How Dallas Public TV Made Dyslexic-Me a Reader

I watched a lot of television when I was a kid. This is especially important since I was dyslexic and couldn’t read worth spit. Of course, if you were born in 1955 and were dyslexic, nobody knew — they just assumed you were stupid. My 4th grade teacher, whose name I have mercifully forgotten, even called my parents to tell them I was unteachable and should be institutionalized.  What a thoughtful, over-reaching, blind/ignorant educator she turned out to be. Her main concern was my last name, which was French, and had letters that were potentially silent (except in Texas,) and too many vowels to keep straight.  Even in the 4th grade, I still couldn’t keep my pbdq straight, so there was always some letter backwards or upside down in my name.

Public Television (educational television) was being broadcast in that snowy, gray and white mist — the little outline of a schoolhouse against a pale field of static — as far back as I can remember.  We moved to Dallas when I was just over 5 years old — so it was there and I kept trying to tune in and find something that fulfilled the promise of the little schoolhouse.  Sadly, it was several years before promise met reality — and there I was — 14, staring at a still fuzzy image of this huge woman standing behind a counter with a big mixing bowl and a wooden spoon.  It was Julia Child, and she was like no person I’d ever seen before.  She was loud, funny, she didn’t talk like anybody in Texas — and she was cooking food I’d never heard of.

The first recipe I remember — and it’s stuck with me all these years even though I thoroughly dislike the main ingredient — was a dish called duxelles.  Also French.  It was tiny minced bits of mushroom prepared as a stuffing or side dish for meat.  I never made it. I don’t like mushrooms unless the texture is puree’d to liquid. But it was like watching someone build a pyramid single handed with a pocket knife and a wheelbarrow, and I could not stop watching.  I watched her every time I could find her listed in the newspaper television schedule. She was tall, broad shouldered, and unapologetic for being truly great at something.

I got some money for my 14th birthday and I pestered my parents until they took me shopping — I knew what I wanted, and I knew better than to ask for it.  There were almost no books in our house and I’d never owned a book other than a Disney picture storybook with brief, large print versions of all their movie stories.  I was pretty sure my parents didn’t even know where to buy a book — and I was right.  They took me to a department store called Tiche’s — it was an old Dallas tradition, like Sanger-Harris and Neiman-Marcus. Luckily, Tiches had a small book department — which had 3 cookbooks, one of which was The French Chef.  It was the companion book to her series.

For 4 years I read my cookbook while watching Julia Child cook on the old black & white TV in my bedroom (it was the size of a small refrigerator.) It was in high school that I discovered that dyslexia was not so much of a problem when reading short lines of type with a lot of white space — poetry, recipes, multiple choice quizzes, sidebars in textbooks…. And I also learned I had an excellent memory. I basically memorized every word of lecture I ever heard. As a result, I could tutor everyone sitting around me at lunch or before class, without having ever read any of my assigned classwork. This is what let me graduate from high school — the SAT, ACT, and IQ Test were printed in type I could follow, and my algebra/geometry teacher figured out there was something up because I was helping everybody in class with their homework before class started — then flunking everything I tried to do on my own papers. In the end, he asked me the questions out loud; I did the math in my head; and then answered out loud with an explanation.

But I never tried to cook any of Julia Child’s recipes. My mother cooked at our house.  My grandmother cooked when I went to her house.  Then I went to college and got an apartment, and Julia Child wasn’t on TV there. The small college town barely had any public television at all — and it was mostly Sesame Street and Mr. Rogers, so I still didn’t cook any of Julia Child’s recipes.

I got married — and one day decided to try to make something I’d seen and always wanted to make.  Of course, it was the Beef made famous now by the Julie/Julia blog, book, and movie.  It’s everybody’s first try.  My first, and still best loved cookbook became a working accessory to my kitchen.

Then I made a chocolate desert I have since forgotten. I only remember that everyone oooooo’d and ahhhhhh’d over every bite. Then I tried other recipes in other books and POOF! One day there was a Food Network and this crazy guy with a New York accent was cooking New Orleans recipes at all hours of the day and night.  It’s been a hayride ever since!

I sill love to cook.  I still have my French Chef book — hardback with black and white photo illustrations taken by Julia’s husband — on a bookshelf with dozens of other cooking books in a house with dozens of other bookshelves.  I didn’t learn to read competently until I was 19 or 20, and I didn’t really learn to cook until much later — but I learned I COULD do both from Julia Child.

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