It's not every day that an American icon turns 90, and, strictly speaking, she hasn't. But when the icon is Julia Child, can there really be a wrong time for a celebratory "bon appetit"?
"Well, I think it's all pretty nice, don't you? What's on the menu?" the grande dame trilled Thursday, as a nationwide blitz of birthday parties was kicked off in this food mecca two weeks before her birthday. Her shoulders were stooped, her curls were thinning and she steered her no-longer-6-foot-2-inch frame into the star-studded dining room with the aid of a bright blue walker. But that fat, throaty voice still had the power to make ordinary syllables sound mouthwatering. "Wild," she murmured, deliciously, as flashbulbs popped and Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse's famed Alice Waters rushed up with a bouquet of roses from her garden. "Just wild, isn't it?"
Child, of course, is known to millions as the unintentionally droll "French Chef" who revolutionized American attitudes about food in the 1960s with her public television series and sophisticated recipes. In a nation of TV dinners and tuna casseroles, she raised the consciousness of a provincial public by demystifying fine dining.
"Have the courage of your convictions," the native Californian once warbled to viewers, scraping a potato pancake back into the pan after she had accidentally flipped half of it onto her studio stove top.
The incident later became the stuff of "Saturday Night Live" spoofs, but Child's confidence was liberating, at the time, for Kennedy era housewives trying to live up to the standards of a White House with a real French chef in the kitchen. Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" became, for a while, the kitchen equivalent of Dr. Benjamin Spock's "Baby and Child Care."
Child Remains Active
Though she moved last year from her longtime home in Cambridge, Mass., to a retirement community in Montecito and has spent much of the last year recuperating from a series of back surgeries, she has remained active, especially philanthropically.
She was on hand this year for the grand opening of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, and, in a departure--for she is famously tight with endorsements--she allowed the museum to use her name for its centerpiece restaurant, Julia's Kitchen. Her own kitchen in Cambridge, with its copper pots and whisks and peg boards, has been dismantled and donated to Copia and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Thursday's extravaganza was also an act of philanthropy on Child's part--or, more accurately, Day 1 of a monthlong barrage of charity. The San Francisco dinner at the stylish Fifth Floor restaurant, benefiting the scholarship fund of the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals Foundation, was the first of three birthday fund-raisers in three nights on Child's packed calendar.
Having dispatched with vichyssoise, nicoise salad, Atlantic halibut, Sonoma duck breast and a six-layer pecan marjolaine with coffee chocolate mousse Thursday night, Child will head north tonight to the Napa Valley for a $500-a-plate gala at Copia. That menu: foie gras, monkfish, more duck, a confection involving ladyfingers called charlotte malakoff au chocolat and a specially created $90-a-bottle sparkling rose.
On Saturday, she's back at the museum again for a $100-a-person French buffet for the media and museum members. (Prawns on ice, oysters, more nicoise salad, roast beef, rack of lamb, chicken on polenta, crepes suzette and a confection called, simply, Julia's Birthday Cake.)
And on Sunday, she's tentatively scheduled for yet another Copia appearance, which may or may not involve more food. Then it's off to Maine, where she will retreat with family members to celebrate her real date of birth on Aug. 15. Three more fetes, with proceeds going to the American Institute of Wine and Food, are scheduled for later this month in Washington, D.C.
"Frankly, when I heard there were all these parties planned, I just couldn't imagine her wanting to do all of this," confided Waters, who has RSVP'd to all the weekend dinners as well.
Copia's director, Peggy Loar, said her staff had made a special effort to stock up on pre-signed bookplates for the weekend's events there, so Child would not be inundated with requests for book signings, as occurred when she showed up for the opening of the museum.
"I've spoken on the phone with her in the last two months, and she was as bright as a tack," Loar said. "And she never says no--she's just a sweetheart--but we don't want to tire her out."
Child, whose persona has always featured a certain brusque vigor, shrugged off the notion that an 89-year-old woman might not be up to quite this much action for her big nine O.
"It's for a good cause, so it's OK with me--just part of doing business," she said. "I don't have to do any of the cooking. I'm just there! Eating! And that doesn't take too much energy, does it now?"
Not for her, maybe. Thursday's dinner, prepared by Fifth Floor's Laurent Gras and former Iron Chef winner Ron Siegel of Masa's restaurant, was just the hub of a nationwide endeavor that comprised 20 simultaneous benefits hosted by celebrity chefs at high-end restaurants from Seattle to Chicago to Baltimore.
Each featured regional food personalities and special menus based on Child's cookbooks. At New York's French Culinary Institute, for instance, Jacques Pepin hosted a $275-to-$375-a-plate dinner for 67 donors. In Boston, one of Child's favorite restaurants, Hamersley's Bistro, fed a five-course, all-lobster (except for dessert) dinner to a sellout crowd of 120 at $120-a-plate.
The $300-a-plate dinner in San Francisco also sold out, not least because of Child's presence, which elevated the meal from a mere fund-raiser to a sort of culinary version of a summons to dinner with the queen. San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown swept in before the first course, champagne flute in hand, to offer a special toast to the honoree.
"I'm absolutely certain that I'm the envy of every mayor in the country," Brown said, as the crowd called, "Hear, hear." "I'm in the presence at this moment of a true American gem."
Though the guest list included many of Child's contemporaries, it was unclear how many genuinely knew her as a close friend. Anne Willan, director of the L.A. Varenne Cooking School, an old pal, was there, as was Bon Appetit editor in chief Barbara Fairchild, also a friend. But Child's career was mostly spent on the East Coast, and the Bay Area food scene tends more to revolve around the younger Waters, who is approaching iconhood in her own right.
For much of the evening, Waters--who has known Child for decades--was preoccupied with her own fans.
At one point, however, Waters approached Child and told her, "I had the most amazing dream last night. I dreamed you fell asleep on my shoulder." Child looked momentarily flummoxed. "Hmm," she said. "Well, I'm glad I was there."
Child herself spent most of a pre-dinner reception doing TV interviews and resting in a separate room.
Windfall for Her Causes
Formality notwithstanding, the evening was a windfall for Child's pet causes. Paul Barrett, immediate past chairman of the culinary professionals foundation, said the group had done a similar, less coordinated benefit for Child's 85th birthday, and had approached her again last year for permission to capitalize on this milestone. Barrett estimated that Thursday's parties would generate more than $100,000 for the foundation, of which Child is a founding trustee.
"It's amazing, but Julia always has this energy," he said. "She's very involved, and so much more than a name on the stationery. This is the biggest thing I think we've ever done."
In an interview, Child shrugged off the praise, insisting that "they'll take anything that is an opportunity for a fund-raiser." Nor was the woman who once credited her longevity to "red meat and gin" particularly sentimental about turning 90: "I used to think 30 was terribly old," she joked. "Didn't you?"
She added, however, that she intends to savor this occasion, especially her family party.
"There'll be 18 of us, ranging from 9 to 90," at a spread that is likely to be far simpler than anything this weekend.
"I'd like to have a little fish chowder, then some lobster, I think; it's so good up there," she said, her mouth lingering, Julia Child-like, over the words, "good" and "chowder" and "lobster."
"And for dessert," she went on, "whatever is nice and fresh. If the peaches are still in at that point, I'd love them--or some beautiful, fresh, sweet strawberries! And fresh peas in the pod--I love them! Though I do love a nice big chocolate cake...."