The joy that was our Julia


Had Julia Child dominated only 20th century cookbook publishing, which she surely did after producing the bibles of dinner party cookery between 1961 and 1970 ("Mastering the Art of French Cooking" Volumes One and Two), we might have known her by her full name, or even "Mrs. Child." But from the moment she first appeared in the public television studios of Boston's WGBH, she became and stayed simply Julia.

In a way that few celebrities or politicians ever penetrate our lives, Julia was an honorary member of all of our families, the nation's Auntie Mame. The country didn't take to her because even the toniest PBS-watchers in Boston wanted to actually eat snails, it took to her because no other American before or after Julia has radiated such unadulterated joy straight from the TV studio into our homes.

Julia loved food. Not all food. French food. Good food. Cooking wasn't something she had to learn; she was a child of privilege from Pasadena and could have joked her way through drunken dinner parties consisting of steak Diane and baked Alaska like the rest of her contemporaries.

However, after a spell living in France after World War II, she experienced something alien to America: the celebration of food as a way of life. Once converted to the French conviction that breakfast should be spent contemplating lunch, and lunch contemplating dinner, she became America's irrepressible apostle of the good life.

By now, in the hourly news bulletins about her death only 48 hours shy of her 92nd birthday, most of us have heard her chronology. How she was born in Pasadena, educated at Smith, served during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services, married artist-cartographer Paul Child, transferred with him to Paris. How she formed a cooking school with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (co-authors of the "Mastering" books), about the 1963 debut on PBS and the succession of TV shows -- "The French Chef," "Julia Child & Company," "Julia Child & More Company," "Dinner at Julia's."

What's missing from that great big list is the quality that made her Julia, the combination of lustiness and merriment that propelled her halfway around the world. It was this quality, and not determined bookishness, that brought her back to America bubbling with possibilities for the kitchen. It was her spirit that won the hearts of American TV viewers.

To the world, she looked Bostonian, right down to the piping New England voice. But study her endearing brand of cheek and it was unmistakably Californian. It was de rigueur in her day for rich Pasadena girls to go to college Back East. Smith, Vassar and Radcliffe were full of tanned Westerners learning to stay pale, smoke cigarettes, drink martinis and say "toe-mah-toe."

She got down the accent and the capacity for gin, but never quite escaped her Western bravado.

"I was a ham," she joked about her response to the camera, the whistles, the costumes, the jokes that attracted generations of non-cooks to her shows. Perhaps. She came from a place where people grew taller, drank more, laughed louder.

As for joining the OSS, that was patriotism Seven Sisters style: America's precursor to the CIA was a magnet for marriageable posh women in search of dashing mates. Settling back in Cambridge, Child's Ivy League education had equipped her to slot right in, lustily.

As snippets of her shows replay the next few days, the focus will be her boozy bonhomie, her inimitable recoveries as she flubs the souffle or drops the flounder, "Oh good, I had been meaning to show you how to reconstruct a big fish ... " or however the line went.

But watch closely and you will see what made her as beloved by serious cooks as by people out for entertainment. Study how intently she pats ice over the fish as she demonstrates how to thaw a frozen salmon slowly, on ice in the fridge, to preserve the all-important texture. Watch as she salts a chicken, saying "use about a teaspoon" but not measuring (never measuring), then how she rubs it lavishly with butter and sticks it emphatically on a spit. If you're not aching to eat it, if not cook it, you've been on the wrong channel.

No cookbook, not even her own, has driven people to the kitchen or had quite the same effect on Americans as watching the woman herself cook on television.

As she gained in fame, she was joined on her shows by other celebrity cooks, and her concentration seemed to animate even the less charismatic. Occasionally she was a study in sportsmanship (watching Emeril Lagasse put the entire contents of a bayou into a stock pot, she was a consummate diplomat). The most touching partnership was with French chef Jacques Pepin. As he would construct the tarts, she would commend the use of butter.

As the vogue for Mediterranean cooking swept over America in the 1980s and relentless health scares begat tide after tide of fad diets, Julia remained an unfazed, unapologetic defender of her beloved French cuisine. Asked what to use if you couldn't digest cream, she quipped, "Butter."

As American tastes in food changed, her mark remained distinct.

The appetite for food TV has grown exponentially. Food shows have given way to food channels and countless new hosts. But America has produced, and loved, only one Julia.