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Julia Child's Crusade

Colleges and UniversitiesArts and CultureMass MediaJulia Child

THE KITCHEN OF THE Santa Barbara condominium is filled with the scent of warming cheeses, fresh bread and hand-ground lamb. Paul Child, a retired diplomat, opens a bottle of California Chardonnay. A breeze blows in from the Pacific.

His wife is laughing hard, recalling the worst meal she's ever had. The best--the best would be too hard to decide.

"I can remember a great many meals," Julia Child says. "The worst--it was in England. We stopped at a beautiful Tudor inn on a river bank. In the dining room, there was this resplendent maitre d'hotel with his costume. We sat down overlooking the rose garden. And we had a very old-fashioned English meal.

"We started with a soup that had a lovely name, like a consomme double or I don't know what--a watery broth. And then Paul had the joint, and I had the boiled fowl. Paul's was well-cooked lamb. The fowl was a great big leg of chicken, and they had the typical white sauce on top of it. And sticking out through the white sauce were the hairs . . . mmm, yes. I'll always remember it. Over-boiled vegetables then, you know. Some horrible kind of a pudding. But we actually en joyed it, because it was so awful!"

It is unusual for Child to be so tolerant of bad food. Back in 1952, few women spent time in the kitchen. Convenience was king, freezers were fashionable, and women prided themselves on the speed with which they zipped their dinners to the table. Cookbooks with titles like "The 10-Minute Meal and How to Make It" were all the rage. By '62, things had not changed all that much. Things we take for granted--cheese shops, imported knives, freshly roasted coffee--hardly existed. Nobody had ever heard of pasta, and when we ate spaghetti it was with meatballs. Women were still celebrating their liberation from the kitchen, and those who really liked to eat made annual pilgrimages to Europe to do so. The words "American" and "food" were never used in the same sentence by the culinarily conscious. By '72, all that was over. America was in the throes of a food revolution. Housewives began investing in copper pans and almost everybody in America knew how to pronounce boeuf bourguignon. What had happened? Julia Child. She had come into the kitchen and taken America by storm.

Beyond this, Child made cooking seem like fun. She brightly patched up her mistakes and reminded her audiences that if they didn't tell, nobody would know. She stirred and sliced with such energy that she made people want to get into an apron and do it with her. But most of all, she made Americans feel that food was one of the best things about being alive.

Now, at 75, she hopes to see a grand dream rise on several acres of land at the University of California, Santa Barbara. If Julia Child has her way, the site will become the permanent home for the American Institute of Wine & Food, founded to elevate the study of what we eat and why we eat it to the level of literature.

On the other hand, if faculty members and students at the university get their way, the land and its disused Spanish-tiled building--currently leased from UCSB for a nominal sum--will be put to more traditional use on the space-starved campus. Many professors shudder at the thought of a wine-and-cheese image just as their young university is gaining acceptance in academia. Moreover, what Child sees as a professorial witch hunt against her friend and AIWF proponent, former UCSB Chancellor Robert Huttenback, is undermining her vision of a permanent institute on the Santa Barbara campus.

Most recently, this summer an East Coast-West Coast schism in the leadership of the organization--said to have been developing for some time--is causing further problems for the AIWF.

THE NOTION of an organization devoted to the study of American wine and food developed more than a decade ago. Child recalls meeting with chefs James Beard and Jeremiah Tower (who created San Francisco's Stars and Berkeley's Santa Fe Bar & Grill) to discuss the idea in the mid-'70s. But, she says, "absolutely nothing happened."

In 1981, however, after discussing the use of the Santa Barbara campus with then-Chancellor Huttenback and Chalone Inc. owner Richard Graff, the Childs hosted a party at their new California home. Tower, Chez Panisse's Alice Waters, wine baron Robert Mondavi and other pioneers of the new American cuisine finally set the institute in motion, organizing the AIWF as a nonprofit corporation later that year.

According to its charter, the American Institute of Wine & Food would "win academic recognition for gastronomy--a serious and worthwhile endeavor that for centuries has engaged mankind's energy, ingenuity and artistry. To do this, the institute will bring research and scholarship to food and wine in a manner never before accomplished and thereby bring greater recognition to those who make them with distinction and dedication." Richard Graff was the institute's first president. And from its temporary headquarters in San Francisco, the AIWF has produced several publications and holds an annual National Conference on Gastronomy.

But the group still seeks a permanent home. Child has reservations about San Francisco as a location, saying that there's too much "putting on the dog" there. "I'd like to see something in Southern California," she says. The Santa Barbara location always seemed ideal. And Huttenback--a passionate gourmet and an AIWF backer since that first dinner party--was confident that he could talk his faculty into welcoming the institute.

Yet despite the serious intentions and impeccable credentials of the great cooks and food folk supporting the institute, the idea was received coolly by the academic community. "In all candor," says UCSB Vice Chancellor Robert Michaelsen, who was active on a committee evaluating the proposed institute, "there has not been evidence of much enthusiasm on campus" for the AIWF. In March, 1982, Michaelsen recalls, the faculty legislature of the academic senate passed a resolution "telling (Huttenback) he was more or less on his own with this project. . . . The majority expressed reservations, saying that, in a time of scarce resources, it's best to use those resources for teaching and research."

"We made our views known," one professor commented, "but they obviously don't count very much." Faculty senate votes are merely advisory, that professor pointed out, and UC campuses are not democracies. Another faculty member termed the institute "a seeming indulgence." Both students and faculty raised concerns about the morality of an institute dedicated, as they saw it, to pricey eating and drinking.

Huttenback refused to comment on the campus opposition to his project other than to tell the student newspaper, the Daily Nexus: "If not having the institute would have any effect on world hunger, I'd be happy not to establish it."

But, quietly, Huttenback and the university reached a decision that there would be "no official connection" between UCSB and the AIWF, even if the lease of land was arranged. And the professors also knew it was unlikely that scholars would rush to use research facilities at an institute disapproved of by the majority of the faculty.

In that environment, Huttenback's forced resignation as chancellor in July, 1986, was a decided blow. A scandal had erupted over allegations that he had misused university funds to remodel his home.

Ironically, a $104,000 kitchen renovation was a focus of the investigation. (Although he is still a tenured professor in the history department, he was arrested last March on suspicion of embezzlement, insurance fraud and tax evasion. Huttenback, for his part, is suing the university for damage to his reputation.)

Now, citing rapid campus growth, Vice Chancellor Michaelsen says of the leased acres that "it's probable we're going to need that land in the future."

THE ONLY tangible presence of the institute on campus is in a place where undergraduates fear to tread--the rare-book col lection of the university library. The 850-volume Simon-Lowenstein collection, which some scholars call the finest accumulation of culinary books in the country, was bought by the institute for $120,000--a big capital outlay for a fledgling scholarly organization.

The collection includes virtually complete runs of the cookery works of the major French authors, including two from the 19th Century: Brillat-Savarin, the country lawyer who wrote "The Physiology of Taste," and Antonin Careme, who defined architecture as "one of the sub-categories of cake decorating." There's a rare first edition of "The Whole Body of Cookery Dissected," published in 1661 and considered to be the first modern cookbook in English, as well as a copy of Mary Randolph's "The Virginia Housewife" from 1824, the first work devoted to American regional recipes.

The volumes are kept in a humidity- and temperature-controlled vault. One food professional carps that the library is indicative of the problems the organization has. "They've got all these books that (virtually) no one can see," she says.

A book pulled at random from the shelf is by a Mr. Simpson, chef to the Marquis of Buckingham. Published in 1804, it contains the bills of fare for the marquis for an entire year. Under the heading "Larks," it informs the reader: "Larks take about 10 minutes."

IN THE WORLD of food, there's almost universal respect and affection for Julia Child. But while Child wants everybody--even the bus boys--in the world of food to plop down the group's $50 annual membership to further the cause of good eating, the ranks of the American Institute of Wine & Food have remained decidedly upscale. "People working in food don't think it's for them," says a critic. The celebrity chefs who do attend the annual conference also tend to look down their talented noses at the merely wealthy who support the conferences. "Everybody grouses about where they're going to sit," says the critic. " 'Mrs. Rich Rich from Dallas is not going to sit with me!' they sniff."

"The professional food and wine world is small," says executive director D. Crosby Ross, "and soon more people will join. We've done a good job of getting some chefs on board, and it's just the tip of the iceberg."

Founder Jeremiah Tower cooked masses of lobsters at its first big bash on the bluffs above the ocean at UCSB. Robert Mondavi is honorary co-chair with Child. Michael McCarty of Michael's Restaurant in Los Angeles is treasurer and serves on the board of directors. Joseph Coulombe of Trader Joe's was also a founder. Chalone, Sebastiani, Trefethen, Firestone, Jordan and other great family vineyards have pitched in with significant donations. Middle-brow food purveyors, including Campbell Soup Co. and General Foods, have become benefactors. Fritz Maytag, founder of Anchor Steam beer, is big in the San Francisco chapter (there are 10 chapters throughout the country); Hollywood support has come from Vincent Price and his wife, Coral, and the late Danny Kaye.

And though the cooking-and-eating conference is an annual highlight, no one should join "just because they like to drink good wine and eat good food," says Robert Clark, who has been editing American Wine & Food, the institute's monthly newsletter. "There are other organizations for just eating." The charter, after all, mandates "the broad exchange of information and ideas on critical issues in the fields of food and wine."

"The long-term goal is not to be 'academic' about it," Clark says. "It's about creating an atmosphere where that kind of thinking can happen."

In a scant six issues, Clark's 12-page newsletter has created a literary but not pedantic forum for culinary musings. Its contributors all seem to share a sense of wonder at the edible world. Gardening columnist Leslie Land has found Rabelaisian qualities in sprouts: "a growing, root-and-leaf-complete plant that is, oyster-like, alive when consumed." A recent issue featured an essay on the spoon, "the ur-eating tool, the implement from which the other tableware take their cues." Writer John Thorne went on to say that the spoon's "amorphous shape is not only in tune with the softness of the food it most often conveys to our mouths, but offers in itself--alone of all eating tools--a uniquely sensual pleasure."

The Journal of Gastronomy is a more conventional scholarly publication. Now edited by Nancy Harmon Jenkins, formerly a star food writer at the New Yorks Times, its content can range from an expose on cheap Mexican false vanilla, the flavoring of which is closely related to rat poison, to an issue devoted to the facsimile reproduction of "Seventy-five Receipts," written by "A lady of Philadelphia" in 1828. Included is a recipe for oyster pie, calling for "a hundred large fresh oysters, or more if small."

When subject matter becomes too lofty, however, Child is not afraid to criticize. In a letter written last May, she sounded a warning to institute leaders about what she terms "the we-happy-few syndrome: (that) nothing produced for the mass market is worth considering by the cognoscenti, be it coffee, bread, vegetables, wine, or whatever. . . . We should be just as much concerned with bottled mayonnaise, canned chicken broth and jug wines as we are in truffles and foie gras ."

ON THE STEEPEST part of steep California Street in San Francisco, the institute's small staff has temporary offices in a Victorian house surrounding a garden. On a cool spring Saturday afternoon, plans are under way for a series of fund-raisers in Santa Barbara. Institute founders--those who have given between $5,000 and $100,000--are calling in with late reservations. "You'll have to hold them off--we don't have any more room on the bus!" development director Susy Davidson tells a secretary.

"People who drop by figure that we have the greatest lunches here," Davidson says, laughing. "But I usually just have Triscuits and cheese. Or, the other day we all got together and sent out for pizza." Everyone who works with the institute is in some way serious about food. But not too serious.

Ross, 35, the new executive director and a founding member of the institute, began his career in food selling homemade granola and subsequently started a successful culinary emporium in Santa Barbara. Carping among the founders about the institute's lack of direction led to his hiring.

(George Trescher, who followed Graff as AIWF president, was, according to Child, "interested in doing conferences and so forth. But he was not any good with the organization." His successor, Franklin P. Conlan, "was fairly good about the office but knew nothing about food. So we're fortunate now that we've got Crosby--he's got both sides.")

AIWF associate director Greg Drescher grew up in what he calls "a food-oriented family" in Wisconsin. "We had cream from local dairies, wild watercress, wild berries--and I assumed that was how the rest of the world lived, too," he says. His job gives him the freedom to speculate about the importance of eating. he asks. "To many white Americans," he points out, "the taste of chiles is a uniform taste. But to those used to Hispanic cuisines, there is a whole range of tastes in different chiles." As the ethnicity of America changes--as cross-cultural foods like "fajita pitas" appear in fast-food restaurants--tastes change, too.

And the institute believes it can be of use not only to gourmets but also to the massive multinational food producers. A whole generation of middle-class Americans has been liberated, as "Trader" Joe Coulombe puts its, by the advent of the 747 and cheap air fare. It has traveled the world and returned with a taste for exotic cuisines. The slow-moving, mainstream food distributors have had to scramble to keep up. Boston-based Flying Foods, importers of specialty delicacies, was recently purchased by Kraft. General Foods and Campbell Soup pay close attention at the annual AIWF national conferences, where the influential foodies mingle with the small producers of, say, a new mushroom species that may be next year's big thing. The big firms can't afford to ignore new taste trends; billions of dollars in profits are at stake.

ACROSS THE San Francisco Bay in Berkeley is a woman who has done more than any other American restaurateur to cre ate a new cuisine.

Alice Waters counts herself among the AIWF leaders who have pushed for a more practical, down-to-earth organization, one that goes beyond the gustatory minutiae recorded in the publications, the swirling of wine and chatter at the national seminars. She grabs a caffe latte and sits down at a table in her restaurant, Chez Panisse. She always has time to talk food.

"I've always thought the AIWF should be a sort of muckraking organization," she says. "It's not that I think the academic side--the library and all--are not important. But it seems so much more important to me to know where to find distributors, to get people to eat nontoxic food, to feed the world. These are the pressing things. I think nutritious, good food is a right--everybody should have access to that."

After 16 years of running Chez Panisse and helping to create a revolution in food, Waters worries that eating well in America is still considered "fairly esoteric." She likes to emphasize the practical side and spends much of her time talking with her purveyors, trying to obtain the freshest and most flavorful food she can find.

Although she finds the image of the AIWF to be "elite" and says it "will have to do a lot to change that around," Waters is still drawn to the institute. "Of course it's difficult to talk about subtle distinctions in wines when people don't have enough to eat. We haven't talked about nutrition nearly enough. But they have the right spirit about them, Bob Mondavi and Julia, the joie de vivre . How different would the food world be without Julia? Who can say? She certainly paved the way for this restaurant. She demystified French food. Suddenly, people were able to cook that stuff!"

AS A FOUNDER and honorary chair of the AIWF, Child's specific duties aren't clearly defined. But whenever a fund- raiser has to be hosted, whenever she is asked to lend her famous name and high energies to an AIWF project, Child is there. She can be a harsh critic when she feels the organization is drifting away from its goals, but she is still the staunchest defender of the necessity for such an organization in today's culinary scene.

Now, six years after its inception, she believes that the 4,000-member American Institute of Wine & Food is "finally on the road. . . . We're going to get the office straightened out, the finances straightened out and begin enlarging the membership. We want to get at least 20,000--and I don't see any reason that we shouldn't, when you realize that a magazine like Bon Appetit has a million subscribers."

For a woman whose public career started--with the publication of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 1961--at age 50, 75 is no time to stop working. She still cooks in her small, efficient kitchen. In an era of rampant trendiness, she's hard at work on a new cookbook on classical cooking. She's also thinking of doing another television series. "Rather than a formal dinner every time," she says, "we'll do all kinds of things--have a picnic, go out on a yacht, we'd gather all over the country. Go wherever the chefs are, go to the wineries. Beautiful settings. I'd like to go to a big slaughterhouse--maybe a sausage factory--wouldn't that be fun!"

Making a permanent record of cooks' techniques is high on Child's agenda for the AIWF. The institute oversaw the videotaping of James Beard in his kitchen before his death, and plans are in the works for videotaping other chefs. Child's own methods, of course, have been amply preserved through her television shows.

And what of the headquarters, the idyllic gastronomic think tank, on the point of land at UC Santa Barbara? "It would be great if it works out here," Child says, "but if the university is going to be a nothing place, I would not be for it. And do we have to be connected with a university? We don't. There are big houses here where we could put the library. If someone wanted to give us a building, then we wouldn't have to build one. And it would be marvelous ."

AT UC SANTA BARBARA, a new chancellor, Barbara Uehling, has taken over, but she has yet to express her views on having the AIWF headquarters on campus. In the student community, there has been a mild resurgence of the activism of another generation. Concern is expressed about the school's new reputation as the "white flight" campus--out of 18,000 freshman applications for admission last fall, fewer than 600 were from blacks--and student leaders are attempting to change the university's reputation as a summer camp for surfers.

"We think it would be trivial for people to study food here," says Bill Diepenbrock, last year's editor-in-chief of the Daily Nexus. "The joke is to call it 'The American Institute of Wine & Cheese.' The idea of studying nutrition makes sense. But to create a food institute here. . . . We look at the charge of the university and don't think that's part of it."

Julia Child, of course, doesn't buy the argument that studying food is frivolous. "That's just a ridiculous, stupid point of view from people who don't know anything," she says. "Why, it's no more frivolous than books or music. It's one of the arts." She also contends that the institute hopes to promote research into the sociology of food. "Historically, what did people live on?" she asks. "What was wrong with their nutrition, so that they didn't develop, so that they didn't live long?"

When the talk turns to nutrition, student leaders and faculty critics listen more closely; hundreds of students enrolled when the first nutrition class at UCSB was offered recently. Yet with Huttenback absent from the scene, few observers think it likely that the distance between the undergraduates and the AIWF will be bridged.

Meanwhile, a disgruntled Eastern member now describes the institute as a "sleepy, backwater California institution, filled with deadwood and supported by rich ladies from Santa Barbara." The board of directors, says this member, needs "to start steering in more important directions--or just start steering it!" And late last month, Jenkins, the Journal of Gastronomy editor, found herself involved in a power struggle among the California leadership. She received a letter at her Massachusetts home from associate director Drescher, telling of a reshuffling that would, among other things, give her added responsibility at no extra pay. Drescher characterizes the shifts as "a financial restructuring."

"There was was a lot of fat" he says, and added, "anytime that you're dealing with creative people and you make the slightest change, feathers get ruffled."

"I was hired to be editor of the journal and have no intention of doing anything else," says Jenkins. "I've received a letter, consulted with my lawyer, and now I'm just going to ignore it and hope it will go away."

In the midst of the turmoil, Jenkins says that she and her bicoastal friend Julia Child have talked about the schism and remain optimistic. "Even if there's a tremendous shakeup, we think that the institute will just get stronger," Jenkins says.

But out on the west campus, the AIWF's low building, with its typically Santa Barbaran red-tiled roof, is surrounded by weeds. Some of its windows are boarded up. The field on which AIWF backers envision one day planting an "edible landscape" of herbs and experimental vegetable gardens is dusty and dry.

Some students and teachers are finding interim ways to make use of the land set aside for the institute, though. Unable to find good studio space on the central campus, painting professors have set up impromptu workshops in the old building. "We just sort of use it and don't make too much noise and hold our breath," says an instructor taking a stroll while her students work inside. Then a fog rolls in from the ocean and the west campus light turns from bright sun to a socked-in gray.

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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