Remembering Julia Child

What I Know About Julia

I had lunch with some businesswomen on Aug. 12 so we could plan an upcoming community event. One of the things we considered was asking mutual friends to request some signed copies of cookbooks from Julia Child to use as auction items. The next morning, we all awoke to the news that Child had died during the night, just a few days short of her 92nd birthday. While I was immediately saddened by the loss, when I think of Julia Child my strongest feelings are wonder and admiration for the remarkable life she lived.

Like most culinary professionals who grew up during Child's more than 40-year career, I have a story about her impact on my life. Knowing what I know about Julia, my experience wasn't unique, but it did mean the world to me. Cooking was a stressful activity in our home, and the dinner table was often a battleground. We all had our own personal gastric distresses to prove it. Because of my weight, any nascent interest I had in cooking was quickly squelched with "Go outside and get some exercise; you're the last person in the world who needs to be spending time in the kitchen." I did manage to spend the occasional afternoon watching a cooking show on public television, however. I was enchanted by a big-boned woman with a goofy, hooting voice. The classic French dishes from those Sixties programs were pretty exotic to a teenager on the West Texas desert. What really connected with me was Julia's joy in what she was doing. In Julia Child's kitchen, cooking actually looked like fun, and she made it sound as though cooking for other people was the most fun of all. What a revelation!

My early days in Austin were spent in a co-op house in the West Campus neighborhood. I still think of that kitchen as my first, and the time I spent planning meals and cooking for the 30 hungry hippies who shared the house with me was an important turning point in my life. Julia Child had been right: Cooking for people you cared about was tremendously satisfying. I was hooked. I'll always be grateful to the group of friends who indulged the beginning of my cooking career. After graduation and an aborted attempt to teach public school, I went back to the kitchen and worked for years as a caterer and pastry chef. I didn't begin to write about food until the late Eighties, and I was a few years into my fledgling journalism career by the time I finally met Julia Child.

Then in her 80s, Julia was very much the queen of every culinary event she attended. She greeted everyone warmly and graciously signed books for hours. She took the time to mentor hundreds of people – food writers, cooks, stylists, and authors all benefited from her counsel, encouragement, and wisdom. For years, she was a regular fixture at the annual Symposium for Professional Food Writers at the Greenbrier Resort in West Virginia, and I met her there in 1995. The symposium always has a limited number of participants, so it's possible to really get to know folks during the five-day stay in the lovely old hotel. One evening, I was lucky enough to be seated next to Julia Child at dinner. Her natural warmth and approachability finally overcame my shyness in her presence, and we had a lively conversation. I told her I was concerned about having changed careers so late in life. She assured me I shouldn't worry, saying "Look at me, I didn't even get started until my late 40s, and I'm still at it. The best thing about this line of work is there's no mandatory retirement. You can keep working as long as you can work!" We even bonded over the issue of buying clothes, of all things. She was tall and big-boned, and I'm short and rotund, but we discovered we both shopped at Lane Bryant! Who'd have thought we'd have something personal in common? Looking back, I'm sure she gave the same kind of pep talk to hundreds of people over the years. But that night, it made success look possible to me.

My own personal memorial to Julia included watching the PBS "American Masters" segment about her (KLRU ran it at noon on Aug. 19) and enjoying a wonderful French meal. Asti Trattoria owners Emmett and Lisa Fox presented a French tasting menu in Julia Child's honor last weekend, featuring classic recipes from the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I had Soupe a l'Oignon Gratinée, Sole Poached in White Wine With Asparagus Hollandaise, and a lovely Profiterole With Chocolate Sauce. The meal was simple, delicious, expertly prepared, and shared among friends. Julia would have approved. Bon appétit, old gal.

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