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What Would Julia Say?

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Last month, I was part of a presentation on perfectionism and self-compassion. During our discussion, a participant shared that she tried to temper her own perfectionism by remembering one of Julia Child's kitchen rules: never apologize. As a recovering over apologizer and someone who enjoys spending a lot of time in the kitchen, I was drawn to this idea. As soon as I logged off the Zoom meeting, I took to the internet to search for more about Julia and her thoughts on apologizing in the kitchen. Here's what I found:

“I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook...," or "Poor little me...," or "This may taste awful...," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed -- eh bien, tant pis! Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile -- and learn from her mistakes.” -Julia Child, My Life in France

There's so much wisdom to unpack here. What Julia describes here is a mindfulness practice, and like a lot of what we practice at Thought Kitchen, it's countercultural. I don't know about you, but I was raised to notice what I did wrong and apologize for it. I'm not saying apologizing is a bad thing if you've actually done something that caused harm, but for me it became a default response. A stranger bumps into me on the street? I apologize. I overcooked dinner, or I baked a cake and it fell? I apologize. No one is asking for or expecting those apologies, and I haven't done anything to merit an apology. It's an auto-response. I'm not paying attention to the present moment when I say the words. It's also not actually an apology so much as it is self-criticism, or as Julia points out, an invitation for others to criticize me.

The mindful response requires more work than the auto-response. It requires me to be here in the moment, not ruminating on something that happened earlier in the day or worrying about what might happen later. It invites me to notice what is happening and name it, without judgment. It dares me to approach my humanity with compassion rather than criticism or self-deprecation.

Julia models it so beautifully in The French Chef, Season 1, French Onion Soup. While she is cooking, she inadvertently adds vermouth instead of olive oil, not once, but twice. She doesn't miss a beat. She notices it, names it, and then moves on. "I meant to put oil in there, but I put vermouth instead," she blithely states. "But it doesn't matter."

Years later, during an appearance on Late Night with David Letterman, the hot plate she's using doesn't work. Does she panic or apologize? No, she simply pivots from cooking a hamburger to preparing steak tartare, seemingly oblivious to her host's horror at the idea of eating raw hamburger.

These might seem like small occurrences with no significance, but they are small examples of a larger approach to life.

My takeaway from Julia's approach to cooking is about more than food; it's this: Don't apologize for what you create. Whether it's a French omelette, a blog post, or an idea you have at work, never apologize for creating or imagining. There are plenty of people ready to criticize your ideas or creations; you don't need to join them or invite them. As Theodore Roosevelt famously admonished in his speech, Citizenship in a Republic (more commonly known as The Man in the Arena), "It is not the critic who counts."

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. -Theodore Roosevelt

This passage was introduced to me through the work of Dr. Brené Brown. She offers that the "cheap seats" are filled with people who aren't in the arena imagining or creating, but who are always ready with unsolicited advice or criticism. Her response to those people is that unless they are putting themselves out there in a brave way, she isn't interested in their opinions.

A lot of cheap seats in the arena are filled with people who never venture onto the floor. They just hurl mean-spirited criticisms and put-downs from a safe distance... For me, if you’re not in the arena getting your ass kicked, I’m not interested in your feedback. - Brené Brown, Rising Strong

In other words, as 21st century poet Taylor Swift sings of one person's criticism, "Some day I'll be livin' in a big ol' city, and all you're ever gonna be is mean."

Julia Child embraced her imperfections and mishaps and used them as opportunities to learn and to teach. Because The French Chef was videotaped live, we are fortunate to be able to witness her classic cooking accidents and laugh and learn with her. Regardless of what missteps may have occurred in any given episode, Julia ended with her famous closing line, "Bon appétit!"

And so it is that I say to myself, and to anyone else who needs to hear it, "Don't apologize for creating." Don't you dare let the critics deter you from dreaming, imagining, and creating. Stay curious and keep learning. And when those people in the cheap seats hurl insults and criticism, say it with me, "Bon appétit!"

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