Author Archives: Brigitte Pellerin

Julia Child and the power of good simple food

Julia Child’s kitchen, at the Smithsonian Museum in Washington DC

OK, the piece is about Thanksgiving. But since I don’t like turkey…

It’s nothing new, of course, but it bears repeating. Preparing food and enjoying it with the ones you love is a wonderful thing, no matter how much of a chore it feels at times. The image above is from the Smithsonian Museum of American History, which we visited for the first time in the spring while filming our Magna Carta documentary. We’d been to the Natural History museum (aka “the Dinosaur museum”) several times, but never to that one. I spent a whole bunch of time in that Julia Child section, watching old black-and-white TV appearances and marveling at how one woman could so revolutionize the cooking habits of such a big nation.

Her kitchen is not pretty, by today’s standards. But what she did with it is something to be grateful for indeed.


What is culture?

A fantastic post on the art of self-culture and the difference between being cultured and educated. Here’s my favourite part:

“In order to be cultured and not to stand below the level of your surroundings it is not enough to have read ‘The Pickwick Papers’ and learnt a monologue from ‘Faust,’ Anton Chekhov wrote in an 1886 letter to his brother, outlining the eight qualities of cultured people — among them sincerity, “no shallow vanity,” and a compassionate heart that “aches for what the eye does not see.” This essential difference between being educated and being cultured is what the great British novelist, philosopher, literary critic, educator, and poet John Cowper Powys (October 8, 1872–June 17, 1963) examined in greater dimension a generation later in the 1929 masterwork The Meaning of Culture (public library) — one of the most thoughtful and beautifully written books I’ve ever encountered.

Powys begins with the tenet that “culture is what is left over after you have forgotten all you have definitely set out to learn” and sets out to examine what, exactly, is left over — which is often too surprising and subtle, too aglow with inarticulable radiances, to fit into our intellectual templates of understanding.

Not entirely sure yet what it actually means, but I do like how it sounds. I guess I’ll have to ponder that one some more.


The American nightmare

The beginning of this piece on the myth of “easy” cooking is the most depressing thing I read this week:

I write about food for a living. Because of this, I spend more time than the average American surrounded by cooking advice and recipes. I’m also a mother, which means more often than not, when I return from work 15 minutes before bedtime, I end up feeding my 1-year-old son squares of peanut-butter toast because there was nothing in the fridge capable of being transformed into a wholesome, homemade toddler meal in a matter of minutes.

I’m sure the rest of the piece is fine and well-written, but I can’t get past that opening.

You get home 15 minutes before bedtime and you have a one-year-old kid?


Look, it’s not the peanut butter toast that bugs me. I confess my kids have had a fair bit of “ah-I-got-nothing-here-eat-this-grilled-cheese” dinners. Nobody here is perfect, least of all me. I have three kids, I homeschool, I write, produce documentaries and run a business, and I’m pretending to be renovating my house and cottage. Oh, and I train a lot.

I understand what “busy” means. I also understand very well what “not perfect” looks like. I’m sitting in it.

What bugs me about this opening paragraph is the lack of relationship between a mother and her baby. I know many parents who are in a situation like that, and I don’t understand it. They really genuinely love their children, and they work like dogs to give those children all the best things in life. Those parents aren’t bad people, they truly are doing their best. But they’re missing one important thing: What kids need isn’t the latest video game or the best school or any particular thing. What kids need is to develop a loving relationship with the people who matter most to them – their parents. You can’t do that on 15 minutes a day. You can’t do it on one hour a day. To a kid, there is no such thing as “quality” time. There’s just time.

A very wise and smart man, English Conservative politician Daniel Hannan, once casually said to me that “kids spell love t-i-m-e”. When he said that to me I was busy working full-time for a television station and so was my husband. We had it arranged so that one of us would always be with the kids. I worked from 5 am to noon, and he worked from home in the morning and headed into the studio after lunch. I was constantly tired and miserable because I constantly felt guilty about not being there enough for the kids. One day I had enough and quit the job.

The next morning I asked my eldest what she wanted for breakfast and she said “the usual”. I had no idea what that was. It was like she’d punched me in the nose. I resolved, then and there (“then” being May of 2013), to arrange my affairs so that I would know what my babies like to eat for breakfast. Better yet, I’d arrange to make a lot of it myself. It’s been more than 2 years now and while I still fall short in many ways (please don’t look inside my stove or behind the piano), I am feeling reasonably confident that my relationship with my girls is roughly where it should be.

I understand the need to work at something and not “just” be a mother. I have nothing against women who decide to not pursue any outside work and devote themselves entirely to the home. I admire them, and envy their clean floors. My preference is to have some outside work as well. But I’ve arranged my affairs so that as a rule, the human beings in my family come before the work, not after. Sure, there are times when there’s a rush and Mom has to disappear into her computer screen and the “homeschooling” that day consists primarily of watching documentaries on Netflix. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

Kids don’t mind eating peanut butter or grilled cheese or crackers and cereals for dinner once in a while. But never seeing your mother when you’re just one year old because she’s busy at the office? Now that’s what I call a nightmare.

Please, please, please. Ease off on those kids. Let them breathe.

Granted, the environment this reader is talking about is a bit extreme. But the point remains and is valid across many areas. It’s especially true, as far as I can tell, in middle-class and upper-middle-class environments. I see kids as young as 4 or 5 being pushed by their parents to take up a second language (with tutoring), at least one music instrument (with special teacher), arts classes (ditto) along with various sports. Plus of course enriched academics, homework, and so on.

I see kids as young as 4 or 5 who are exhausted by dinner time and can’t possibly focus on anything you’re trying to teach them. They also can’t behave. They wound up being cranky, uncooperative, and so tired they’re actually hyper. Not a happy combination.

Children need strong connections and deep, affectionate relationships with the people who matter most to them – their parents. They don’t need special activities or enriched programs or second-language tutors. They need time to be kids.

Please. Don’t be that parent:

My daughter went to Paly (where she was a student during that horrible 2009 season), finally dropped out after a suicide attempt, and was never able to fully recover. She killed herself last year.

I’m sure we inadvertently pushed her, though I spent most of my time telling her I just wanted to see her find something she cared about. But I think most of the pressure was just the environment. She had always gotten a lot of satisfaction from doing well in classes, but in Palo Alto you have to be Einstein to stand out. Everybody else is just average. And that’s really hard for a bright kid looking for a way to be special.

I remember her complaining all through 8th grade that the teachers were constantly telling them how hard high school was going to be. By the time she hit Paly, she was already panicked about what junior year was going to be like—AP classes, incredible amounts of homework, no free time whatsoever. Before she even got started, she was overwhelmed.

Extracurriculars were just more of the same—kids who had been doing the activity since kindergarten in after-school and summer camps and who were scathing to anyone who wasn’t proficient. From what I saw, the kids were as bad as anyone about upping the bar. It’s a culture that just seems to feed on itself. All that matters is achievement.

I’m sure there were many other factors in my daughter’s case, but I’m also sure that what started that headlong slide into depression was intense anxiety over a period of years. And the environment in Palo Alto was a big part of that.

Sweet potato soup

Wow. Just made something delicious, healthy and dead simple, so I thought I’d share.

  • one onion, chopped
  • three sweet potatoes, peeled and cubed
  • bit of olive oil
  • salt, pepper, chili pepper
  • enough water to cover the whole mess

Bring to boil, simmer for an hour or so, mush into cream with immersion blender, and enjoy.