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Imitation can lead to greatness

By MIMI BECKER

Coffee with Mimi

“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.” How often has that phrase been tossed out to explain some copycat activity?

Surely, the person who first uttered that pearl of wisdom was among the great orators in history, living a long life of academic success, drawing multitudes of earnest young scholars to his classroom for hours of conversation and debate on similar life lessons.

His name was Charles Caleb Colton (1780-1832), who was educated at Eton and King’s College. He served as a minister in what was apparently a coveted position. Unfortunately, he engaged in a side life involving wine and gambling, resulting in debts necessitating a quick exit to the United States and eventually a comfortable spot in Paris.

While in Paris, his attention turned to art; investing, selling and collecting, as well as his previous passions.

Colton’s demise, at the relatively young age of 52, was a sad one. However, he left his mark in the common wisdom of that simple phrase so often quoted to comfort or explain.

The theory behind the philosophy has also been the source of great fortunes.

Julia McWilliams, a well-educated woman from a well-to-do family in the 1930s, wanted to serve her country in the war effort. Being too tall at 6 feet 2 inches tall, she was not eligible for any of the military branches open to women. She landed in the Office of Strategic Services.

Her duties included top secret tracking of American officers and serving as an assistant to developers of a shark repellent considered critical to the war effort. Along the way she met and subsequently married a fellow OSS employee, Paul Child.

After the war, Paul was assigned to a post within the State Department in Paris and Julia, a wife, was not assigned to any post.     

The Childs enjoyed a very pleasant lifestyle as Americans in post war Europe. However, Julia had little to do professionally. She eventually determined to learn to cook in the French style, enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu and established a cooking school with two other women for American women living in Paris.

For Julia Child, imitation of French cooking and passing the techniques along to others was the sincerest way she could appreciate the particular style which grew out of living and creating close to the land with ingredients available at hand.

Julia’s passion led to the creation of a book, still considered a basic source of accessible and well tested cooking techniques. “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was eventually published in two volumes.

The book developed quite a following of cooks who wanted to access the signature flavors and recipes of the French, truthfully, to imitate the style.

While this may not be an accurate statement, in my opinion what followed is the ultimate validation of the axiom that imitation is a positive form of admiration. And a pretty good marketing strategy, too. At her death in 2004, Julia Child was worth $38,000,000.

The Childs settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts. They went about creating a new life.  Paul, completely buying into Julia’s cooking passion, designed an efficient kitchen to her specifications. It was organized and, more necessary, had counters raised to a height comfortable for her to work.

The success of the cookbook led to a career writing for magazines and a regular column in a Boston newspaper.  An appearance on a TV show in which she prepared an omelette was so well received that WGBH developed a regular program around her.

She was quirky, cheerful and would demonstrate techniques live, which were not always picture perfect but were aired anyway. The public was charmed and surely must have been reassured that cooking good food from good ingredients was possible in the typical servantless American kitchen. 

To say the show was a hit is an understatement.  The Julia Child empire was built on the basic premise that imitation in positive life experiences is a winner, economically and socially.  Her cooking show was the first television program captioned for the deaf.

A tall, funny-voiced, self-trained, whimsical woman of the mid 20th century serves as an enduring role model imitated by cooks, decorators and crafts persons the world over. Before there was Martha Stewart, there was Julia Child.