Dec. 20, 2009
The recent books and movies about Cambridge’s own Julia Child have led me to a baby boomer’s epiphany: Our parents had more fun than we do. This “Greatest Generation,” in addition to tempered lives of valor and sacrifice, enjoyed post-World War II decades filled with good food, drink and epicurean conviviality that seem increasingly under siege in a world obsessed with bodily perfection, Ivy League-school acceptances and medical minutia. As part of a population that had faced down Hitler, Childs took Goebbel’s promise of “guns and butter” and retooled it for her own purposes – liberally using the latter, and gleefully aiming the former at sanctimonious health nuts, whom she once called “Food Nazis.”
So as the Greatest Generation fades into the twilight, let us celebrate not just their lives of accomplishment, but their love of life. They truly embodied the Latin saying: Dum vivimos, vivamos. “While we live, let us live.”
I was born in 1956, right in the middle of the baby boom. From my earliest memories in my hometown of Mobile, Alabama, my parents would have friends over, usually spontaneously and without much planning. They would drink and smoke with abandon, eat a dinner of steak or roast beef, and then talk and laugh into the night. This mid-century era is usually depicted by Hollywood as a pre-feminist hell of conformity and oppression. But to me, it just seemed like an endless party, albeit a modest one, because my father was a struggling real estate entrepreneur. For me and my four siblings, it was all actually quite comforting – at a time when people were talking about dropping atom bombs, what’s more assuring to a child than falling asleep amid adults’ laughter and story telling in the next room?
I am at mid-life now and happily single, and am in no position to tell my generational peers how to live or raise children. And yes, I know the dire consequences of smoking and excessive drinking. But the kind of dinner party my parents hosted in 1959 would today probably end at 9:30 – mustn’t miss the next day’s meeting at the nursery school admissions office! Besides, there are Chlöe’s violin lessons, Joshua’s soccer camp, Jennifer’s meeting with her French tutor…and on and on.
Today’s parental control/security/health complex is so vast, it’s no wonder that boomers don’t stop and enjoy life as much as our parents did. Thanks to the chicken-little, crisis-of-the-day mentality of the media, we are warned that every product we buy at a grocery store is either toxic, contaminated or produced in a manner that is cruel to man or beast. One cereal commercial posits the absurd notion that a three-year-old can grasp the concept of cholesterol and thus love his father more because dad is eating his morning bowl of toasted oats. Other ads use saccharine scenes and endless anatomical detail to insist that we worry about our bone densities, acid-reflux levels and arterial plaque buildup.
As if to mirror this mammoth health-scare/pharmaceutical juggernaut, many baby boomer parents inculcate a sense of fear and impending doom in their children that is equal parts comedy and absurdity. A woman in a well-to-do Boston suburb, whose son is allergic to peanuts, stood up recently at a meeting and demanded that the school’s professional dietician “map out a nutritional plan for my son.” A simpler, Childian response might have been: “Hey kid, don’t eat peanuts.” Other cities want to ban skateboarders in playgrounds and on city plazas. A group calling itself “Concerned Moms” has its own website urging a ban of ice cream trucks in summer, the reasons being: The idling engines “contribute to global warming,” the products they sell “worsen the childhood obesity crisis,” and, in one especially dark and ominous point, “a shirtless ice cream vendor was spotted smoking a cigarette in the presence of children.” Oh, the horror!
When boomers gather at dinner parties – sans les enfants – we still can’t seem to give it a rest. Real dialogue I’ve actually overheard: “Is this organic rice?” “Were free-range chickens used in preparing this dish?” “Don’t charbroiled hamburgers have carcinogens?” “Is this Fair Trade coffee?”
It is a cliché that the French truly know how to live, but Julia Child imparted this idea to Americans though action and example. Child, like the French, knew instinctively that sharing a meal is nothing less than a sacrament – not in the strict ecclesiastical sense, but rather a sacred act that sustains us spiritually by sharing bread with those we like and love. It should never be marred by mundane talk of bodily functions or preaching to fellow guests about what they “should” eat. “Should” on what basis, and by whose definition? Who says that living to 95 and denying yourself supposedly “dangerous” food and drink is better than living to 75, your days filled with consuming, in moderation, the things you like?
We have a huge governmental apparatus that protects from dangerous food and other threats, and that’s a good thing. But it needs to be balanced against what John F. Kennedy, he a Greatest Generation bon vivant, called “An officious state,” a government that’s solicitous of our well-being to the point of treating us like children. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s micro-managing of restaurant menus, subtly invoking state power to “suggest” what we order, is only one recent example this menacing coercion, sugar-coated as “encouraging healthy lifestyles.”
If you’re lucky enough to have a Greatest Generation member still alive, take them out to dinner. Order what you like. And raise a toast to Julia Child – and to a generation that really knew how to have a good time.