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FEATURE | summer 2003

Live! Eat! Enjoy!
A visit with Julia Child

Ms. Summer 2003

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Now, the truth up front: I am not a cook. Rather, as Julia Child will explain to me later, I am an "assembler," the type who throws every staple thing in the kitchen together and prays for an edible outcome. But I fully appreciate every morsel I've ever swallowed in my life, and I am excited about the chance to spend time with Julia, a woman who at 90 years old is still advocating butter, cream and strong opinions as the keys to happiness and longevity.

Julia Child lives in a bucolic Spanish-style retirement community in Santa Barbara, Calif, a half mile from the beach. I drive into the compound through a stone entrance bedecked with bougainvillea, then follow a winding road lined with oak and sycamore trees. A web of garden pathways connects a series of two-story modern stucco apartment buildings; Child's one-bedroom apartment is downstairs. Stephanie, her assistant of 14 years, opens the screen door, and she appears: "Hi, call me Julia."

Julia Child
Photo by Jim Scherer

Julia is temporarily in a wheelchair, recovering from knee surgery, but sits tall and erect, with the perfect posture of a dancer-- totally unlike the hunched-- over cooking stance we've seen on television. She greets me with a firm handshake. Her reddish-blond hair is closely cropped, and she wears simple but elegant stacks, sweaters and rubbersoled shoes. Though her skin is fair, it is remarkably free of wrinkles, and I'm struck by her keen blue eyes.

I have met and interviewed hundreds of celebrities through the years and often found them ... wanting.

Short attention spans and a losing battle with the challenge of communicating in actual sentences are all too common.

Julia is a magnificent contrast to that kind of celebrity. This is a solid, educated Yankee born in 1912 and reared in a strictly Republican Presbyterian household. The daughter of a California businessman and a mother from Massachusetts, her roots go back to Oliver Wendell Holmes.

"We were comfortable, but of the Buick not the Cadillac class," says Julia, who attended private schools and later went east to Smith College, graduating in 1934. Although during the 1930s only 5 percent of American women went to college and a third of Julia's class of 645 dropped out, she graduated and moved to Manhattan.

"I was a Republican until I got to New York and had to live on $18 a week. It was then that I became a Democrat. "

Her thoughts on political issues are no less confident than her judgments on food.

Regarding President George W Bush: "I've nothing to say about him except that I am appalled that he was chosen by our people to be president."

Regarding abortion rights: "Pro-choice is the only way to be-- because women are human beings, after all, and should be treated as such."

In her youth, body image was a struggle for her. "My height (6 feet 2 inches) made me uncomfortable when I was a kid because I was different. But I got used to it." Yet, in her 20s, she never felt "beautiful."

"It was difficult to find clothes that fit, " she says. "I [still] can't get fat because I can't fit into my clothes. Clothes my size are impossible to find."

But the queen of haute cuisine has a mantra: "Do not diet," she says emphatically. She discounts calorie counting, artificial sweeteners, fat-free meals and liquid meal replacements. "Eat a variety of high-quality food that is fresh, and limit your intake. Moderate your eating. It takes discipline," she adds.

Today, she cooks in a small, well-appointed kitchen and finds that age has altered her eating capacity, if not her taste buds. "I don't have as large an appetite. A dinner for myself is lamb chops, broiled, with potatoes and asparagus." And, as fans of her television shows would appreciate, she still enjoys a glass of wine and an occasional reverse martini" of ice, vermouth and a "slosh of gin."

Food snobs will not find a soulmate in Julia Child. She frowns on "the food police" and enjoys a good hot dog or a hamburger from her favorite chain, In-N-Out Burger.

Correcting the record, however, she informs me that she no longer eats McDonald's french fries. "They've changed since McDonald's began using vegetable shortening." (The lard, previously used, imparted flavor, she says.) Unlike so many celebrity cooks and chefs, Julia has assiduously avoided endorsements. Her opinions and preferences are her own.

Her life choices, too, have always been her own. During World War II, Julia entered the Office of Strategic Services (the precursor of the CIA) in order to do national service and travel abroad. She was a clerk, organizing secret dispatches in Sri Lanka, when she met spy-diplomat Paul Child. He became her husband and, later, her manager, photographer and television set designer.

"He encouraged my cooking," she says, then laughs. "but not necessarily to the extent that I went into it. I found cooking fascinating because it tested art and science. First you master the science, later comes the art."

She corrects the assumption that she was the first woman to graduate from Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. "There were other women at the school, but I was more serious, she recalls. After years of living abroad and perfecting recipes in France, Germany and Norway, she bought a house with Paul in Cambridge, Mass., and that's where she published her first great opus, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961.

Julia Child on set
AP Photo

There also, she launched her television career, on Boston's WGBH in 1963. Julia Child became the first woman on public television, and she captivated 50 million viewers. Her show's ratings were often greater than those for William E Buckley Jr.'s political program.

"I loved it, " she says, "Being an actress was great fun. It was much easier than writing a cookbook, which is hard work. Very detailed." (Among her many books, The French Chef Cookbook, published in 1971, contains recipes from 119 of her black-and-white TV shows.)

In her books and on her television shows Child injected a revolutionary sense of humor. Her approach to cooking was a marked departure from an earlier era when a woman's sense of worth was connected way too closely with her abilities in the kitchen. An illustration in the April 1943 issue of Good Housekeeping, for example, shows a woman weeping over a cake as her husband looks on. The stern caption:"Measure and You're a Better Cook."

Compare that with some of Julia's behavior in her television kitchen. She drops a chicken onto the floor, then promptly retrieves it, throws it into the pan and and announces, "Just remember, you're alone in the kitchen!"

There was laughter among those pots and ladles. And freedom.

Celebrity chef and restaurateur Susan Feniger notes that Julia Child's impact on a generation of cooks has been extraordinary. "She showed us the role of meals and cooking in a whole different light-- [as] a way to bring people together. Sharing of food is sharing one's culture in a deep way," says Feniger. "Julia is wonderfully young, funny, sharp, smart, witty, thoughtful and incredibly humble. Her passion for life and food continues to blow me away, every time I see her."

After Julia's husband died in 1994, their Cambridge house was deeded to Smith College. But Julia doesn't miss the excitement of Boston, or even of Paris. She loves her life in Santa Barbara. It's all here," she says.

Does she regret not having children? A smile graces her face. "I think it would be nice to be a grandmother. But, no, I don't miss them. I wouldn't have had the career I did if I'd have had children."

On Julia's 90th birthday, the Smithsonian Museum of History rightfully deemed her a national treasure. Recognizing Julia Child as the woman who brought French cooking to America, the Smithsonian moved her entire kitchen from Cambridge, Mass., to Washington, D.C.

"They removed everything, and then reconstructed the kitchen," Julia marvels. "It was exactly my kitchen -- stove, pans, walls and cabinets. Except the floor was cleaner."

Age doesn't daunt her. "I think I will go on for another 10 years," she says. "My grandfather lived to be 97. My father, 87." She pauses. "Mother died young, at 60, but she had high blood pressure, which I don't have. My knees are weak though." There have been operations along the way -- a hysterectomy in her 40s, a mastectomy in her 50s, and a hip replacement in her 80s after she tripped on her computer cord. "I have no fear of dying," she says matter-of-factly. "It's something that happens."

For 40 years, Julia has recited variations on what she'd wish for her last meal: caviar-oysters-foie gras followed by pan-roasted duck. For dessert, a poached pear or pungent sorbet with walnut cake. Now, when asked yet again what she would like for her "last meal," she coyly quotes chef Jacques Pepin: "It's going to be a very long one."

Bon appetit!