When Lu walked into our bedroom in the morning, rubbing the sleep out of her eyes, she came to my side of the bed. After a quick kiss, she picked up the copy of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child sitting on my bedside table. “Can I see pictures of Julia?” she asked.
But of course. She sat between me and Danny as we flipped through the book, seeing photos of her as a child, as a tall and gangly teenager, and in Paris. “Is that Paul?” she asked, pointing. Yes, it is, sweet pea. After talking for a bit, I asked her, “Would you like to see Julia cooking on tv?”
So we went downstairs and put on one of my discs of The French Chef, the one with the salad nicoise episode. We watched the old film images of the farmers’ market in Nice and then Julia bashing garlic and lemon juice together in a glass Pyrex bowl. Lucy watched, for a bit, and then asked for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang instead. (We’ve been on a major obsession with that wonderful weird movie over here.) As we settled in for a few scenes, I held that girl close and sighed with happiness.
Lucy knows about Julia Child from this delightful book, Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat. We’ve been reading it for months, after the author sent us a copy. I particularly love reading this section, from the point of view of the cat: “And day and night she could smell the delicious smells of mayonnaise, hollandaise, cassoulets, cheese souffles, and duck påtés wafting from the pots and pans of her owner, Julia Child.” Lu asks to read this book, again and again. I believe in some part it’s because it seems familiar. We have a lot of smells wafting from pots and pans in this house.
This book makes me happy because I adore introducing one of my heroes to my daughter.
Look, at this point, it’s like a threadbare cliché to say I adore Julia Child. Who doesn’t, right? And after a recent spate of books — my favorites are My Life in France and As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto — it’s hard to believe anyone does not know about Julia Child. She’s a national treasure. Her kitchen is in the Smithsonian, for goodness’ sakes. (And like many before me, I grew impossibly teary standing there, looking at her stove.) In many ways, she began this culture’s interest in good food. I don’t think food blogs would exist without her presence. She was joyful, alive, not afraid of her own mistakes, ceaselessly dedicated to making recipes the best they could be, and deeply in love with her devoted husband. I have friends who have met her who are posting their photos of themselves with Julia Child on Facebook today. I don’t have those photos. I never met her. How much I wish I could have thanked her in person. But I never met her.
And yet, I did.
When I was a kid, just outside of Los Angeles in the 1970s, I watched Julia Child in my den. I don’t know now why I did. My parents liked food but they certainly never made gougeres or zucchini tian. We ate pretty typically for Americans at the time. But we loved films and big personalities and television. Somehow I found her on television and I was instantly transfixed. There was something mesmerizing about her, particularly for a brunette 10-year-old bookworm with giant glasses in the perfect airbrushed world of southern California. Let’s face it — she was awkward. She was enormously tall, had that warbly patrician voice, and she was already past her Hollywood prime when she started on television. That’s part of why I loved her so. She was real.
But she seemed utterly comfortable in her towering, awkward state. Watch her here with David Letterman in 1987 and listen to her laugh at his antics and razz him. She had a great sense of humor, that one. I’m starting to think that’s the only way to be a great cook. You have to laugh at yourself. So much can go wrong. And even when you are tremendous, and your food sings the praise of the angels, it’s gone and digested in less than 20 minutes. Cooking is a great lesson in ephemerality.
I couldn’t have articulated any of that in the 1970s. I’m barely able to articulate it now. But somehow, I knew then that Julia Child was at home in herself. That’s a good place to be.
(I laughed for ten minutes when I read that Julia Child did an ace imitation of Dan Ackroyd imitating her on Saturday Night Live. What it must have been like to see that!)
All I know is that my sitting here, typing, thinking about food and sharing it with you? In so many ways, it began with watching Julia Child on my dinky tv in that den. I remember going to the kitchen one afternoon, making myself a grilled cheese sandwich, and talking the entire process out loud to an imagined audience. My words went out the window as I turned the browned bread on the black electric griddle.
I suppose, in a way, I’ve been doing that ever since.
I could write for hours about Julia Child and not be done. I won’t. I’ll stop. Mine is one small voice in the joyful chorus of those singing Happy Birthday! to someone who would have been 100 today. I’m guessing she would have loved this.
All I know is that I love that my daughter knows Julia Child by sight, that she’ll be watching the same cooking segments I watched as a child, that we’ll move to the kitchen together afterward and cook.
That’s all Julia wanted, in the end — for all of us to cook. And that’s exactly what I’m going to keep doing.