We knock on the door of Julia Child’s condominium half an hour early. She appears after a minute. “Hello, dearie,” she says and apologizes for being busy. She points us toward the living room. “Here’s the paper. I’ll be out when I’m done with these radio interviews.”
Like the rest of her apartment, the living room is small but comfortable. There’s a dining table just big enough for four tucked in one corner, a couch against one wall and a couple of upholstered chairs. The kitchen is the size of a boat’s galley and the bedroom doubles as her office with a computer and fax machine.
From the bedroom come whispers of the interviews, her famous voice, high-pitched and reedy. Despite the endless attempts, it seems impossible to parody accurately. Imitations invariably only hit the one public note of enthusiastic instruction; in private there is a whole range of moods.
After 45 minutes or so, Child comes trundling out with her walker and plops heavily into a chair. “Those kinds of interviews are so tiresome, don’t you think?” she asks, as if everyone spends their mornings being questioned for national audiences.
“ ‘What’s your favorite restaurant?’ ” she imitates the hapless radio interviewers. “ ‘What’s your funniest kitchen disaster?’ ‘What’s your favorite comfort food?’ ‘What do you want for your last meal on Earth?’ ” At this last, she shakes her head in wonder, both at the gall of someone asking such a question and the intellectual laziness that would prompt it.
“That’s just not very interesting, is it?” she says. Child turns 90 next week, and that is probably the worst thing she can say about anything. The occasion is something of a national celebration. Her actual birthday, Aug. 15, will be spent as part of her treasured annual summer vacation in a big house by the sea in Maine with assorted nieces and nephews and their children.
But first there will have been fund-raising parties in 20 restaurants around the country and parties at Copia in Napa, the Mondavi-backed wine and food museum she is so enthusiastic about. Then after Maine, she’ll head down to Washington, D.C., where an exact replica of her old kitchen will be enshrined in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
In many ways, Julia Child is American food’s Elvis. She not only played a prominent part in popularizing fine cooking in this country, she came to represent it. This is not a role she sought (no one plans to become an icon), but it is one she wears easily. Spend some time with her and you quickly understand that there is little or no separation between the public and private Julias. Wherever she goes, she’s the center of attention--and after 40 years, she’s used to it.
After a dim sum lunch one day in a Los Angeles restaurant, the entire Chinese staff lines up to have pictures taken with her. Tirelessly, leaning on her walker, she takes first a group shot, then individual ones one after another. Her one proviso: “Only if they’re not used for any kind of publicity.” She has never allowed her name to be used to endorse a product of any kind.
Another time at a small informal beach-side restaurant in Santa Barbara, she’s dining with friends when a distinguished looking gentleman of about her vintage sidles up to the table and, awkwardly passes her a note. She opens it up and reads: “My wife and I have been making your cucumber soup for 40 years. Thank you for all the wonderful meals.” She carefully folds it back up without visible reaction. You get the feeling this happens a lot.
Even in the notoriously catty food world, almost no one has a bad thing to say about Child. That some of her recipes may be a bit dated is about the worst. But that’s probably inevitable given that “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” was published 40 years ago and that almost everyone in food today either learned to cook from it or learned to cook from someone who had.
“The thing that is so wonderful about this culinary profession of ours is that it is like a big family,” she says repeatedly. “People love what they’re doing, and they love to share it with other people.”
But don’t mistake her for a goody-two-shoes. She’s fond of a good dirty joke. She loves to gossip. And she occasionally displays a wicked sense of humor.
During World War II she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (doing paperwork mainly; she laughs at the repeated reports that she was a spy). One of her office’s projects was to develop a shark repellent to help airmen downed at sea. But they could get no support from the Navy, she says, because “we couldn’t get the Navy to admit that sharks ate Navy men. They didn’t like to say, ‘Dear Mrs. So-and-So, your son was eaten by a shark. They’d much rather say: ‘Your gallant son was lost at sea.’
“Then one day, a shark was caught and they opened him up and found he had some undigested parts of people in his stomach. One of them still had fingerprints, and it turned out to be a Navy man. There was such glee in our office that they had finally proven a Navy man could be eaten by a shark.”
The last year and a half has been a period of tremendous change for Child. Last fall she closed up the big house in Cambridge, Mass., where she’d lived for more than 40 years. She donated the structure to her alma mater, Smith College, and distributed most of her belongings among her family. The bulk of her cookbook collection went to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard, the kitchen to a grateful nation.
Now she is back home. With her New England twang and close association with Boston, some people might be surprised that Child is actually a Californian. She was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena in 1912 to a well-to-do family that appreciated good food.
“My mother was very interested in setting a good table and she always had a good cook,” Child remembers. “And I was always hungry. I always ate with great pleasure, even if I didn’t know much about it.”
The place she calls her “nice little pad” is a very nice luxury planned community--she resists calling it a retirement home--"I’m not retired, am I?”
Her apartment is comfortable enough, but there is a sense of a life stripped to its essentials. The living room is dominated by two striking paintings by her late husband, Paul: one a fairly representational look down a vertiginous cliff to the ocean in Mendocino, the other a nearly Cubist brightly patterned impression of a village in southern France.
One entire wall in the living room is devoted to a bookcase that seems to be the beating heart of the house. Here, cheek by jowl, is everything from food research (“Uniform Retail Meat Identity Standards Manual” and Harold McGee’s “On Food and Cooking”) to fiction (several Edith Wharton novels, a collection of Colette short stories, mysteries by her favorite authors Linda Fairstein, Sue Grafton and Mary Higgins Clark, and even a “Harry Potter”).
On the table by the couch rests current reading: Nancy Milford’s new biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay and a 2002 almanac.
Here there are gardeners to take care of the flowers on her back patio and a central dining room whose breakfast bacon she praises highly. Most important, there is medical help always available. In the last year and a half, she has had three operations on her back to relieve a pinched nerve that made walking painful. Just last month she was noticeably thin and tired. “The worst part about all of the surgery was I didn’t feel like eating,” she says. “That was terrible.”
But now her appetite has returned and she seems hale and hearty. Her only apparent concessions to age are her walker--which she hopes to shed soon--and a handicapped parking sticker, which she doesn’t (“These things are worth their weight in gold,” she chortles as we pull into a convenient spot in a crowded Montecito parking lot).
She still lives alone, thanks to the care supplied by the complex. During the day her longtime assistant, Stephanie Hersh, who teaches kids’ cooking classes and has her master’s degree in food history from Boston University, comes by to help take care of business.
“At my age, it’s nice that nobody needs to worry about me, including myself,” Child says. “I think people are very foolish and very selfish when they get to be around 80 and they haven’t decided what their final days are going to be. It’s very difficult for the family.
“If you put it off and something happens, you can get dumped. Any of these places, if you can’t come in under your own steam, you can’t come in. They won’t even look at you if you have to be carted in.”
Child doesn’t talk much about her age or mortality. Glooming about is not for her. Yet her grief over her husband’s death in 1994 is palpable still and perhaps a little complicated. He died in a nursing home after five years of declining health.
“It was very difficult to see someone going downhill that way,” she says. Especially, it is pointed out, when she was still doing so well herself. “Exactly, exactly,” she agrees.
“For five years he really didn’t know what was going on. Even so, when he died, it was a real shock--him not being there. It’s so final. It’s a real shame, because he would have loved all of this.”
Later she gently counsels a longtime friend who is thinking about getting married to someone much younger (Paul was a decade older than her): “Marry a woman your own age or older. You don’t want to leave them alone. If Paul had been my age, I’d still have him around.”
Her current project is a book about their years in France during the 1950s. Paul was a talented photographer as well as painter (it’s his photos that illustrate the early editions of Waverly Root’s “Foods of France”) and this will be a combination of pictures and memoir with maybe a few recipes.
“I was talking with my editor about it the other day,” she says, referring to Judith Jones. “I just have to take two or three days a week and shut everything else out, turn off the phone. I’ll get started as soon as I’m done with all of this [birthday celebration].”
At the table, Child is still an enthusiastic and discerning eater. Her appreciation for French food is profound, for other cuisines--with the exception of Chinese--less so. “I must say, I’m not terribly pleased with all the Italian-esque food we’re getting lately,” she says. “I’m not mad about pasta,” pronouncing it in the New England way, past-a.
Wherever she is, she analyzes every dish, cutting quickly to the heart of it. “This is a little thick, don’t you think? I wonder how long it’s been sitting,” she says of a soup one day. On another: “Ground cooked rice is such a wonderfully subtle thickener. It’s a shame people don’t use it more.”
She loves to talk about meals and cooking, wine and cooks, but her appreciation is not limited to haute cuisine. Ask and Julia can tell you the location of every In-N-Out Burger between Santa Barbara and San Francisco.
“I remember having this nephew come to visit and it happened to be a weekend when there were a lot of food people around. As he left, I asked him, ‘Did you ever spend a whole weekend with people who never discussed anything else but food?’ He said, ‘No.’
“But there’s always so much to talk about, isn’t there?”
Though she does cook for herself, she doesn’t do it as often as she used to. The kitchen is tiny. The only oven is a small under-the-cupboard model of one of those new quick-cooking gadgets. After a year and a half, she still hasn’t learned to use it. It is the bane of her existence.
“It’s got [programs] for different dishes,” she says with exasperation. “It tells you what to cook, you don’t tell it. And the book they give you doesn’t tell you much about how it works, either. It tells you how to make something called Hawaiian Chicken, but not a roast chicken. I’m either going to find some way to short-circuit it or I’m going to take it out to the trash.”
It’s not that she’s anti-technology. She is an avid fan of word processors. “You can take something off, transpose it somewhere else, save it somewhere, then present your publisher with a really nice, clean manuscript,” she says. “Oh, it was terrible, before. You’d have to make four or five copies of everything and when you made a mistake you’d have to erase every one.”
And the big Dell computer in the bedroom always seems to be on.
“I love working,” she says. “You don’t have to retire nowadays, do you? I don’t even know what it would mean.”