A 1997 essay from the Food & Wine archives provides an intimate look into how the iconic author and TV host celebrated holidays as a child in the 1910s and 1920s.
Editor's note: Julia Child was a regular contributor to Food & Wine for many years. In this essay from the November, 1997 issue, the legendary cookbook author and TV host provides a fascinating insight into her childhood holiday celebrations in the 1910s and 1920s as a member of a large, extended family that was "upper-middle-income ... not rich but comfortably off" in a time when that meant "live-in household help was easily and reasonably available."
An interviewer asked me the other day why, when I had traveled around so much, why was I so happy to be living here in America. My answer was simple: "Because I've lived abroad."
It's true. I've actually lived for two years or more in China and Ceylon (during World War II). Then during our diplomatic career, my husband, Paul, and I set up housekeeping in Norway, in Germany and in France. Although I enjoyed all these places, I began to realize that however well I knew France, for instance, I could never feel fully French. In addition, I might gradually come to feel not fully at home in my own country, and I'd be living in a national limbo.
That's not for me! I'm thoroughly American and I'm happy indeed to live here in my own native land, especially at Thanksgiving, our utterly American feast. And I like to have my Thanksgiving dinner just about the way it was when I grew up, in an utterly American way. My father's family, of Scottish origin, were farmers from near Chicago.
Grandfather briefly left the farm as a young man to explore the Far West during the covered-wagon days and was so captivated by life in California that he moved to Pasadena when he retired in the late 1800s. Grandmother Dana, as his wife was always called, came from a Vermont family who had moved to the Illinois farmlands. I remember her as a wonderful cook. Her broiled chicken was especially crusty, tender and full of flavor; her doughnuts and crullers were so fresh and fragrant; and I shall always relish her rich vanilla ice cream, churned on the back porch by my father.
My New England mother, who met my father at the famous Chicago World's Fair of 1900, was most definitely not a cook. She knew good food, however, and in those days live-in household help was easily and reasonably available. Oh, the holiday meals we used to have! Mother had a passion for digging up every possible relative, including second and third cousins, obscure in-laws, in-laws of in-laws. Cousin Bonnie, a.k.a. the Bean Queen (she raised them in the San Fernando Valley), was Grandmother Dana's third cousin once removed.
Cousin Charlie from Chicago had a great-grandfather who was my grandfather's uncle. I always associated him with the riddle, "Brothers and sisters I have none, but this man's father is my father's son."
Anyway, an ample assortment always appeared for our Thanksgivings. We had a big, dark mahogany dining table with multiple leaves that could extend it halfway into the hall and seat 20 or more. A typical Thanksgiving crowd when I was growing up in the late 1910s and the 1920s would include the five of us, my grandmother and grandfather, my widowed Aunt Bessie and her two daughters and a boyfriend or two, Aunt Annie, Uncle Emmet and their two children (all four lived with my grandparents), second cousins Ed and Helen from Illinois, plus a couple of extras.
Supervised by Mother, Erna, the upstairs maid and waitress, set the table. We were an upper-middle-income family, not rich but comfortably off. Table setting began with the long, beautifully ironed tablecloth, place plates, and silverware. Then came the ritual of the napkins, very large, fine monogrammed white linen. Such napkins were a status symbol, along with silver tea services and domestic help. That was the era of Bea Lillie, the madcap comedienne, and her hilarious encounter with 12 dozen double-damask dinner napkins. You'll see why that became so popular when you try to say it fast half a dozen times.
To return to our napkins, Erna folded each one in her European way into an elaborate stand-up shape, and I arranged them reverently on the plates. Mother directed Erna in the placement of our traditional gold-rimmed glasses for ice water. No wine, for the 1920s were Prohibition days, and most Americans were not into wine unless their family backgrounds included it. We were strictly Scotch-Presbyterian.
Then came the silver butter plates. I remember that one Thanksgiving, when the table was all set and gleaming. Mother noticed during her final inspection that there were no cunningly formed pats of butter upon her silver butter plates. She summoned Erna. "But I rolled them myself, using the chilled wooden paddle, the way you showed me," Erna declared. "And I put them on the plates just a few minutes ago." The three of us stared at the empty plates.
Suddenly Mother roared, "Where's Eric?" our dearly beloved old Airedale.
At the sound of her voice, there was a heavy, scraping movement behind a couch in the den. Eric lumbered in and sat beside her with an attentive "Who, me?" expression. She shoved a butter plate under his nose. The silver surface appeared perfectly clean. until you looked closely enough to see the slightly oily smudge where the butter had been.
Eric was a large dog, who could easily reach a butter plate with his long, agile tongue, and he'd done a remarkably good job on all 18 plates.
What could Mother do except point, shake her finger at him, and banish him outside. We knew he'd soon be in again. Erna rapidly washed the plates, arranged plain, neat slices of butter upon them and dinner was announced.
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