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Julia Child on the Social Life of Markets — and Why It Matters

Julia Child understood the human dimension of food, and how important it is to stay connected with the vendors who sell it.

Amid all the tributes to Julia Child upon her death, this snippet from one by Alex Prud’homme caught my eye because it shed light on the unacknowledged social life of market transactions. When shopping for food, Child realized that her interest in the seller and his product profoundly affected the quality of what she could buy. On the Sunday, August 22d op-ed page of the New York Times, Prud’homme writes:

“It [learning to shop like a Parisian] was life-changing,” she said, “because shopping in France taught me about human relations.” Through daily excursions to the outdoor market on the Rue de Bourgogne, or into the organized chaos of Les Halles, she learned that the French are highly attuned to social nuance. If a tourist enters a food stall thinking she will be cheated, the salesman will happily oblige, Julia explained. But if he senses that his customer took a genuine interest in his produce, then he will just “open up like a flower.”

With a smile, she added: “I quickly learned how to communicate. If I wasn’t willing to spend time to get to know the sellers and what they were selling, then I wouldn’t go home with the freshest head of lettuce or best bit of steak in my basket. They really made me work for my supper. But what a supper — yum! And it was such fun.”

Of course, that was Paris then, not America now. But Child’s story reminds us of what a “re-personalized” marketplace — such as a farmers’ market or “buying local” — can mean to the quality of life and the quality of one’s purchases. The are differences in the character of markets, and that difference is social authenticity.