Monday, November 02, 2009

Notes From My Knapsack 11-5-09

Jeff Gill


Adaptability and Inflexibility Can Work Together




Julia Child and the Wright Brothers have been dancing together in my brain recently.


Julia Child, of course, has been back in the national consciousness with the movie "Julie & Julia," and that fun little film has also helped sell not only Julie Powell's book about making all 524 recipes in Julia Child's first cookbook, also titled "Julie & Julia," but it helped get a second book out into the public consciousness, or at least my own.


"My Life in France" is a memoir that Child wrote with her nephew, Alex Prud'homme, a project finished by him just after her death, written from a series of lengthy interviews he did with her over the year before she died at the age of 92 in 2004.


The book was the "other half" of the movie "Julie & Julia," the half that many of us wished was longer, which followed Paul Child and his new wife, Julia McWilliams, from 1948 to 1954 in Paris, Marseille, and ultimately Oslo, Berlin, New York, and to the home in Cambridge, Massachusetts whose kitchen ends up in the Smithsonian.


And it lays out the story of the writing of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," a book which not only created a revolution in American cuisine, but in a roundabout but very distinct way led to the revitalization of WGBH in Boston and PBS in general, created the cooking show as we know it, and is why there is a Food Network that keeps me up late to see who wins on "Iron Chef America."


But the book almost wasn't written, repeatedly. It repeatedly should have died, and almost did, with encouragement. The reasons to give up were numerous and convincing, and partnership of "Trois Gourmandes" who officially wrote it was even more complicated and fraught with tensions than the movie indicated, and it indicated a whole bunch of it.


Julia Child had to catch her vision, find her own sources of encouragement, deal with pressures to radically revise her hopes into something more conventional, a book that would have gotten to press faster and almost certainly would have sunk more swiftly out of sight . . . unlike "Mastering," which now has a whole new life on the best seller list beyond Julie Powell's and Alex Prud'homme's books.


What's this got to do with the Wright Brothers? Well, I had a couple of occasions recently to be in the Dayton area, and finally got to Huffman Prairie. It's a bit out of the way, even if you've found your way to the Wright–Patterson Air Force Museum (bigger, better, still free, go see it!) or Carillon Park (thanks, Col. Deeds!).


Not to offend any North Carolina fans out there, but Kitty Hawk? Feh. It was one step, an important step of sorts in the journey to flight, but just one intermediate step. People had flown gliders further, and looped about a bit, and the engine of sorts that pushed the first Wright Flyer in December of 1903 was a necessary step towards powered flight, but just a hop of a few hundred feet skimming the sand.


But what made flight a reality, and a useable technology, was taking off, flying a circuit, and safely landing after repeating that loop a few times. If you use that as the benchmark for "the invention of flight," it was a fall day in October and November of 1905 that really opened up the Age of Aviation, and it was in Ohio where Orville and Wilbur did that. The field, Huffman Prairie, is still open, and has seven large white banners marking the circuit they flew, once in December of 1904 and with greater skill and confidence, to the point of flying until the gas tank emptied, in the fall of 1905.


Julia Child and the Wrights are both in my mind as I think about how they are often seen as geniuses who produced a revolution with a burst of effort, yes, but mostly inspiration and circumstance. What happens when you look closely at their respective journeys, from idea to actuality, is that it took great persistence combined with cheerful flexibility and an unbending belief in their core inspiration.


That's a story that needs to be heard and learned and shared, and merrily thrown into the teeth of storylines that claim it's lottery winnings and reality show victories and a good publicist that get you to success.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; tell him a story at or follow Knapsack

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