically existed) between the United States and France, each nation has developed a critical 'anti-legend.' America is that which is not French and France is most definitely that which is not America -- each anti-legend buoyed most notably by
its unifying force and its allegorical capacities -- since by talking about America it [France] never stopped talking about France. With, however, one considerable difference: the metadiscourses of legitimization are organized around purely positive nodes -- emancipating the citizen, fulfilling the spirit, a classless society, and so on. The "great legends" are dead, outdated by postmodernity's inherent "incredulouness." As for anti-Americanism, it has spread and prospered: a convex "great legend," it remains operational while the metadiscouses of good have lost all their effectiveness, all their powers of coalescence in the social imagination. Which is all the more reason for taking it seriously: this anti-legend... (Phillipe Roger, The American Enemy: A Story of French Anti-Americanism (2005), pg. 453)
With the death of the 'great legends,' the grand narratives, the 'metadiscourses of good,' the importance of the other in its role as non-self is heightened. In other words, the ambivalence of the self, the very un-fixedness of identity, leaves a gap in our desire for communal mythologizing. Thus, the legend re-emerges at the anti-legend rather than disappearing altogether. Julia Child serves this purpose of re-mythologizing characteristic aspects of American identity -- as self-made, as practical, as down-to-earth and self-effacing. In doing so, she re-situated "the whole topos of egalitarian innocence and happy frugality" (Roger, p.41) around the central characteristic of French cuisine. In Julia Child, a six-foot-two, gangly and slightly awkward woman was "'our lady of the ladle,' gazing benevolently from the cover of Time at her vast American following. She [would become] a reassuring and familiar icon, a national treasure, cherished for her pervasive presence on television." (Noel Riley Fitch, Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child (1997), p. 310) In re-locating the very heart and soul of French culture into this woman, the iconization of Julia Child represents not only the assertion of a national myth, but the consumption of the 'other's' very essence into the self.

In the necessarily ongoing construction of American national identity, Julia Child exemplifies the inability of the nation to exist solely as a place. Instead, it hovers in the ghostly forces, the image-making icons, produced and consumed in the public sphere that defines its future power and past significance through this "sliding movement or flickering between the two," (Pheah Cheng, "Spectral Nationality," Boundary 2 26:3 (1999), p. 247) between the self and the other. Ultimately, the nation takes on a bodily manifestation in order for its legends or anti-legends to take shape (think of Daniel Boone, Davy Crockett, Jesse James, Paul Revere, Hiawatha), yet the irony that critical and postcolonial theorist Pheng Cheah suggests is that this body is not the origin of a national spectrality (or intangible) but the recipient, and thus an artificial and 'artifactual' body -- a tool crafted by the national self to capture and encapsulate the abstract national spirit.

I explained, in that same paper, how there is a long tradition between the U.S. and France of antagonistic relations (and cultural self-perceptions) that, ironically, help define each country's national self. The USA's emergence from various European colonial rulers meant that it was colored by this past as a possession of Europe and the Old World. Even before the American Revolution was complete, the threat this new nation and culture posed to the 'Old' was sensed. Thereby, a Franco-American debate evolved which, for the French, was "a crusade against the budding imposture of America worship -- part scientific debate, part image war." (Roger, p. 2) With no nation having yet achieved independence from colonial rule, the idea of a democratic nation emerging from this project was both exciting and threatening. There was a sense in the 1760's and 70's that if the American colonies won their independence "the result would be a crop of small-scale, localized tyrants, and that in the long run a kind of 'rogue state' would emerge, using all kinds of military tactics to take over global trade." (Roger, p. 24) The American nation would have come from something essentially European (as its leaders and founders were European) and thus the threat -- it was an affront to the Old World, dominated at the time by France. The stakes of this dispute were high -- from its ambiguous and interrelated origins, the American nation had gone from a part of Europe into something that rejected it and all its culture, morals, values, even its history. From the beginning, the anti-American attitude assumed by the French was "not solipsistic, but it [was] largely self-referential and autarchic." (Roger, p. xi) The French had to stem the tides of their own America worship. Their initial enthusiasm for using the American republic as a model for their own was quickly realized to be an admission of an intellectual and political inferiority.

The perception of this threat led to a concerted effort to discredit the Americas -- and to do so scientifically for science and rational logic are "proof", of course, and exist as the very backbone of the Enlightenment. Phillipe Roger, in his book The American Enemy, traces these early anti-American sentiments. The proclamation of French naturalist, Georges-Louis Leclerc, comte de Buffon, that the New World produced degenerative cousins of 'authentic' European animals legitimized the inferiority of America through science. With the machine set in motion by Buffon, other 'scientific' evidence of America's shortcomings quickly followed.

Many of the deficiencies of the New World began to bear the mark of inferior gustatory qualities. Cornelius De Pauw claimed that "plant life in America was not so much plant life as plant preserves, a gigantic heap of sauerkraut" (Roger, p. 17) (bearing an obvious denigrating reference to the second-rate cuisine of the nearby incipient German nation.) The main food sources of the Americas -- yuccas and other roots -- derivatives of the species Jucas and Manihot were discovered to be poisonous when eaten raw. The implication was striking: "America was stupefying -- it pretended to nourish its offspring in order to kill them!" (Roger, p. 18) With extreme accounts of French colonists forced to turn to cannibalism during their exploration of America, De Pauw
proved this was a wretched, desolate country where no one could survive, and he hinted at the terrible "revolution" that America provoked in its invaders, who were transformed into cannibals as surely as Circe's visitors had been turned into swine... [This pronouncement] could also be read as an allegory of the fate of colonizing countries: Europeans devouring each other symbolized the draining of their vital energy into the human abyss known as America. (Roger, p. 16)
Soon, this 'science' of inferiority expanded beyond that realm to manifest as proof for why America had produced no men of genius for, as Guillaume Thomas Raynal, the French historian and philosopher concluded, "under this foreign sky, the mind has become as enervated as the body." (Guillaume Thomas Raynal, quoted in Roger, p. 23) Notice the bodily reference. And such began the transfer of pseudo-scientific arguments into the realm of philosophy, morality, and culture, i.e. "an aesthetic anti-Americanism, which would be the primitive base of the cultural anti-Americanism of the twentieth century." (Roger, p. 36) French exiles to America began to describe the nation as all that was anathema to European gentile culture. The Americans were badly mannered, greedy, conversationally inept, and intellectually lacking. These American philistines were only interested in material progress in which, it was conceded, they were rapidly making great economic strides. However, this interest in the utilitarian 'arts' was perceived as detrimental to the development of the 'true' arts. France thus reversed its former idolatry of the "solemn myth... of Washington's America as neo-Roman, agrarian, and virtuous" (Roger, p. 40) and replaced it with a vision of the journey into the American wilderness as neither "a source of replenishment or a rediscovery of humanity's robust childhood... [but] a Conradesque trip into the heart of darkness: one had 'the impression of traveling backward through the progress of the human spirit.'"(Roger, p. 42) It had been the Europeans who had originally 'discovered' America. These scientific studies, and the basis for a burgeoning cultural superiority that they established, enabled French intellectuals to 'rediscover' America through their pens. Through the re-writing of the American narrative as complete degeneration, they once again gave shape to the New World -- a shape informed by the power of knowledge and superior cultural authority. Such were the image wars that began as the United States was just being formed: "just as the New England colonies were solidifying their aspirations for a vita nuova, the most listened-to voices in Europe were consigning America to sterility and death." (Roger, p. 7)

Cuisine is a subject fraught with nuances. It can divide the nation from the inside (think of all the regional varieties of Indian or Italian cooking), yet it can define a national character through a more tenuous putative community. Through its ability to unite people in an 'imagined community' (Anderson, 1983), it aids the nation-state in the smooth administration of governance as "gourmandism is one of the principle bonds in society; it is what gradually expands that spirit of conviviality uniting the various social strata every day, what forms them into a single whole, animates conversation, and smoothes the rough edges of conventional inequality." (Brillat-Savarin, quoted in Jean-Robert Pitte, French Gastonomy (1991), p. 140)

Whereas the African land grab was an imperial fight over physical territory, the rivalry between the United States and France is a struggle over the territory of Culture with a capital C, between the Old World and the New, indeed between the 'cooked' and the 'raw.' Both nations are products of the Enlightenment with its legacy of universalistic totality and its desire to accelerate human 'progress' in which "the linked and complementary goals of universal enlightenment and universal commerce contained no space of opacity." (Paul Rabinow, French Modern (1989), p. 23) France had long assumed control over the spread of Culture -- in fashion, furniture, art, and food. The metamorphosis of Julia Child into a national icon who practically single handedly created a unique American cuisine was a usurping of the right to this position of authorhood in regards to prescribing the realm of the avant-garde and aesthetics internationally, indeed of the right to be the writer of 'history [or History] even before it was written.'

Long before Martha became the measure of the success of our holiday cooking and interior decorating, Julia invaded the home through the medium of television. Home is largely about nostalgia rather than reality... and is most certainly based in memory. The visual mediums of television and film can thereby serve as ways to recover "'lost, unheard memories'... of that past. So identity, it seems is a question of memory, and memories of 'home' in particular." (David Morley & Kevin Robins, "No Place like Heimat: Images of Home(land) in European Culture," in Eley & Suny, p. 461) For many viewers, Julia excavated an American historical cuisine (germinating from the French) dug out of (or into) the metaphorical archaeology of the American home -- in fact, right in its very heart, the kitchen. Her spectrality of the intangible other was thus reconstructed into an exclusively American memory -- a memory located in a place (unlike the placeless nation) and in a space (American public television and its public sphere.)

Raymond Oliver, a television chef in France and the author of Gastronomy of France, would devote an entire chapter of his book to one of the nation's most hallowed and mystical dishes -- bouillabaisse. The great fish soup stood for "the most vibrant and passionate [traits]... a dish which in itself represents a whole region and its deepest motivations and symbols." (Raymond Oliver, The Gastronomy of France (1967), p. 163) Julia spent a long time on a mission to understand this vraie bouillabaisse. Finally, after receiving "conflicting advice as to the true ingredients: one said absolutely no tomatoes, one said saffron, another no saffron... [she] became 'irked' at their [French chefs'] dogmatism and occasional ignorance. 'Balls,' she replied in private." (Fitch, p. 213) The particularities of bouillabaisse -- particularities that, in reality, did not seem to be discernible --
never struck her as sacrosanct. Julia refused to honor that brand of wisdom about bouillabaisse that insisted only traditional, grizzled fishermen knew how to make it properly... She went on to make bouillabaisse everywhere she lived, including Norway, and found she could always achieve "the necessary flavor." What made a dish French wasn't the raw materials, it was what happened to them in the hands of the cook." (Laura Shapiro, "Sacred Cows and Dreamberries: In Search of the Flavor of France," Gastronomica Summer 2005 5-3, p. 57)
In her French Chef show on bouillabaisse, Julia only calls the soup by its French name at the beginning of the show. Thereafter, she refers to it simply as 'fish soup' explaining how "all it is really is a plain fisherman's stew made out of the day's catch of unsaleable leftovers. Unfortunately, when you get a famous recipe like this one, the gourmets get hold of it and they fancy it up so much and say 'do this' or 'do that' or 'that's not the real thing' that us ordinary people feel it's impossible to do... but everyone enjoys eating it and there's nothing very difficult about it." (The French Chef, "Bouillabaisse a la Marsaillaise, WGBH (Boston), PBS, 1963)

French cooking was not eluding Americans because of any mystical quality, but because of a snobbish elitism, Julia concluded. "The idea was to take the bugaboo out of French cooking," (Julia Child, quoted in Fitch, p. 289) Julia would remark of her purpose in authoring Mastering the Art of French Cooking. This 'bugaboo' is exactly what Martha reintroduced into cooking and decorating and even crafting. Achieving decorated Easter eggs of this quality is not simple.

Paper-Napkin Decoupage Eggs
For Julia, the French nation was not hallowed. To her it was a body of knowledge that could be deconstructed and analyzed just like any other large source of information. Thus, Julia took a scientific approach to French cuisine (perhaps an ironic counterpoint to the pseudo-science with which the French once approached the young American nation), an approach aimed at stripping away its esoteric quality... for Julia understood that magic was not in any way related to good cooking. She rigorously tested methods, broke down techniques, and analyzed obscurely written recipes in a process of codifying French cuisine into something objective and attainable. This was Julia Child's earnest pledge: she would "laboriously define the cuisine she had fallen in love with, breaking it down into its smallest components and putting them back together so that for the first time they would make sense to people like herself -- ambitious home cooks from a country French gastronomes viewed with horror and derision." (Shapiro, Gastronomica, p. 54)

In the process, Julia discovered that the failure of Americans to be able to successfully reproduce French dishes was not due to their incompetence, but to differences in ingredients that had never before been revealed. Like a true scientist, Julia discovered there was a gluten difference of 2.5 percent between French and US flours. This difference had been hampering American bakers in their attempts to produce a quality loaf of French bread. And this was certainly not the only difference that had become a cooking problem which had "delayed completion [of a dish]... from the oversized turkeys that had be cooked differently from the French poultry to the difficulty of finding creme fraiche... American veal was not as pale and tender as the French; U.S. butchers offered different meat cuts; except for parsley, few fresh herbs were available; American ate a lot of broccoli, which was rare in France -- and so the discoveries went." (Fitch, p. 240)

French cuisine became Americanized through Julia. It was analyzed and rewritten. The title of her magnum opus is instructive. It is Mastering the Art of French Cooking -- it is mastering, not imitating or admiring, that is meant to transpire. Further, the word cuisine has become cooking -- a word which does not sustain the same mystique, the same myth of a people. In addition, Julia was willing to use modern innovations and appliances as long as they achieved the same results as traditional techniques. Martha, on the other hand, prohibited reference to microwaves until after her release from prison when she was forced to appease a public who had lost faith in her... and on a more personal level, in order to rehabilitate her own image as someone accessible to the everyman.

Julia had the definite purpose of taking 'the bugaboo' out of French cooking and demonstrating that all one needed to do to cook well -- even to achieve the most challenging level of haute cuisine -- was to follow rules. Thereby, she translated French magic into American rationalism. This rational approach to French cuisine was completely new. Mastering set a standard that ensuing cookbooks would follow. None had been so clearly laid out, exemplified by the two-column approach used in Mastering where the ingredients were listed in bold on the left-hand side of the page and the recipes stood to the right. When Julia appeared on television in 1962, this rational approach continued to be her modus operandi, countered, of course, by her 'hamming it up.' Julia's enthusiastic way of analyzing, translating, and teaching was fundamentally appealing to an American public who had been condescended to by others claiming the impossible techniques of French cuisine or assuming that Americans would be challenged by and satisfied with the recipes in The Can-Opener Cookbook (1952). At MIT, there was a group of physicists and engineers who gathered weekly to watch her show. Though their interest was not in cooking per se, they were enthralled by "her technique, her attention to detail and rules. Here was a woman on television who was not sexy and was not selling something; she was demonstrating technique, and they were fascinated." (Fitch, p. 309)

Martha began her career as a model. And this interest in appearances has never stopped. More recently, Martha has allowed a larger staff to prepare and test recipes for her magazines and cookbooks (still often without acknowledgement though...) However, when Martha first began publishing cookbooks on her own, they yielded astonishingly beautiful end results, but failed frequently in flavor and taste. I know this because I became a Martha fan early on, but after my mom and I tried several of her recipes, we concluded the aesthetics didn't make up for the cardboard taste.

Martha in Bazaar magazine

Martha's 'empire' is largely based on show. She is notoriously well-known for being incredibly picky about presentation. One particularly out-of-control Thanksgiving shoot is described in the August 8-15 edition of New York Magazine in an article by Benjamin Wallace titled "The Comeback That Wasn't":
A Thanksgiving story shot at Stewart's stables in Bedford featured a long table and was so complicated that it became almost a comedy of errors. A child's hair caught fire. Stewart sliced her thumb and was sent to the hospital. At the table, Stewart was flanked by Brooke Astor's son, Anthony Marshall, and his wife, hardly avatars of the simple life. (By the time the story was published, Marshall was on trial for misappropriating his mother's fortune, and the picture had to be blurred out.) "There was an incredible divide between what Martha was interested in and what the reader wanted," a then-editor says. (Wallace, p. 41)
This is exactly the opposite of Julia. Julia wanted the viewer/reader to be successful. Martha wants to remain above us, always superior, always in utmost control. She screwed one of her most lucrative deals with Kmart because she demanded renewal of a completely imbalanced contract. Before ending that partnership, she angrily expressed in a CNBC interview how disappointed she was with Kmart's "shabby stores and poor quality merchandise." (Mercedes Cardona, "Martha Stewart and Kmart: Putting on Appearances") She bungled other potential deals to diversify the brand away from her with companies like the Knot, Cynthia Rowley, and Jonathan Adler because "Stewart would find something wrong with [all the deals.] In some cases, she'd nix the idea at the last minute, after sitting down with the prospective brand owner. As one former executive put it, 'She didn't want anyone else in the kitchen.'" (Wallace, p. 40) Julia invites us into her kitchen. Martha makes her kitchen a pinnacle of unattainable perfection with her always standing in judgment, always in control. Julia trusted us; Martha trusts no one. Julia cooked and wrote books and went on television not to promote herself or to create a brand, but because she wanted to share knowledge with the American public. She wanted us to enjoy eating, to broaden our gustatory boundaries. She wanted us to experience the power of making a dish that seemed impossible. Martha is all about "Martha". Just look at the following comparison of one of Julia's and one of Martha's book covers.

Visually, Martha dominates her book cover while there is only a small photo of Julia in the upper right hand corner of her cover. In terms of the titles themselves, Martha's book is more adamantly "Martha"-focused. It is Martha Stewart's Cooking School... and no one else's!! Julia's book is more inviting. You can open it and cook with Julia. She is not standing above you in judgment, but in the kitchen by your side... as a friend with clear, logical instructions.

Julia had a risque and racy sense of humor. She mocked an assistant producer on Good Morning America for his failed pronunciation of croque-monsieur: "in her loudest voice, she said, 'No it's not cock-monsieur, it's croque-monsieur!'" (Jacques Pepin, "My Friend Julia Child," Gastronomica, p. 13) She swore often and could be heard nonstop making comments such as "Jacques, I have a nice piece of tail for you," (Pepin, p. 12) when Pepin and Julia were showing how to remove lobster meat in one of their shows. She was unafraid to be herself, even when that self was entirely imperfect, full of foibles, and inelegance. But that was what made her endearing. Martha is not endearing. Martha will never reveal to us who she really is... and it is questionable if she even knows any more having wrapped her brand and herself so tightly together. In the end, Julia trusted and invited us to share with her; Martha refused to trust, refuses to give up power, and thus will never reach the legendary status of Julia. Perhaps both Julia and Martha exhibit and embody a particular side of our national identity. As Sarah Radcliffe writes in her article "Embodying National Identities," (Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 1999, p. 214): "National representations are performed through public spectacle, each nation having its own genealogy of performance." Ultimately, it is the flawed nature, the unaffected presentation, and childlike infectiousness of Julia's performance that transcends and spellbinds. Martha is powerful, but is this enough? Do we really want to buy into a national icon that pole dances for attention? Perhaps more importantly, all in all, I don't know if I've ever seen Martha smile... genuinely.


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