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The raw Julia, prickly and tart

Iknow -- I really do -- that fine acting is not mimicry. But because films, especially biopics, shape reality -- often become reality -- I feel compelled to share my Julia Child story before Oscar night, when we will all once again watch clips of Meryl Streep’s effusive portrayal of her in “Julie & Julia.” It so happens that I interviewed the real Julia in her prime and saw a side of her that the moviegoing public would barely recognize.

It was 1973, during a nationwide meat boycott that was triggered not -- as it might be today -- by indignation about crowded feedlots or inhumane cattle slaughtering but by matters of the pocketbook. The price of meat had risen so high that many angry Americans decided to go for an entire week, give or take, without meat. A spotty boycott of a few days was not, it is fair to say, a well-thought-through economic strategy. But it is why I happened to meet Julia Child.

Who better to advise the public about meatless meals than Julia? She was an established celebrity, PBS’ famed “The French Chef.” She was a respected cookbook author, an expert in all things edible.

One morning, when I was a beginning reporter at the New York Post, I got a call from a friend at Channel 13, New York’s PBS affiliate, tipping me to Child’s appearance later that day on the station’s local news show. If I got over there, maybe I could persuade her to give me an interview.

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And so I did. After watching Child teach America how to make a zucchini omelet, I waylaid her as she left the set, and she agreed to talk to me during the cab ride from the TV station to her hotel. Our chat -- well, her monologue -- went so well that the interview continued in the hotel lobby. She was on a roll, a most insistent, garrulous roll.

The great Julia was unapologetically candid, direct, short-tempered to the point of being sour, and she didn’t hide it, not one bit. Then 60, she let loose with her opinions of the meat boycott, of American cooks and kitchens and of the typical American diet, and they were not, let us say, admiring. The problem was not meat, she snapped. “The problem is laziness!”

The Julia Child I met that afternoon was no study in joie de vivre. She was not Streep’s exuberant, bubbling-over Julia, unfazed by every slip in the kitchen, gamely chopping a mountain of onions to master her technique or cheerfully marching into a snooty French cooking class determined, merci bien, to out-souffle every man in the place.

No, this was a serious Julia, an annoyed Julia, an impatient, stern, dyspeptic Julia. That aspect of Child was only hinted at in the film, most pointedly when it revealed that she was not charmed by Julie Powell, whose blog about cooking every single recipe in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” led to the film and makes up the movie’s parallel story.

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The Julia Child of 1973 thought the boycott was silly, superficial and bound to be ineffective. What, she asked, was avoiding meat for a week supposed to accomplish? She was having none of it, and she said so with no hesitation, no mitigating on-the-other-hands, no apologetic, please-forgive-me smiles.

“All people have to do is prepare a budget, stick to it and learn how to cook,” she proclaimed in that imperious voice of hers. “We have a whole generation of people who can’t do anything but cook pork chops, lamb or steak.”

What’s wrong, she asked, with beans and lentils, even when there is no gimmicky boycott? “If people really wanted to bring down prices, they should buy cheaper cuts of meat, learn to buy other things or use less meat and mix it with vegetables or pasta. The meat goes farther that way.”

Julia brooked no excuses. “You know, you hear people say, ‘I don’t have time to cook, I have so much to do with my job and my children.’ But if you enjoy cooking and know what you are doing, it’s no chore. You can easily prepare a meal in less than a half-hour.”

This woman was all business. She was brusque and direct, with no discernible interest in charming me or my readers.

An aberrant day? I doubt it. I think that the woman I saw was as genuinely Julia as Streep’s version; perhaps more so. Let’s not forget that long before she was the French Chef, she graduated from Smith College -- in 1934, when, as she put it, “women had to be either nurses or teachers.” She worked as a copywriter after college and with the OSS during World War II; once, after landing a job in advertising and public relations, she managed to be fired for insubordination -- rightfully so, she always said.

She never hid her likes and dislikes, readily confessing to Jacques Pépin that she hated grilled vegetables because they are “burnt and raw at the same time,” and proclaiming her impatience with the mere notion of a low-fat diet and dismissing steaks that are not amply marbleized and aged: “Not worth eating,” she said. Not exactly the meat boycott type.

I loved her unorthodoxy and the whole experience of interviewing -- that is listening to -- her. I got an exclusive, and, more important, I had met Julia Child!

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And I even got a really great omelet recipe out of my assignment. (Don’t ask me amounts, but here’s what you do: Clean and slice fresh, unpeeled zucchini into thin disks; saute in butter until translucent; set aside in a bowl. In another bowl, whisk the eggs; mix in milk, salt, pepper and tarragon; fold in the zucchini; add more butter to the pan if necessary; pour in the egg mixture; top with a lot of shredded Swiss cheese; cook over a medium-low heat until the eggs are firm but moist and the cheese melts.)

I make that omelet to this day, though forgive the heresy, I use olive oil instead of butter and less cheese than Julia recommended. She would not approve. And I know she would tell me so, without so much as a smile.

Joyce Purnick, a former New York Times writer and editor, is the author of “Mike Bloomberg: Money, Power, Politics.”


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