Chef extraordinaire Julia Child would have been 100 today. After her death on Aug. 13, 2004, at the age of 91, AJC chief dining critic John Kessler wrote his personal remembrances of Child, below, as well as an accompanying tribute.
Kessler called her a “cultural touchstone, an incomparable personality, an iconoclastic voice of reason and a great wit.” We hope you enjoy his appreciations of Child as so many readers did when they were first published eight years ago.
AMERICA’S FRENCH CHEF: JULIA CHILD, 1912-2004:
By John Kessler
In 1995, when the American Institute of Wine & Food was holding its annual conference in Boston, I was lucky enough to get invited to a cocktail party at Julia Child’s home in Cambridge.
It was like a favorite old aunt’s house — clean and comfortable, with well-loved carpets over glossy wood floors, and books shelved and stacked everywhere. The side tables in the living room groaned with mementos and family photographs, and the walls were hung with colorful, geometric canvases painted by her late husband, Paul.
But the assembled chefs, restaurateurs and food writers were gathered in the kitchen, which we all knew from television. The side pantry was crammed floor to ceiling with dry goods, including her favorite Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Pegboard covered the kitchen walls and from it hung gadgets, small appliances, molds, pans, spoons, spatulas, pastry cutters and every imaginable kitchen tool, each in its own Magic Marker outline. In the center of the kitchen stood a large farmhouse worktable, set high enough to be a comfortable chopping surface for the 6-foot-2 Child.
Feeling a bit overwhelmed by the high-powered company gathered around the stove, I went into the empty dining room to inspect a candelabra. Before long I felt a presence overhead and turned around to find Child standing there, a full head taller than me despite the stoop in her shoulders. Her eyes were small, blue and piercing.
“I remember you, ” she trilled, recalling our first meeting several years earlier, when I was among a throng of handshakers thrust at her during an event. She asked about my work and my family. We chatted about the food institute, of which she was a co-founder, and before long I was relaxed enough to open up and say what I had always wanted to tell her.
“Julia, ” I began, “You don’t know what you’ve meant to me, what an impact you’ve had on my life.”
“Well, that’s very nice, ” she interrupted before I could continue any longer in that vein. And she was gone, off to visit someone else. Julia apparently had all the time in the world for guests in her home, but no time for idolatry.
Sorry, Julia. The feeling runs deep.
Railing against the diet police
Child, who was 91 when she died in her sleep early Friday in California, was one of the most widely admired public figures in America. She was a cookbook author who changed everything about the American kitchen with the publication of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961 and a television celebrity whose fame came from a little cooking show — “The French Chef” — produced by the PBS affiliate in Boston.
But she was more: a cultural touchstone, an incomparable personality, an iconoclastic voice of reason and a great wit.
It was Child, after all, who remarked that the problem with carefully arranged food was that you know someone’s hands had been all over it.
It was Child who constantly railed against the diet police and exhorted us to enjoy butter, chocolate and wine in moderation.
And it was Child who was immortalized in comic history by Dan Aykroyd’s profusely bleeding portrayal of her on “Saturday Night Live.”
When asked about the “SNL” skits, Child always said she found them hilarious.
Of course she did.
It was against Child’s nature to be self-conscious. There was no screen between the intense acuity of her mind, the unblinking gaze of her eyes and the warmth of her heart. She was all there. That is the reason inexperienced cooks could sense her guiding hand when following her recipes. That is the reason the producers of “The French Chef” said she was a telegenic natural. That is the reason that everyone who ever met Child had a Child story. In person, she was the same Julia from TV, only more so.
Every reporter assigned to write about Child was shocked to discover that her phone number was listed in the Cambridge directory and that she usually answered the phone herself. An interview request was usually met by an invitation to lunch.
Then again, she was constantly on the road.
‘I love McDonald’s’
Melissa Libby, an Atlanta publicist, recalled shuttling Child through a series of appearances one day in 1990 when she came to town for a food institute fund-raiser. Child wanted to get her hair set at Carter Barnes salon in Phipps Plaza, which set everything back and left little time for lunch. Libby suggested a mall deli. Child took one look at the soggy offerings and asked to be taken to a McDonald’s drive-through instead.
“She told me, ‘I love McDonald’s. It’s very consistent and you always know what you’re going to get, ‘ ” Libby said. Child ordered a cheeseburger, fries and a shake, picked up the tab, and made her appearance with time to spare.
Child also let her political opinions be known, whether it was her support of Planned Parenthood or her advocacy of irradiation to make fresh vegetables more available to lower-income buyers. When she spoke at the food institute dinner, she had just seen the controversial Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center. When food stylist Gloria Smiley asked her about it she said, “It’s just genitalia, dear. You’ve seen that before, haven’t you?”
The outspoken Child was the guiding force behind the American Institute of Wine & Food, the James Beard Foundation and Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, Calif. Until she was too weak to get around, she traveled the country constantly, gamely appearing at fund-raisers, catching up with the friends she kept stashed in every city and eating well.
Scott Peacock’s dinner with Julia
In 2001, as she was getting more frail, Child gave up her Cambridge home (shipping off the contents of her kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution) and moved into an assisted-living facility near Santa Barbara, Calif.
Decatur chef Scott Peacock of Watershed had dinner with her in February. “She was in a wheelchair and had had knee replacement surgery, ” recalled Peacock. “But she was very with it and very engaging.”
The conversation veered from cookbook writer’s block to a famous television show in which Child had made an omelet in a solid-gold pan to monkey brains and the supposed tables designed with a hole for this delicacy. “She didn’t think anyone had really eaten them. She thought it was just a hoax.”
Child was working on an autobiography of her years in Paris with her husband, Paul, when she died. Her editor was Judith Jones, who edited all of her books save one.
Jones, contacted at her Vermont home, said “I got the first couple of chapters three or four days ago. I almost cried. They were so Julia.”
Child’s great-nephew, with whom she was collaborating, plans to finish the book.
As Jones recalled her dear friend, she stirred a pot of chicken and mushroom tetrazzini on the stove.
“I remember when Julia was here a couple of years ago, and I introduced her to this wonderful mushroom lady, who was so excited, ” recalled Jones. “She started to tell Julia about all the different kinds of wild mushrooms and their Latin names. Julia laughed and said she just wanted to know which ones tasted good.”
– John Kessler: With a shrill ‘Bon appetit!’ she taught us to eat, live well
– For the AJC Food & More blog