Farewell, Julia, Part II
Thursday, August 26, 2004
Attempting to properly eulogize someone like Julia Child—actually there is no such thing as someone like Julia Child, there is only Julia Child—is simultaneously frustrating and gratifying. Frustrating because there is too much life lived to squeeze pitifully into a finite, one-dimensional amalgam of impotent symbols. Gratifying because in trying, a person is gifted by research into her enormous life and, as a result, becomes blessed by the vicarious enjoyment of her own experiences.
Julia McWilliams came to cooking late in life. She had grown up in a privileged home where hired cooks prepared simple, uneventful meals. It was upon meeting her future husband, Paul Child, while she was working in India on assignment for the Office of Strategic Services, that her interest and appreciation for great food was piqued. As Julia put it: “My Paul had been brought up on good food, so I had to try and cook well for him.”
Julia learned to cook well and entertain their large circle of friends. It was when the State Department assigned Paul to France that her destiny would be sealed. On the voyage, they stopped in Rouen for a meal: oysters on the half shell, a bottle of Pouilly Fuisse, sole meuniere, green salad, crème fraiche…”the whole experience was an opening up of the soul and spirit for me,” is the way she once told it to the NY Times.
She experienced the cafés and restaurants of Paris, then entered into a professional cooking program at Le Cordon Bleu, the famed cooking school. As she explained to an Associated Press reporter, “I’d been looking for my life’s work all along, and when I got into cooking I found it. I was inspired by the tremendous seriousness with which they took it.” Julia was already into her late thirties at this point.
Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle had written a French cookbook aimed at Americans. They felt Julia would be perfect to “Americanize” it. The three created an informal cooking school in Julia’s kitchen and named it L’École des Trois Gourmandes. There they taught American wives the intricacies and joy of French cooking. They tested and retested recipe after recipe and eventually finished the manuscript for a cookbook. The detailed work was rejected by Houghton Mifflin for being “too much like an encyclopedia.” It wasn’t until 10 years later, in 1961, that Knopf published the 734-page Mastering the Art of French Cooking. It became and remains to this day a classic.
It was on a promotional tour for the book in 1962, at a Boston public television station, that Julia first cooked before a television camera. The response was so positive that she was offered a thirteen-week show, The French Chef. She was fifty-one years old when she began her TV career.
Suddenly, Americans had a magical personality in their homes to personally teach them how to cook exotic French dishes without fear. Her own occasional mishaps and down-to-earth approach made her all the more loveable and believable.
Before Julia there was no food culture in the United States. After Julia, well, Brooke Johnson, president of the Food Network, put it best: “She was more than a pioneer, a legend or a giant. She’s the rock that started the avalanche that changed the way America eats.” Our own Kurt Grasing, chef/owner of Grasing’s as well as Carmel Chop House, told me: “When I was 12 years old, one of the reasons I started cooking was from watching her show. After dinner, we’d all sit around the television and watch Julia Child. You know the way Bill Clinton said that meeting Kennedy is what inspired him…getting to do a cooking show with Julia was that way for me.”
Tomato kingpin Gary Ibsen, a longtime friend of Julia’s, reflected on the last few weeks of her life: “I had just brought her a case of Julia Child Heirloom Tomatoes. Although Julia was in serious shape in the health care facility, her assistant, who revealed to me that Julia might be dying, brought her one of her tomatoes. A few days later I spoke to her on the phone and she said, ‘I loved it and gave the rest to my friends…when are you going to give me some more.’
“She was like part of my family, she was like part of everyone in America’s family. We all feel like we lost a family member. This year’s TomatoFest (September 12) will be dedicated to Julia Child.”
This amazing unpretentious woman, through the sheer power of her beautiful spirit, magnanimous personality, and tireless industriousness, single-handedly altered the course of an entire society’s cultural consciousness. Yet through it all she remained grounded, even eschewing the title of Chef. As Gary Ibsen remembered, “Julia didn’t like being called a chef…’Gary, I’m a teacher.’ Chef sounded too high-fallutin…’put me down as a teacher, an author and a cook.’”
Bon appetit, sweet Julia.