By Ezra Klein
Nora Ephron’s “Julie & Julia” has plunged us deep into a bout of Julia Child nostalgia. And what could be more delightful, or delicious? The movie has grossed more than $60 million — not bad for a flick about a cookbook author and a blogger. Child’s “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” sits atop the New York Times bestseller list for the first time in the book’s 48-year history. Millions are discovering her painstaking approach to cuisine for the first time. Bon appetit!
But as so often happens with nostalgia, the past is being massaged to fit the needs of the present. In the movie, Amy Adams, playing blogger Julie Powell, tries to explain the importance of Child to her husband. “She changed everything,” Powell says. “Before her, it was frozen food and can openers and marshmallows.” And after her? Most of us have all three in our kitchens. And no rendered beef tallow in our freezer.
“I felt like jumping up in my seat in the movie and saying, ‘No, no, no!’ ” says Laura Shapiro, author of “Julia Child: A Life.” “There were things that came in cans she liked just fine, like chicken broth. She dubbed Uncle Ben’s rice ‘l’Oncle Ben’s.’ ” Child adored supermarkets and admired McDonald’s. She thought premade pie crust a wonderful invention and was supportive of irradiating food for safety. Cooking, for her, was not in conflict with progress. Rather it was, or could be, in partnership with it.
Some of Child’s successors, however, have a more tortured relationship with the march of culinary technology. They survey the landscape and see little but high-fructose corn syrup and drive-through windows. If that’s progress, they’ll take the past. And there’s some evidence to support that position. A 2003 study by economists David Cutler, Ed Glaeser and Jesse Shapiro found that the rise in obesity over the past few decades could not be explained simply by food becoming cheaper or people consuming more meals in restaurants. It was the result of technological achievement.
The major differences in caloric intake aren’t due to larger meals. (In fact, there’s some evidence that we’re eating less at dinner than we used to.) The problem is we’re taking in more calories between meals, a direct consequence of technological innovation spurring the production of calorie-dense, long-lasting, shelf-stable foods. In 1977, Americans reported eating about 186 calories between meals. By 1994, that had rocketed to 346 calories. That difference alone is enough to explain the changes in our national waistline.