What Julia really taught us
Since her death last Friday, everyone has been talking about how Julia Child taught America to cook. But that was not the greatest of her gifts. For those who had the privilege of knowing Julia, her life was a grand lesson in how to live.
In the end, the pleasures of souffles, omelets and even boeuf bourguignon are fleeting. But character is eternal, and it’s those lessons that keep coming back to me, the ones she taught without ever trying to.
Character is an old-fashioned word and Julia lived it the old-fashioned way -- not skin-deep but straight to the bone. There was no subterfuge with her, no subtle shading between the public and private personas. The woman you saw wielding a cleaver on television was the same person when she was sitting with you on her patio eating lunch.
Like many people in the food world, I had a friendly acquaintance with her for years. We would bump into each other at conferences or dinners and make polite conversation. When she moved back to California four years ago, I began to spend more time with her. If I was heading north, I’d stop in at Montecito for lunch. A couple of times a year, my wife and I would go up for the weekend and take her to dinner at someplace like Sage & Onion or the Wine Cask. Or we’d just bring something. I remember taking up a poached salmon and a bottle of Champagne. After lunch she gave us a tour of her retirement community -- me pushing her wheelchair, Julia waving to her friends with a Champagne flute held aloft.
It is tempting to say she took her work seriously without taking herself seriously. That does get one aspect of her charm right, but it misses the greater point by implying that there was a difference between the two. She was of that rock-ribbed, old New England stock that believes you are what you do.
Julia had remarkable integrity. She never allowed her name to be used to promote a product, despite the blandishments of hundreds of advertisers. She refused to blurb the books of even her closest friends. After a dim sum lunch in Chinatown several years ago, the entire staff came out of the kitchen to take pictures. She happily complied, but with the understanding, “only if they’re not used for any kind of publicity.”
She had a sense of humor about herself -- she appreciated Dan Aykroyd’s sendup on “Saturday Night Live.” But she found it infuriating when people repeated the familiar folk tale about her dropping food on the floor and putting it back on the platter (“Remember, you’re all alone in the kitchen and no one can see you,” she supposedly said). She insisted it had never happened and would challenge anyone to produce the tape. Fun was fun, but no professional would ever do such a thing.
Julia’s energy was phenomenal, even in her later years. I remember sitting down to breakfast with her at a food conference. It was one of those events where every minute is jam-packed with classes, tours and tastings. After two days, I’d had enough and was making no bones about it. Today, I told her, I’m going for a walk and then I’m taking a nap.
What were her plans? Her long-suffering assistant Stephanie Hersh rolled her eyes. “Well,” Julia started, “first we’re going to go see this goat cheese maker I’ve heard so much about. Then there’s a farmer who’s growing all of these different herbs. And there’s a winemaker I haven’t talked to in ages. I’ll stop by there. I’m still not sure what I’ll do after lunch, though.”
She was always learning. At seminars, she could usually be found right down in front, taking notes. Afterward, she’d be eager to talk about what she’d heard. Indeed, sitting down for a chat with her could be a little like sitting for a final exam. Idle conversation held little interest (although she was a passionate collector of gossip ... for true devotees, there is a difference).
Julia always had questions, and they were usually quite pointed. This could be a bit disconcerting. She had no truck with anyone who stood between her and a good meal, be it dietitians warning against the consumption of fat, or well-meaning chefs bragging about the purity of their (tasteless) organic produce.
“But is it any good?” she would ask.
That last was an almost constant refrain. Julia had her opinions and she spoke them frankly (although never cruelly). She could dissect a meal with the most acute judgment, but she always took pains to spare the feelings of the cook.
One of my favorite Julia-isms was the phrase she’d use after a particularly bad meal. When the nervous chef came to the table to ask how dinner had been, she’d smile and respond, “I’m so glad to be here.” The chef would go away relieved, with a story to tell his grandchildren. Only her companions understood that what she really meant was more like: “I am sure there must be places even worse.”
When it came to talking about herself, though, she could be disarmingly blunt. Right after she moved into her “little pad” in a nice retirement community in Montecito, my wife and I picked her up for dinner. She gave us a quick tour and we complimented her on how comfortable her new home seemed. “Yes, it’s very nice,” she said. “But you know, it’s one of those places they carry you out feet first.”
And if she knew you, she could have a dry way with a needle. I remember being in the throes of rewriting a book and complaining to her about the endless hours at the computer, cutting and pasting, deleting and moving. “Yes, it is always hard,” she replied. “I remember when I was rewriting ‘Mastering’ and I had to go over every page on a manual typewriter and do it all in triplicate.”
No complaining around Julia, would I never learn?
Though at 91, death is never really a shock, I had kind of convinced myself that Julia would be around forever. She had had rough patches before and had bounced back from the brink so many times.
But this time it’s final: She’s really gone and we’re still here, still with so much left to learn and no one to take her place. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
Russ Parsons can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.