20 Aug 2014
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Mastering the Art of Gardening

The wisdom of Julia Child translates beyond the kitchen.

Mastering the Art of Gardening


Unless your head has been buried in the compost pile (I wouldn’t blame you; amazing things happen there), you know that this week marked the 100th anniversary of Julia Child’s birth. 

Why should we celebrate her here, in a gardening column? Well, delve into the details of her life, the wisdom she exuded, and you’ll find a bona fide gardening guru wielding a rolling pin rather than a trowel. In fact, it seems her memoir, “My Life in France,” thick with personal perspective on self-acceptance, openness to new experiences and recipes for amusement, might be the only “gardening” book a gardener truly needs. 

Perhaps the most impressive part of Julia’s journey to become a beloved, cooking legend lies in the fact that until she was well into her thirties, her life’s passion, as we know it now, remained undiscovered. Lucky for us, however, this all changed with one, single dining experience.

Traveling through France, en route to Paris where her husband, Paul, had taken up post as an employee with the State Department, they stopped for dinner at La Couronne, the oldest restaurant in the country. It was there she found herself in a perfectly prepared dish of sole meuriere.

“The whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me...I was hooked, and for life, as it turned out.” A pivotal experience, not unlike the moment a gardener witnesses a seed germinate for the first time."

Green, yet driven by an insatiable appetite to learn the world of French cuisine, Julia tossed fear and caution from the frying pan up high into the air, then watched their descent end with a splat on the kitchen floor. “Phooey!” She shrugged and tightened her apron strings. “The only real stumbling block is fear of failure. In cooking, you’ve got to have a what-the-hell attitude.” So, on the floor they stayed. They were two ingredients she wouldn’t be needing anyway.

She began to cook. And cook and cook and cook. “Cooking is like love: it should be entered into with abandon or not at all,” Julia would say. After all, “...no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing.” All that early “doing” certainly led to years of trial and error, which she meticulously documented for future reference, and notorious messes.

Stories tell of toilet bowls filled with countless, imperfectly poached eggs, sinks caked with not-quite-right batches of aioli, and a kitchen floor littered with evidence of numerous failed attempts at properly flipped pancakes. Nevertheless, she carried on. After all, “The only way you learn to flip things is just to flip them!” 

But, why was she cooking anyway? Leading a comfortable upper middle-class lifestyle, she certainly didn’t need to cook. She believed it to be so much more than a means to a meal, but rather a fulfilling physical, mental and artistic pursuit. “You do it to please yourself.”

This isn’t to say, she fulfilled her passion in isolation. Mastering the art of anything doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Learning requires teaching and vice versa. And Julia was no stranger to either. She and others frequently communed to cook, eat and share discoveries. “Just like becoming an expert in wine-you learn by drinking it, the best you can afford-you learn about great food by finding the best there is, whether simple or luxurious. Then you savor it, analyze it, and discuss it with your companions, and you compare it with other experiences.” 

However, understanding colleagues' opinions about classic cuisine and cooking didn’t necessarily mean Julia adopted them as her own. With a mind of her own, she always lived her life against the grain. In fact, once, a woman from Marseille claimed that, “real bouillabaisse never, ever includes tomatoes.” That struck a nerve with the independent thinking, Julia. “Such dogmatism, founded on ignorances expressed with a blast of hot air, irked me.” 

And what happened when a meal Julia prepared for her community of fellow cooks ended in disaster? “I made sure not to apologize for it. This was a rule of mine. I don’t believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make.”

So, how does the wisdom of Julia Child translate to gardeners? Well, according to the Julia Child-to-gardener translation handbook, titled, “All I Know About Gardening, I Learned From Julia Child” (not a real book, but should be): 

It’s never too late begin gardening. Stop reading about how to garden and just start. Enjoy the process, for that’s all there is. Submerse yourself fully into the physical, mental and artistic nature of your gardening endeavors. Only there will you find yourself. Bury your fear of failure; you’ll never learn until you do. Learn to shrug off mistakes and move on. Take meticulous notes and garden accordingly. Share your ideas with others. Accept others' knowledge with respect, then turn around and try it differently. Keep a sense of humor. After all, they’re just plants. Never, ever apologize for what your garden isn’t. Above all, have fun!

Bon Appetit and Happy Gardening!

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