“Bon Appétit!” Who doesn’t smile at the exuberantly chirpy voice of Julia Child, one of America’s most beloved food personalities, author of numerous bestselling books and host of Emmy and Peabody Award-winning TV shows from the 1960s into the 1990s.
But Julia’s legacy endures for other reasons. She resonated because she made us feel at home in her kitchen and more comfortable in our own. Julia was not a professionally trained chef; she was a passionate cook who enrolled in culinary school while living in France as a diplomat’s wife. It was there where she fell in love with her adopted country’s cuisine. She became a teacher eager to share her love of French food. Her lesson was simple: enjoy food and cook with pleasure!
On the page, her first book “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, co-authored with cooking colleagues, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The book is considered a masterpiece because it demystified French cooking, thanks to the authors’ carefully tested recipes and detailed explanations. On the screen, we loved watching her prepare dishes in her singsong voice, casually brush off any “goof-ups” with glee, and hearing her cheerful exclamations of “Bon Appétit!” She made cooking both educating and entertaining long before there was a Food Network.
While working as Director of The James Beard Foundation Awards, I was fortunate enough to have several personal encounters with Julia. I admired her ease dealing with adoring fans who’d approach her. She was unpretentious and always curious. At events she’d stop at a chef’s table, taste the dish, and ask them numerous questions, listening attentively. In May 2005 after her death, we dedicated the JBF Awards to Julia. The stage that night was designed as Julia’s kitchen with a pale green pegboard hung with copper pots and pans as the backdrop.
In honor of what would have been her 106th birthday on August 15th this year, I asked a few people close to Julia Child to share their recollections. All the memories naturally involve food, because everything truly started and ended in Julia’s kitchen.
Alex Prud’homme, Child’s grandnephew and co-author of her memoir, “My Life in France,” and author of its biographic sequel, “The French Chef in America” says, “Julia was always tinkering in the kitchen, whether in Cambridge, Santa Barbara, Maine, or France, so the house usually smelled good. She made plenty of mistakes but didn’t let it bother her, except for the Tarte Tatin that turned to mush, which she blamed on the grocer selling her “the wrong apples,” as if they had conspired against her. Apples are tricky to cook with and caused her a lot of heartbreak. She was still mad about that tarte years later, but when you use the right apples, it all turns out right. Tarte Tatin is one of my favorite desserts (my wife Sarah has mastered it). It always brings a smile to my face, and reminds me of J.C.”
Julia’s long friendship and collaboration with Jacques Pépin resulted in the Emmy Award-winning “Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home” television series (and companion book). The two first met in New York 1961 when Pépin had recently arrived from France, where he’d served as the chef for Prime Minister Charles de Gaulle. Julia was on her book tour promoting “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” They were both still unknown to Americans, but over the years that changed dramatically, and they both became well-respected and wildly successful.
Pépin, now a robust 83, said in a phone call, “Julia thought you should enjoy eating as much as cooking. She used to say, ’If you don’t eat it with gusto and happiness, you are missing out.’ When my wife Gloria and I would visit Julia and Paul (her husband) at their home in Cambridge, we always ate in her kitchen. There was a big oilcloth over the table usually covered with crumbs. She would just casually brush the crumbs onto the floor. We’d usually start the meal with an aperitif, usually what they referred to as a “reverse martini” which had Vermouth, slices of lemon and orange and a dash of gin- always gin – a real martini!”
Geoffrey Drummond was Executive Producer of “Julia & Jacques: Cooking at Home,” “In Julia’s Kitchen,” and “Baking with Julia.” He’s currently Executive Producer and Director of “Avec ͐Éric” with Chef Éric Ripert, now on Netflix. He says of Julia and Jacques, “They were an amazing team! – a very special pair – Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers at the stove.”
He was also quick to point out that their camaraderie on the television set had many comedic moments. “Julia did love surprising people, mostly with her quick wit and biting humor. When she tasted Jacques Pépin’s sautéed spinach during a taping, she said ‘Jack’, (she liked to call him Jack because he liked to say that he was from Connecticut, not France) ‘this spinach tastes tough.’ Jacques tasted and smiling, said, ‘No, it tastes fine to me.’ Julia instantly came back with, ‘Well, you must have sharper teeth!’”
Sara Moulton served as Executive Associate Chef for “Julia Child & More Company” (PBS). Later, as Executive Chef for ABC’s “Good Morning America,” Moulton worked with Julia on her regular cooking segments. She recalled the detail that went into preparing for one of Julia’s TV shoots:
“It was the early days of public television. When shooting a segment for the show I worked on, “Julia Child and More Company,” we had to make three back-ups for every step of every recipe. So, for the onion soup show, we spent hours slicing mounds of onions to be able to show them raw, cooked to stage one, cooked to stage two and finished in the soup. We laid out all the trays of prepped food carefully on the counter behind Julia. Julia starts the segment holding up a French baguette in one hand and a [store-bought] “Wonder Bread-style” [baguette] in the other. The fake baguette flopped over. She looked at the one that wasn’t the real deal and said, ‘This is disgusting!” Then she tossed it like a boomerang behind her back. Fortunately, the loaf sailed over all those carefully prepped trays of onions without disturbing all our hard work and wrapped itself around a bottle of red wine in the corner. She was impulsive that way.”
Julia was not a fan of low-fat diets or vegetarians either. “She loved butter and real fat,” said Moulton. “Sitting with her at a culinary conference in Philadelphia one year, we listened to the speaker lecture on the evils of fat. After concluding, the speaker asked if there were any questions. Julia raised her hand and asked, ‘What is so terribly wrong with butter? I just love butter!’”
One of the greatest lessons Julia Child taught was to cook boldly and be comfortable making mistakes. Tall and lanky herself, she towered over her stove. “She could be a bit klutzy in the kitchen,” Moulton noted. “She made mistakes and acknowledged them. After a while, she started making mistakes to reassure her audience that it was okay. You don’t have to strive for perfection. After all, there is almost nothing you can’t fix. If your soufflé falls, just call it pudding cake. One of my favorite Julia Child quotes which hangs in my kitchen is, ‘Never apologize. Never explain.’”
Julia was active well into her eighties. After her beloved husband of forty-eight years, Paul Child, passed away in 1994, she spent her final years enjoying her home in Montecito, California. She donated the contents of her Cambridge kitchen to the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. Entitled Bon Appétit! Julia Child’s Kitchen, visitors can view the exact kitchen and watch video clips of her shows and colleagues sharing memories.
In 1995, she established The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts. The non-profit organization continues Julia’s legacy to educate and encourage others to live well through joys of cooking, eating, and drinking.
Foundation Chairman Eric Spivey shares the same birthday as Julia. “One of my favorite birthdays was spent with Julia at our Santa Barbara area beach home, drinking incredible older vintage wines made by our mutual dear friend Richard Sanford,” he remembers. The ocean air, local farmers market produce, and Santa Rita Pinot Noir, combined with lively conversation and a beautiful sunset, were all reasons why Julia chose Montecito as her final home.”
On August 15, 2004, friends gathered for a final “Bon Appétit” to Julia. Geoffrey Drummond reminisced, “Julia taught us to hold wine glasses low on the stem when we clinked them together – not, as many people think, to raise the temperature of the wine, but to share in the music of the clinking glasses. I’ll always remember the gathering of Julia’s friends and family who had come to Santa Barbara to celebrate what would have been Julia’s 92nd birthday August 15th and did, in fact, celebrate Julia two days after she died. Everyone to a person held their glasses low down on the stem – all had learned their lesson well – and toasted Julia with tears and smiles.”
Julia lived her life with zest and shared it with others. That’s what kept her eternally young in spirit and keeps her forever in our hearts. Among my many favorite Julia quotes is this one: “Life itself is the proper binge!” It is with this thought in mind that each year on August 15th, we toast, eat, and wish Julia “Happy Birthday!”