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Julia Child was right: Our world will change

By Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis
Kathleen Purvis is the Food Editor for The Charlotte Observer.

Here we go again, picking on poor Julia Child.

She may have been a towering presence, but for goodness’ sake, she’s no longer here to defend herself. She died in 2004, at 92.

Still, when NPR posted a story last week about washing chickens, both “Morning Edition” and the NPR food blog, The Salt, used the provocative headline “Julia Child Was Wrong: Don’t Wash Your Chicken, Folks.”

Of course, the Internet was quick to go all a-Twitter: If you Google “Julia Child and washing chicken,” you’ll see a lot of headlines and stories with variations on the theme that good ol’ Julia was a big stupid-head. One even stoops to “modern food safety experts crying fowl.”

When I first saw the NPR report, I had several reactions. First, yes, they’re correct. Food safety experts started suggesting that we not wash our chickens (or Thanksgiving turkeys, for that matter) back in the mid-1990s.

I remember how startled I was when the recommendation switched. Telling people not to wash their chickens felt as weird as telling people not to wipe their counters with a sponge. (Yes, a disposable paper towel or wipe is probably better than a bacteria-laden sponge, unless you disinfect the sponge every day.)

But my real reaction was: What does Julia Child have to do with it? The NPR report includes a clip from Child’s show in 1971, telling people that she likes to wash her chickens.

Yes, she did. But in 1971, so did pretty much everybody else. Pull out a few cookbooks from the era and you’ll see that washing fresh poultry was a standard recommendation.

Is it fair to use Child as a scape-cook? Wouldn’t it have been just as easy to grab attention by using James Beard or Betty Crocker? Heck, you could probably dig back in my archives and find a few versions of “first, wash your chicken and pat it dry with paper towels.”

While the report is technically correct that Child was wrong about washing chickens, so was everybody else at the time. It’s sort of like saying “Christopher Columbus was wrong: This isn’t the route to India.”

The reason it bothers me is that Child herself would have been quick to adjust when the recommendation changed. That’s what made her so endlessly interesting: Forget her cookbooks. She really wrote the book on aging well by keeping your mind active. The first time I met Child, at a food writing symposium at The Greenbrier in 1996, she sat down next to me during a seminar. In the break between speakers, do you know what she wanted to talk about?

“Tell me, dear, do you use the Internet much?”

She followed that up by telling me how much she loved the new DVDs they were making of her old shows. Most of us were still figuring out how to spell “AOL.” Child was 84 and she was way ahead of me.

So, NPR, thank you for your report on not washing chickens. The information you shared on how bacteria-laden water can splash all over the kitchen is excellent. You did a good job at taking information that isn’t all that new and getting it new attention.

But the next time, please find a target who can speak for herself. Or I’ll throw a wet sponge at you.

Join the food conversation at Kathleen Purvis’ blog I’ll Bite, at obsbite.blogspot.com, or follow her on Twitter, @kathleenpurvis.
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