In the new movie "Julie & Julia," Meryl Streep does well portraying the late Julia Child, but one can say Streep also benefits from her subject. The much-loved food author and pioneering television chef had a vibrant personality and passion about preparing food that made millions of Americans welcome her into their kitchens. It’s likely that no matter who played Julia in a biopic, her legions of fans would have flocked to the theaters.
So it is strange that Streep seems so ungrateful to Child in an interview with the U.K. newspaper the Telegraph. She berates Child for disagreeing with her on boosting organic foods and criticizing fats, proclaiming that Child was "seduced" by a "front organization for agro-business and petrochemical business."
Streep apparently still has a grudge against Child for refusing to lend her support to Streep’s fringe enviro group Mothers and Others for Pesticide Limits. That group was one of the leading promoters of the discredited scare about the pesticide Alar that was spread on apples.
In a low point for Congressional hearings on science, Streep, despite her lack of any scientific credentials, was invited to testify in 1989 before a Senate Labor and Human Resources subcommittee. She proclaimed: "We don’t know what’s on our food . . . I no longer want my children to be part of this experiment."
As Neil Hrab, 2003-04 Warren T. Brookes Journalism Fellow at my group, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, recounted in the American Spectator:
"Within weeks of Streep testifying before Congress, Uniroyal, the company that manufactured Alar, began the triage to save its reputation, withdrawing the chemical from the U.S. market. In November of 1989, the EPA ordered a ban on the sale, distribution and use."
But major scientific bodies would conclude that the Alar scare had been nothing but a bunch of hype. The American Medical Association stated in 1992:
"The Alar scare of three years ago shows what can happen when science is taken out of context or the risks of a product are blown out of proportion. When used in the approved, regulated fashion, as it was, Alar does not pose a risk to the public’s health."
Others who condemned the scare included the World Health Organization, the National Academy of Sciences, and former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop.
Yet in the Telegraph interview, Streep seems oblivious to these facts and to her role in hyping a costly and unnecessary scare. Instead, she bashes Child for daring to question the organic orthodoxy and what many call the "Food Police."
Streep recalls Child’s turning down a request to help Mothers and Others in its campaign to get supermarkets to carry organic agriculture. "She was very resistant and brushed us off quite brusquely," Streep says. Also bashing Child’s love of rich fatty foods, Streep rips Child for not making "a connection between the high fat diet of a heavily laden cordon bleu-influenced cuisine and cholesterol levels. (I admit I have no idea what "cordon-bleu influenced cuisine" means, but I imagine neither does Streep, who admitted in the same interview that she knew virtually nothing about cooking before she played Child.)
Streep also bashes Child for her involvement with a public health group that also had a long working relationship with my group in promoting sound science: the American Council on Science and Health. "I remember being so disappointed that she was in the thrall [of the ACSH]," Streep said. Calling the group a "front organization" for agribusiness and chemical companies, Streep stated, "They seduced Julia into giving them money, so she was on the other side for a while."
But the only one successfully seduced is Streep — into faddish irrational fears about conventionally grown and fatty foods. Longtime ACSH President Elizabeth Whelan, who knew Child for about 20 years, writes that Child "had two major pet peeves:
* She despised people who demonized specific foods, like butter and sugar.
* She despised activists who terrified people about the safety of their food."
"For Julia, there were no ‘good foods’ or ‘bad foods’ — again, just a variety of foods, all in moderation — including an occasional cordon bleu. Julia, unlike her fictional counterpart, exhibited a constant stream of common sense."
As for Streep’s charge of ACSH being a "front group" for corporate interests — and similar charges are levied against my employer — Whelan answers that the claim is "absurd — given the organization is funded by a full spectrum of foundations, individuals, and unrestricted grants from corporations." CEI has a similarly broad-based funding structure.
The cherry on the cake of Streep’s nonsensical rant to the Telegraph is Streep’s claim that "Eventually I think she came around" to Streep’s point of view. To the contrary: interviews from the last few years before she died show that Child never did "come around" to Streep’s anti-fatty food and anti-food technology extremism.
When asked by Business Week in 2000 what she thought of the low-fat movement, Child replied, "I don’t go for that at all." She then reiterated the motto of the American Institute of Wine and Food, which she co-founded with winemakers Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff to advance enjoyment of food: "Small helpings No seconds. No snacking. A little bit of everything and have a good time."
Child also fully endorsed what another bête noire of many enviros — food biotechnology or genetic engineering. In 1999, Child told the Toronto Star: "I think it’s all fascinating. There’s no one-minute answer. The technology’s here. If they can give us a better tomato, I’m for it."
Perhaps the best epitaph for Julia Child came from AT editor Thomas Lifson upon her death at age 91 in 2004. Lifson wrote here:
"Julia Child, who played a major role in changing the way Americans think about, prepare and eat food, has died at the ripe old age of 91, after a lifetime of urging Americans to go ahead and use butter in their sauces and fry lardons to render some pork fat in which to fry the beginnings of a stew. Take that, health Nazis!"