Julia Child: In tribute to her
Birthdays have been on my mind this week. I share mine with Coco Chanel, Bill Clinton, Madame du Barry and Ginger Baker, of the brilliant 1970s band, The Cream, to name but a few.
But a much more important milestone was marked earlier in the week. August 15 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Julia Child, America’s famous cook, cookery writer and TV cookery pioneer.
During the summer, her publishers have been celebrating the anniversary with events, both actual and online (www.jc100), with her fans and former colleagues posting recipes and memories, hosting dinners, writing biographies, doing everything they can to pay tribute to the woman who had such an influence on the American kitchen.
In all the years I knew Julia, she went about her business like an ordinary person, and not, arguably, the most recognised woman in America, and, unarguably, the most loved. Shopping with Julia took three or four times as long as with anyone else, and was three or four times as much fun.
She had an insatiable curiosity when it came to food and produce.
At the Lexington Farmers’ Market or in Boston’s Bread and Circus, the local whole food supermarket, she would quiz the butcher about the provenance of the beef and chicken. She would marvel at the handsome display of fish, and suggest we bought some oysters for lunch.
She loved oysters. We would admire the variety of breads, and examine the cheeses for her favourites, and for new ones she had not tried. All the while, there would be a small troupe of shoppers following her at a respectful distance, anxious not to encroach on her privacy.
By the time she reached the check-out counter, however, some could not contain themselves, engaged her in conversation, told her how much she meant in their lives, and Julia would respond in a most kindly fashion.
She was, indeed, an immensely kind woman. We were staying with her when Tom learned of his brother’s death.
She mothered him, there is no other word for it, cooking him a dinner of roast chicken and mashed potatoes, and then making sure he did not sit around moping, but that we got on with the programme of lectures she had arranged for me at various culinary institutions in New England.
Julia was imbued with a strong work ethic. She was never not working whenever we saw her. The last time she went to England she sailed on the QEII, but it was a working visit. On board she was moderator for several of the chefs’ presentations.
And she was still taping her TV series and writing the accompanying books well into her 80s.
Many of the TV series were filmed in her kitchen, a large rectangular room on the ground floor of the grey Victorian wooden-frame house she had bought with her artist husband Paul when they first moved to Cambridge, Massachussetts, after their time in Paris in the 1950s.
The focal point of the house, the décor – actually Julia would laugh at that word; “you mean the paint, dearie,” she would say – never changed; aqua green walls, covered in pegboard, held her formidable batterie de cuisine, notably a fine collection of copper pots and pans, in constant use.
The simple but ingenious system devised by Paul was to draw the outline of each pan and gadget, so that it would be put back in its proper place.
A large scrubbed wooden table, with half a dozen mismatched chairs was where we ate most of our meals. Those were the best times, when I would make breakfast with Julia. She was a strong advocate of a good breakfast: eggs, and bacon, muffins or toast, home-made preserves, with which her friends and visitors inundated her, plenty of fruit and a large cafetière of real coffee.
“How would you like your eggs done,” I asked her one morning. “Oh, I don’t mind, as long as there’s plenty of butter in them.” She had never had a butter substitute in her house. But she was not the “cholesterol queen” some misguided health police had labelled her as. She believed in good food, eaten in moderation, with no second helpings.
I could write thousands of words about the influence Julia had on cooking in America – the biographers, bloggers and obituary writers have done that – but I wanted simply to give you a little insight into my friend Julia.
In fact, I could write pages about that too. Just one more story. On another occasion, we stayed with Julia in Cambridge before driving west. The morning we left, she insisted on making some sandwiches ‘for the road’.
“Let me make you some peanut butter sandwiches, Tom,” she said, “I’ll put jelly on some of them”. Some time along the highway, after I had unwrapped the sandwiches, which Julia had carefully cut into quarters, he started to eat them – and you probably have to be an American to appreciate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches; after over 40 years of marriage to one, I still don’t get it – and commented that he was probably living every American man’s fantasy, driving down the highway in a Cadillac, eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches made by Julia Child.
Julia died in the early morning of Friday, August 13, 2004, just two days before her 92nd birthday. I spoke to one of the friends who had sat with her through the night.
“She died with her boots on, you know. She was working until a couple of days ago,” she told me. I did know, because my last letter from Julia was dated August 5. All she said about herself was that she had been “a bit under the weather”, typically Julia, who was modest and self-effacing, insofar as a national treasure can be.
We had been in correspondence about my latest book, and the last sentence of her letter reads: “Your book title sounds perfect, and I can’t wait to see it in print!” Today’s recipes are inspired by Julia, not only my version of the perfect roast chicken, but also the chocolate mousse.