WE BRAVED baking our own croissants because of her. We
risked French cooking because of her. We even lined our kitchen walls with
pegboard because of her.
Julia Child made it all seem possible. She did not, bless her, make it seem
easy; we saw on her television shows the nitty-gritty work of making exquisite
She never lied to us; this was honest work, but joyous work, too. Child
explained everything so that we could do what she did. She belonged to us, and
all America called her by her first name.
This fall, Child's life begins a new chapter as she leaves the East Coast
to live year-round in Santa Barbara, Calif. This is not retiring, she makes
clear, merely downsizing.
Child, now 89, is giving her gray-clapboard, tall- ceilinged Victorian
house in Cambridge, Mass., with its thicket of a yard, to Smith College (she
graduated in 1934), and most of her kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution. The
oft-filmed, signature wall of that kitchen, a pegboard hung with her treasured
copper pots and skillets, will go to COPIA, the American Center for Wine, Food
and the Arts now under construction in Napa.
Child, resolutely unsentimental about the move, sipped Gevalia coffee from
a white mug with black piglets marching around the rim one sunny late summer
morning in her cookbook-lined upstairs office in Cambridge. Most of her
cookbooks and papers are going to the fine culinary collection at the
Schlesinger Library, or to the library's History of Women in America at
Radcliffe at Harvard, or to relatives. She can, she claims, take only two or
three books and a very few pictures. The California "pad" is furnished, because
she has been spending winters there for years.
She is taking a treasured "cow creamer," but no furniture. If she misses
any of her things, she says, the glorious weather will make up for it. In Santa
Barbara, "I have two figs and an apricot tree," and lemons and tangerines,
"and next February, when it's sear and brown, I'll be thinking of you - and
I'll be sitting in my little garden having lunch, with the flowers."
That cool morning, Child was banished from her downstairs kitchen while
three Smithsonian workers commandeered the commodious kitchen table, acquired
when Julia and her husband, Paul, were posted to Norway for his foreign service
job, to catalog every whisk and knife in the room.
She still cooks in that kitchen, though "I don't cook as loudly as I used
Such a statement is vintage "Julia."
In "The French Chef Cookbook" (Knopf, 1968), she wrote that on the TV show,
"I would far prefer to have things happen as they naturally do, such as the
mousse refusing to leave the mold, the potatoes sticking to the skillet, the
apple charlotte slowly collapsing. One of the secrets of cooking is to learn to
correct something if you can, and bear with it if you cannot."
Accordingly, she told us how to save the Hollandaise sauce when it curdled.
In that same book, Child wrote that she knew nothing about television
before appearing on her first show. She didn't even know what other people did
on television, as she and Paul, who died in 1994, had hardly watched any
programs on their television and had concealed the ugly object in a fireplace.
When her first program, which was to have been a series of three for New
England public television, was aired in the summer of 1962, the Childs served a
big steak dinner at their house, pulled the television set out of its hiding
place and, Julia Child wrote:
"There was this woman tossing French omelettes, splashing eggs about the
place, brandishing big knives, panting heavily as she careened around the
Oh, how we loved her for that lusty physicality.
A star was born.
The three programs quickly became a series of 26. In all, Child did 119
black-and-white shows under the title "The French Chef" between 1963 and 1966,
and another 90 in color between 1970 and 1973. These were followed by "Julia
Child & Company," "Dinner at Julia's" and two series that featured master
chefs, "Baking With Julia" and "Julia & Jacques." She is proud to say that in
the baking series, more than 700 pounds of butter were used.
The California kitchen is much smaller than the one in her sun-dappled
Cambridge digs. It was in the kitchen there that Paul Child's lens - he loved
to photograph her - once caught her hiking up her skirt to adjust a stocking
before the TV cameras bore in upon her. The show was "cold turkey galantine,"
and he labeled the photograph "cold thigh Julie."
In Cambridge there was room for the vast collection of a self-described
"frying pan freak" and copper lids of every size from Dehilleran, a famed
kitchen wares store in Paris. There is, besides, a pastry room complete with a
marble slab and its own fridge, a pantry and a sizable dining room.
"My whole kitchen there is the size of this room," Child said as she gave a
tour of yet another room, her glassware and china closet. Child says that in
her apartment, to save space, she will have only one type of glass - stemmed.
"Some people may object." Let them. "They'll just have to have Scotch in
stemmed glasses," she says in her characteristic sensible manner.
One of Child's favorite skillets is a humble Duranel from Wearever, and
those kitchen floors in Cambridge are linoleum, not fancy tile.
Predictably, there isn't a bone of pretension in Child's now-stooped
6-foot-2-inch body. Even stooped, she is still taller than most people in the
Child's own voice is on her message machine, she is intensely interested in
what others think, and she doesn't mince words.
For example, she described Craig Claiborne, the late longtime food editor
of The New York Times, as "a difficult man."
And she thinks the worst thing a cookbook author can do is "putting in a
recipe that doesn't work. Your book is only as good as its worst recipe, so it
had better be good."
But she has kind words for cookbook author Paula Wolfert - "she's very
careful" - and for Martha Stewart, who "gives an idea of how to do things
James Beard (the foundation named for him was the source of the
pig-festooned coffee mugs) "was lots of fun. He used to stay with us in France
and come and stay here. He was a very generous person."
Years ago, Judith Jones, her editor at Knopf, asked the late Simone (Simca)
Beck, Child's one-time French collaborator, whom they would like to meet in
New York. Child said James Beard.
"We took the subway down to where he lived, and there he was with his hands
covered with egg white, and he was illustrating how to fold egg whites into a
souffle with his hands. He was so nice. He immediately introduced us to
everybody. He introduced us to Joe Baum [whose Restaurant Associates owned such
posh New York spots as the Four Seasons and the Rainbow Room; later, Baum was
a partner in Windows on the World], and to everybody. He just couldn't have
been nicer. We went to the Four Seasons. When we went over to England, he
introduced us to Elizabeth David," the late English cookbook author.
Child is direct, but ever gracious. Sometimes her good manners lead to
printed untruths about her. No doubt she said something in polite assent when
the idea of a ripe pear and a cup of green tea was broached to her as a
possible dessert for someone's last meal on Earth. Twisted, this emerged as
what she would want.
"Who told you that?" she said. "I don't drink green tea at all."
Similarly, Child has been reported to love jelly doughnuts.
"Well, I don't," she said, "I like the plain ones."
Child remembers with fondness the doughnuts and crullers made by her
Illinois grandmother, who came from a farm, and "she made a wonderful kind of
crispy broiled chicken."
Her own last dessert, she said, might be vanilla ice cream with chocolate
sauce, a carefully made creme caramel, not overcooked, "so it trembles a
little, with plenty of caramel," or perhaps a strawberry shortcake, "very fresh
and with lots of juice."
Now she is off and running.
"Some people, you know, are afraid of sugar and they won't macerate the
strawberries enough, so they haven't exuded their juice, and they haven't
absorbed the sweetness they should. You have these people who are afraid of
sugar," which, she points out, contains only 15 calories per teaspoon. "I hate
fresh fruit that hasn't been macerated properly," she concludes firmly.
Child's mother did not cook, though "she knew how to order good food," and
Child did not learn to cook until she married Paul Child in 1946. In the
wedding picture, they both look thrilled, but Julia sports a bandage above one
eye and Paul has a cane; the couple had just survived a car smashup the day
"My Paul had been brought up on good food, so I had to try and cook well
for him," she said. "And then when I got over to France," when Paul was working
for the U.S. Information Service there, "that food was just so good. I decided
that was for me."
She studied cooking at the famed Cordon Bleu, and "that started me off,
seeing the tremendous care and interest that the chefs took in their work.
Nothing was too much trouble to make something absolutely delicious."
She cooked dishes again, and again, and again, to get them right, and
sometimes dinner was finally served at 10 p.m.
Paul, in a letter to his brother, wrote: "The sight of Julia in front of
her stove-full of boiling, frying & simmering foods has the same fascination
for me as watching a kettle drummer at the symphony. Imagine ... Julie, with a
blue denim apron on, a dish towel stuck under her belt, a spoon in each hand,
stirring 2 pots at the same time. Warning bells are sounding-off like signals
from the podium, and a garlic-flavored steam fills the air. ... She stands
there surrounded by a battery of instruments with an air of authority and
Even French cats learned of her cooking, it seemed, via a feline grapevine,
and stopped by Chez Child.
When the Childs lived in the countryside in Provence, she recalled, "One
cat would die, and another would come the next morning. They seem to know" when
another cat is needed, "and they sit on the ledge," and here she made an
appealing meow, perfectly mimicking the way cats audition in front of potential
"I love the way cats just get into anything," she said. "I love how they
sit in things. We had a dear one who always sat in our salad bowl." All French
cats, she said, are named Minou or Minette or Mimi or some such name.
Child recalls the cats, Paris, Provence and life with Paul with enormous
affection, but she remembers just as vividly the worst meal she ever ate. The
Childs stopped at an English inn by a river with a garden and a grandly
costumed maitre d'.
"It was a very English menu, and I decided I would order the boiled fowl,"
she says with that inimitable Julia warble on the word boiled. "And we started
out with a soup" - there's that fulsome, loopy "o" of hers - "one of those kind
of watery soups. The boiled fowl came, and it was a large piece of leg, and
there was a hair sticking right through it, and a white sauce which was
literally just about flour and water. It was ghastly. It confirmed all your
feeling about English cooking. The hair sticking through this white sauce is
something I shall never forget."
Child delights in shooting down myths, too.
"It turns out that we've been buffaloed by the bottled-water people who say
that coffee and tea don't count" as part of the recommended eight glasses of
water a day, "but they do count," she said gleefully, producing a copy of the
Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter published in July. You can count
coffee, cola, cocoa, orange juice, vodka - "if you can drink it, you can count
it," according to this study.
"Isn't that dirty of them?" she said.
She is in full agreement with the study, and drinks three or four cups of
coffee a day.
On the other hand, this woman of huge appetites became convinced that
smoking was "a filthy habit" and gave it up in 1965. Still, she is not above
reminiscing. "We would have had about eight by now," she said cozily, as second
cups of coffee cooled. "Easily. I never found that it affected my taste. Did
it yours? No, not a bit."
Paul Child photographed his wife smoking in an alley in Paris, sunbathing
with her even taller sister Dorothy (known as Dort) on a Paris rooftop, cooking
at a too-short stove.
He wrote poems to her, too. Perhaps the most quoted is a sonnet penned for
her 49th birthday:
O, Julia, Julia, cook and nifty wench,
Whose unsurpassed quenelles and hot souffles,
Whose English, Norse and German, and whose French,
Are all beyond my piteous powers to praise -
Whose sweetly-rounded bottom and whose legs,
Whose gracious face, whose nature temperate,
Are only equaled by her scrambled eggs:
Accept from me, your ever-loving mate,
This acclamation shaped in fourteen lines
Whose inner truth belies its outer sight;
For never were there food, nor were there wines,
Whose flavor equals yours for sheer delight.
O luscious dish! O gustatory pleasure!
You satisfy my taste- buds beyond measure.
Last summer at Chefs & Champagne, an event sponsored by Taittinger at
W"lffer Estate Winery in Child's honor, she gave herself over to satisfying her
fans and did not partake of the luxuries presented by dozens of top Manhattan
and Long Island chefs - caviar, foie gras, smoked salmon, rich pastries. She
sat in a corner of a tent and patiently signed books for chefs and admirers for
Suzanne Tobias, pastry chef at Cite in Manhattan, said Child "has been my
inspiration my entire life," and she told her role model how her 11-year- old
brother had made perfect profiteroles - cream puffs filled with ice cream -
using Julia's recipe.
Sara Moulton's daughter Ruthy, 15, brought a picture of herself as a baby
with Child to give to her and said, "She's sharp still. She remembered me, and
that I have a brother, and everything." (Her mom, of Gourmet and the Food
Network, has worked with Child.)
Restaurateur Shari Alexander of Sag Harbor, who also is co-editor of the
Wine Gazette, recalled that the show on tarte tatin in the early '70s "changed
my life. I wrote down every little thing." Then, Alexander did not know how to
cook. But, inspired by Child, she threw a dinner party and made boeuf
bourgignon and tarte tatin. Child's precise instructions saw her through.
"It was one of the great accomplishments of my life," said Alexander. "I
never knew such immediate gratification."
Stephanie Hersh, Child's assistant, confided, "Very often, we get people
saying, 'You saved my marriage.'"
And one woman, speaking for almost anyone who has ever watched Child,
said: "I hear your voice in my mind. And I always peel my asparagus."