Happy Birthday, Julia Child!

Lu reading Julia

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.


29 comments on “Happy Birthday, Julia Child!

  1. Sarah

    I have watched The French Chef but never saw this clip on Letterman! Oh my word it was too funny!!!!!!!

  2. Kiki

    I grew up in Boston. My mother is from Mexico. She was asked to cook on a local PBS show. There was a utensil she needed and they couldn’t find it. One of the crew borrowed the utensil (I can’t remember what it was and my mom is asleep so I can’t ask) from Julia Child’s kitchen! They told her to never tell as Ms. Child wouldn’t like it. My mom still giggles about how she got to use something so special. BTW, she did not tell us for more than 20 years.

    1. Kiki

      I just spoke with my mom. It was Julia Child’s hand held mixer. She needed it to beat the egg whites for her chiles rellenos. She is still giggling about it.

  3. Kristin

    Being a children’s book freak, I love the photo of Lu reading. And then, being a Julia Child fan, I loved the post. Thank you.

  4. chaniarts

    what about graham kerr (The Galloping Gourmet)? i remember him from when i was growing up, but not too much about the food that he actually made.

  5. Meghan

    Julia is one of my favorite people, even though she just lives in my heart 🙂

    …and of course we’re on a first-name basis, haha

  6. Stephie @ Eat Your Heart Out

    I love that your little one knows about Julia and asked to see pictures of her! What wonderful memories you are creating. I truly love her because – as much as I enjoy watching today’s cooking shows – there is just something about her unapologetic “mess-ups” that I love. I mean, we all do those things in real life, she just didn’t edit them out for camera! It reminds us untrained cooks that it is ok to be real in our own kitchens. After all…Julia was!

  7. Charlotte

    Just this week I was trying to decide if I would buy that book for our public library. I wanted it but was wondering if anyone would really read it. It makes my heart sing to see Lu turning its pages and now I just have to have it. Enjoy!!!

    1. shauna

      Oh yes please! Do buy it for the library. If we can help influence the purchase of a good book for a library? Well, you just made my day.

  8. Bren

    Oh Shauna – you made me cry with this post! You see, I am at my mother in law’s where food is for sustenance only. Her latest “diet” – she’s very thin already – is to purchase and eat only foods she DOES NOT LIKE. How sad!

    Contrast that with my mother, who we all call “The McGuyver of the Kitchen”. Give her a chicken carcass, some turnips, a can of ginger ale and some potatoes and in 45 minutes there will be a gorgeous meal for six. Why she won’t go on Chopped we can’t understand!

    My mum attributes her love of cooking – and therefor her skill – to watching Julia on PBS in Massachusetts when I was tiny. Some of my fondest, most cherished and most fully ingrained memories are Mum and I sitting on what I remember to be an enormous settee (which I learned was actually a tight loveseat), snuggled together, Mum with a notebook and a pencil, scratching furiously in her perfect penmanship not just the ingredients but the methodology Julia used to achieve her masterpieces. I was always excited because this tiny woman with her tiny kitchen who lived in the TV would sing her funny sounding song for half an hour and then Mum and I would go to the airport sized grocery, buy all these interesting, wonderfully odd smelling flowery things (herbs and veggies, when we could find them), strange packages of colorful “clay” (meat), and return home where Mum would park me at the table with my own tiny implements and “we” would make dinner.

    I CLEARLY remember Mum, when guests would marvel at her creativity and forward thinking, humbly laying credit to “something she saw on TV”, both turning away from obvious praise yet keeping her secret source a secret.

    When I became an adult I wrote an impassioned letter to Mrs. Child, thanking her for all the recipes, information, inspiration, ideas and entertainment, sharing with her that she was one of the reasons I was opening a restaurant. While I was saddened to receive back a form letter from her handlers, I hold onto the dream that she knows how much a part of MY life she was and how her earnest belief that we could ALL be French Chefs changed the complexion of cooks and diners everywhere.

    So Shauna, thank you for this lyrical tale of how now, even in the next and the next and the next generations, this remarkable woman has touched all of us who LOVE good food and aren’t afraid or ashamed to revel in that adoration.

    (BTW – Cannot WAIT for my first Lost Crate!!!!!!)

    1. shauna

      Bren, thank you for this beautiful sharing of your story. I adore it! For a moment, you helped me to see what Lu must see as we talk about food and cook together. Wonderful! (p.s. your mother-in-law’s story, however, breaks my heart.)

      1. Bren

        Yeah, well she’s just a shell of a person (the MIL, that is).

        The wonderful thing about cooking with our kids is that not only do we teach them what tastes good can be good FOR them, but in doing so we show them through a living example that food can serve more than one purpose when treated with respect and honor. Like you and Danny do with Lu – you can’t eat gluten and Daddy is a culinary wunderkind – why CAN’T the two exist in harmony? Et voila – your life! Lu is one lucky little lady indeed!

  9. MikeVFMK

    Love everything about this. And defnitely love Julia and her wit and laugh. That Letterman video was priceless, and Julia just went with the punches. She’s missed. But thankfully we have her videos to keep us company.

  10. Jean | Delightful Repast

    How wonderful that you’re passing the Julia love down to your adorable daughter! I was just a young girl myself when I watched Julia on television with my mother. Julia would have fit right in in my mother’s kitchen. Unfortunately, my mother died before I met Julia; she would have been sooooo impressed. I met her shortly before she moved out of the Cambridge house and then chatted with her at several occasions throughout the final years of her life. Even when she relied on a walker, she projected the most amazing energy and zest for life. Good memories.

  11. Allie James

    Love the photo of Lucy and everything you write. I’m sure Julia Child would be proud of you.

  12. Rachael

    I visited today seeking a recipe for my daughter Julia’s 4th birthday — I was hoping for a berry cobbler, or something EASY since I have, of course, procrastinated. And here below your Julia Child piece is a strawberry cobbler recipe. Kismet comes in big and small packages, doesn’t it?

  13. Carol Andrews

    Charming salute to Julia Child!

    However, I can’t find the promised “Strawberry Cobbler” recipe. I have the two volumes of “Mastering…” and another book of her recipes, but none of them give that recipe.

    Thank you.

  14. Jennifer

    My daughter and your daughter are soul mates.

    We watch Chitty Chitty Bang Bang at least once a week (pretty much any movie with Dick Van Dyke–Bye Bye Birdie being one of the big faves).

    Such a lovely post.

    Thank you for sharing.

Comments are closed