Remembering Julia Child

August 10, 2009 § 6 Comments

Julia Child

Julia Child

I started watching Julia Child’s show “The French Chef” at 6, while visiting my grandparents in North Carolina, and started cooking not long afterwards.  While I don’t remember the first show I saw, the first one I took detailed notes on concerned puff pastry. My grandmother wanted to make croissants; in lieu of sending money for the recipe, she ordered me to write everything down. I dutifully filled several notebook pages with instructions, which involved lengthy breaks for refrigeration between rollings and a mindboggling amount of butter. As far as I know, my grandmother never tried it. When I finally got around to making puff pastry years later, I used Lindsey Shere’s recipe. But it was Julia’s cheerful, can-do manner that guided me through the process.

Seeing the film “Julie and Julia” this weekend not only brought back memories but made me miss Julia Child more than ever. A big part of the reason is Meryl Streep’s uncanny performance, which is less an act of impersonation than a resurrection. Streep goes beyond mastering Julia’s concertina-like vocal cadences; among other feats, she somehow manages to walk exactly like Julia despite lacking her tremendously long legs.

I can attest to that fact that Streep replicated her gait perfectly because I once found myself walking directly behind Julia and Paul Child as they made their way along Massachussetts Avenue in Cambridge. I was twenty, a visiting scholar of Japanese studies at Harvard and an avid cook revelling  in my first, bare bones kitchen. Harvard’s relaxed schedule (compared with that of Wellesley, where I had spent the past two years) gave me plenty of time to cook and bake, while the TV my father had insisted on buying for me brought Julia Child back into my life. Between studying all things Japanese and cooking with Julia, I was in heaven.

But because she was a Cambridge neighbor, Julia Child was more than a TV personality or a name on a cookbook. A slight detour on the route that took me from my Mt. Auburn Street apartment to Japanese class on Divinity Avenue took me by the Childs’ house on Irving Street. That sprawling clapboard house–its location was common knowledge–contained the famous kitchen that now resides in the Smithsonian; passing by, I had to fight the urge to peer through the window at it. To the extent I could afford to, I also shopped where Julia did, at  Savenour’s, a specialty market famous for its meat. The hugely flirtatious proprietor would report to me on what Julia had bought on her last visit and what she planned to make with it.

One night that year, I made Julia’s stewing hen–which was stuffed with bread and herbs and simmered in stock, rather than roasted–and served it to my boyfriend and his best friend. “Do you cook like this every night?” the friend asked incredulously.  Not wanting to seem domestic (though I was) or unstudious (because I wasn’t), I stammered, “Not really.” “Yes,” my boyfriend replied proudly.  He was the only person who truly valued my kitchen prowess, so I quickly changed the subject.

The following year, a Wellesley friend who came over to a party mocked me for cooking all the food myself. “You’re so domestic,” she said acidly. “For roasting a turkey?” I asked. My penchant for making Julia’s Swordfish a la Grand Chartreuse would remain a secret until well after graduation.

During my fall semester in Cambridge, I struggled with my desire to write a fan letter to Julia Child. Though my boyfriend thought she would be flattered, I eventually deemed the the idea creepy and gave it up.  I kept watching “Julia Child and Company” on WGBH but assiduously avoided  going by her house on my way to and from class. (Recently I learned that Julia kept her phone number listed and happily talked to strangers who called with questions about her recipes; perhaps if I’d known this, I would have been bolder.)

It was around this time that my boyfriend and I found ourselves walking behind the Childs in Harvard Square. It was late fall. Julia walked arm-in-arm with Paul, who wore a cap and scarf. Aside from their height difference–she was noticeably taller–the thing I noticed immediately was their closeness; unlike many older couples, they seemed enthralled by each other and kept up a steady stream of conversation. “That’s Julia Child,” I whispered, thrilled.  We lost them in a crowd around Boylston Street; that was as close as I ever came to meeting her.

Twenty years later, while finishing work on my documentary, “Jim Thompson, Silk King,” I learned that Julia Child, who like Jim Thompson had served in the OSS, was posted to Ceylon during the same period as Thompson in World War II. I also knew that she was now widowed and living full-time in Montecito. When my mother called to report that a family friend had invited the French Chef to lunch and was having a nervous fit over it, I asked if I could contact Julia for my documentary.

“She’s awfully old,” my mother said dubiously.

“But she’d remember meeting Jim  Thompson, wouldn’t she?”

“Oh, honey, don’t bother her. Say, how’d you like to have to cook for Julia Child?”

“I’d love to.”

“It wouldn’t make you nervous? I’d be a wreck.”

“No. Why would it?”

Apparently my mother missed Julia Child’s essential message: I learned to cook the classics and so can you. Unlike today’s TV chefs, who fall into two camps–the pros whose cooking says don’t try this at home and the non-pros for whom processed foods and shortcuts trump technique–Julia didn’t see the need for either snobbery or dumbing-down. Her cuisine was classic French as handed down by Escoffier; there was no pretense or trendiness in it. The recipes, though sometimes difficult and time-consuming, were accessible to any home cook in possession of basic techniques and a desire to learn. In every episode of “The French Chef” and “Julia Child and Company,” as well as every cookbook she wrote, her point was that we–the home cooks–could do it too.  

I’m proof of this. And though I’ve learned from Alice Waters, Ken Hom and many other chefs, Julia Child remains my guiding spirit. If I’ve often failed to heed her dictate, “never apologize, never explain,” I’ve certainly upheld her can-do spirit through thousands of meals. Soon I’ll be making yeast for pain levain, something I’ve been wanting to try for years. I’m not sure Julia Child ever made her own yeast; at any rate, it’s not her recipe. (It comes from Steve Sullivan of Acme Bread in Berkeley, one of the world’s greatest bakers.) But it’s a sure bet I’ll be thinking of her when I do it.

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