Written and © copyright by Dave McIntyre
August 2004 Au Revoir, Julia!
Julia Child, who died this month a few days shy of her 92nd birthday, was an inspiration to all of us who care about food and wine, whether we realize it or not. She was a guiding light to millions of Americans who, through her cheerful teaching, discovered the joys of food. Those of us who have never read her books, watched her television shows, or followed her recipes in our kitchens (are there really any who fit this description?) have still benefited from her influence on two generations of chefs who fell under her spell.
She reportedly chafed when strangers called her "Julia," preferring to be called "Mrs. Child." Yet for millions she was part of the family, a kindred spirit and helping hand, a high-pitched voice in the subconscious guiding us at the stove. She was "Julia," a first-name pop-culture icon like Coke, or Elvis.
Even so, Julia's gospel ran counter to so much of our pop culture. She was not afflicted by our obsession with body weight - on at least one of her programs she dismissed dieters as "thems who likes rabbit food." She was an unabashed chocoholic and butter-lover, unwilling to give up the pleasures of the palate for a trendy fad diet. "Everything in moderation," was her motto.
For Julia, cooking was not a chore, it was a joy. Watching her, one could sense the therapeutic value in boning a duck or flipping a crepe, and there was always the suspicion that she was sneaking a nip or two of the vermouth when the camera wasn't looking.
The tributes to Julia published in newspapers or aired on TV following her death on August 13 emphasized her groundbreaking work as co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 and her cooking shows that began two years later on Boston's public television station. We saw the familiar clips of her pounding dough with a rolling pin, tickling raw chickens, and flipping omelets, or something, out of the pan and onto the stove. "Oh, that didn't go so well," she said.
Yet when it came to the three television series Julia did in the 1990s, the tributes were for some strange reason dismissive. PBS' "American Masters" hailed them as a sign of her octogenarian energy and her savvy in keeping her name before the public, but diminished in a sense because she could no longer carry a show on her own. But these series and their accompanying books - Cooking with Master Chefs, In Julia's Kitchen with Master Chefs, and Baking with Julia - were in a sense her own tributes to herself. In these series and books Julia shined a spotlight on regional talents and helped make them national stars. These were American chefs, not "The French Chef," as she had styled herself, but their prominence served to magnify her influence in creating an American cuisine.
For me, at least, these shows were my first glimpses of Nancy Silverton, Michel Richard, Gordon Hammersly and Jasper White, among others I may have read about but not seen or heard. And I took a regional pride in seeing D.C. stars such as Jean-Louis Palladin (who definitely had a national reputation), Roberta Donna and Patrick Clark parade through Julia's kitchen and onto the national stage.
Even Julia's final series and book, Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home, a collaboration with Jacques Pepin, continued her theme that, "If I can do it, anyone can do it."
Julia's legacy is more than her cookbooks or her kitchen, now lovingly on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. She inspired restaurant chefs - today's culinary stars and food TV celebrities - and home cooks to do more than they would otherwise do at the cutting board or the stove. She was a major force in the current emphasis on the quality of ingredients in cooking, and she championed local producers of foodstuffs, despite her reputation as "The French Chef."
Her name and influence will live on, through the chefs she inspired and those that they, in turn, will inspire, and also through the American Institute of Wine and Food, which she helped create.
I did not know Julia personally, though I was privileged to be in the same room with her on more than one occasion. Two of these were book signings, at which I was appropriately sycophantic. The first was when she spoke at a National Press Club luncheon in early 1993. The entrée was an inedible venison shank. Julia, then 80, spoke after lunch for about a half hour about her life in the OSS in Ceylon, where she met her husband, her discovery of French cuisine in the late 1940s, and her pioneer work in writing cookbooks and creating food TV as we know it.
Inevitably, the first question from the audience was, "How was lunch?" Julia was, as ever, diplomatic.
"I've never had osso buco of venison before," she crooned in that familiar falsetto. "It's a lot tougher than the veal."
A week later, the National Press Club announced the arrival of a new head chef.
I interviewed Julia by phone some time later. I was working for a European news agency, and President and Mrs. Clinton had just hired Walter Scheib as the first American-born White House chef in recent memory. At the time, it was considered a major break with the tradition of having French chefs in the White House kitchen. I arranged to call Julia early on a Monday morning. She was already at work in her kitchen, with pots clanging and food sizzling noisily in the background as we spoke. I tried to coax her to say something broad and expansive about what this news meant for the advent of American cuisine, that we were finally getting out from under the shadow of the French and establishing our own culinary identity.
True to character, Julia would have none of the nonsense.
"They just need someone in there who can cook!" she warbled.
Bon appetit, Julia. You will be missed, though you will be with us always.
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Dave McIntyre is Wine Editor of Foodservice Monthly, a trade publication for the restaurant industry in the mid-Atlantic region. His writings have appeared in Wine Enthusiast, The Washington Post, Washington Life, Capital Style, the newsletters of the American Institute of Wine & Food, Decanter.com, Sidewalk.com and WineToday.com, among other publications. He has appeared on radio on NPR's Kojo Nnamdi Show and on WTOP's "Man About Town" segment. He is a member of the Board of Directors of the National Capital Area Chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food. Dave McIntyre's WineLine is archived on Robin Garr's WineLoversPage.com. E-mail Dave at McIntyreWineLine@yahoo.com.