- I grew up living off welfare in a trailer in Arkansas.
- Watching Julia Child cook inspired me to elevate the groceries we got through food stamps.
- I live in France now and was invited to cook at Child’s kitchen, a dream come true.
I spent chunks of my early life on welfare in a trailer in the woods of north-central Arkansas.
My clothes and shoes came from yard sales. My Christmas presents came from charity angel trees. My groceries were bought with food stamps. To make it through the month, we ate what was cheap: generic versions of boxed and canned processed food. We supplemented with food my grandparents grew or foraged, as well as government-surplus commodities like pinto beans, rice, powdered milk, plain cereals, peanut butter, and blocks of yellow cheese.
Whenever my single mom could get work, especially in the summer, my babysitter was an old TV. Since the only reliable channel we could get to come through our aluminum-foil-clad rabbit-ear antenna was PBS, Mister Rogers became my dad. The diverse “Sesame Street” cast became my community. “Doctor Who” made Tom Baker my wonky uncle. And Julia Child was my bumbling auntie.
Though I didn’t understand the difference between sautéing and braising, browning and deglazing, Child mesmerized me with her movements, constant narration, and peppering of her recipes with French lexicon.
I ended up moving to France many years later
On weekend mornings, I’d get up at dawn and tiptoe into the woods to forage or to the waning garden to glean whatever I could. Back in the trailer in my best Child voice, I’d narrate my movements for an imaginary TV audience, chopping wild chives or sheep sorrel, shredding government cheese, mixing coffee creamer as a milk substitute —anything to elevate those cans of generic peas and corn. Child’s guidance planted in me the idea that fancy foods were accessible to everyone, anywhere.
For the next decade, other shows, films, and songs nourished the dream that I, too, could travel the world and that spending some time in France might elevate even me. I made it to France in my 20s and, after a rocky start, ended up getting married. I’m now a French citizen raising our four children in Provence.
The second Makenna Held greeted me in her driveway at La Pitchoune — Child’s former French home — with a shot glass of freshly pressed local olive oil, I knew she’d be a friend. When she and her partner, Chris Nylund, invited me to participate as a student in their Courageous Cooking School — for a week that would be filmed for a TV pilot — I remembered fleeing the boredom of poverty by pretending to be Child in that sparse trailer kitchen.
The thought of a real-life production team filming my week made my inner poor kid self-conscious.
I slept in Child’s room
Of course, the experience was life-changing. I slept in the room that was once Child’s. I sipped rosé and munched on Provençal fare before her sprawling hearth. I nibbled mulberries from the stone-terrace tree and tiptoed through the same grass Child trod.
The most breathtaking moments, though, were those spent in Child’s kitchen.
Surrounded by professional-grade kitchen paraphernalia at “La Peetch,” I couldn’t help but cast back to my trailer kitchen where I used a serrated steak knife to cut everything, coffee mugs and kitchen spoons for measuring, and overturned plates as lids. Though the kitchen equipment was different, the permission to explore culinary creativity and intuition awoke, validated, and, ultimately, soothed my inner barefoot.
Before I arrived, I couldn’t help comparing myself in advance with the other students, who I was certain would be more refined.
But as we stood elbow to elbow around a central chopping island, they not only welcomed me but also celebrated my stories of triumph over poverty.
Working in pairs and teams, we invented colorful dishes steeped in flavor and exhilarating risk. Sweat beading on our foreheads, stirring and tasting sauces, we formed unbreakable bonds. At the end of the week, we gathered around a vine-arbored terrace table to sample each other’s concoctions as a chosen family. So absorbed were we in our camaraderie that we barely noticed the flurry of cameras and microphones recording our every move.
And I forgot to find myself lacking.