A Little Happier: What Chef Julia Child Taught Me About the Nature of Enthusiasm and Happiness.

I love to re-read books, and recently, I picked up a wonderful book that I’d read before and ended up reading quite a bit of it again without really meaning to—Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France.

Julia Child was an American chef and author, and she’s credited with creating an enormous wave of interest in French cuisine with her 1961 cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

In her memoir, she describes her first move to France, when her husband was transferred there, how she fell in love with France and French food, and how she became utterly absorbed in learning about French cooking and in cookbook writing.

I must confess that I have very little interest in the ruling passion of Julia Child’s life. Food has never been very interesting to me. I love certain foods, of course, but I like very plain food best. Diner food! I don’t get much of a kick from visiting new restaurants, or from eating a wonderfully cooked meal. Some people love exploring farmers’ markets or learning about foods’ origins or cooking—not me.

One of the sad aspects of a happiness project, for me, was to Be Gretchen and to admit to myself that this area of experience, so vibrant for so many people, leaves me cold.

Even so, I love this book. It doesn’t matter that I don’t care about cooking or food. Julia Child’s enthusiasm, her love of her subject and the zest with which she tackled even the drudgery involved, her respect for the masters in her field and her curiosity constantly to learn more, swept me along.

Enthusiasm is a terrific quality. The more I think about happiness, the more I value enthusiasm. It can seem cooler and smarter to be ironic, detached, or critical, and it’s certainly much easier and safer to adopt that sort of stance. But enthusiasm is more fun. Enthusiasm is generous, positive, energetic, and social. It’s outward-turning and engaged. It’s unselfconscious, warm-hearted, and kind of goofy. Like Julia Child!

Julia Child’s love for French cooking was so contagious that even today, more than fifty years after she wrote her first cookbook, we still feel her influence. I feel her influence, even though I never cook and almost never eat French food! I’m not sure whether I agree with Ralph Waldo Emerson, who wrote, “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm” (Essays, First Series, “Circles“)—but enthusiasm certainly helps.

Sometimes, even when we can’t persuade people to take an interest in the things we love, we can sweep them along with our enthusiasm.

What a passionate life Julia Child led! And what a marvelous flavor she left behind.

If you’d like to read about why Julia Child is one of my “patron saints,” I write about it here.

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