Staging a palate coup

Food: Culinary grand dame Julia Child gives an Old Bay-covered thumb's up to crabs cooked the Maryland way.

July 19, 1999|By Suzanne Loudermilk | Suzanne Loudermilk,SUN FOOD EDITOR

For three days, Baltimore's best chefs served up their most elegant dishes, hoping to please the formidable palate of visiting culinary legend Julia Child. They offered chilled soups, expensive truffles and racks of lamb, and Child was gracious in her compliments.

Yesterday, though, the last of her four-day visit here, they rolled out the heavy -- and decidedly inelegant -- artillery: Maryland steamed crabs, and clearly won her over.

Child tackled her first spicy crustaceans ever at an outdoor party in Kingsville, adapting quickly to the messy fun. In her 86 years, Child, who can debone and fillet with the best of them, had never cracked a crab the Maryland way.

With mallet in hand, Old Bay on her fingers and advice from companions, she attacked her 10-legged opponents with gusto, pulling off claws and digging out snowy-white mounds of back fin like a true local.

"I've been waiting for these crabs," she said, relishing the sweet crab-meat reward. "They're absolutely marvelous. I hope to have them again."

The crab feast was the culmination of a visit that brought Child to Baltimore for a national board meeting of the American Institute of Wine and Food. Child and 30 other out-of-town guests were invited to the Baltimore County home of restaurant consultant Diane Feffer Neas for the "quintessential Maryland experience," Neas said.

Paper towels, plastic cups and picnic tables replaced the crisp linens and fine cutlery of previous days. Guests spent the afternoon devouring fried chicken, oyster fritters, corn on the cob, home-grown tomatoes, Eastern Shore cantaloupe and the weighty crabs.

Child began her seemingly non-stop eating fest in Baltimore on Thursday with lunch at Charleston in the East Harbor area, where chef-owner Cindy Wolf wowed her guest with dishes Child described as a "potato pancake with beautiful caviar, a cup of avocado and cucumber soup, and delicious sweetbreads."

On Saturday, the staff of Corks in Federal Hill honored her with a crown of wine corks and a six-course tasting menu that included yellowfin tuna tartare with lime aioli and Muscovy duck breast.

But the main event was the Friday night dinner at the Belvedere Hotel on Chase Street, where award-winning chef Allen Susser of Aventura, Fla., orchestrated an impressive menu prepared by several local chefs. The chefs were as in awe of the honoree as the 170 guests, who paid $99 a person to have foie gras, New Zealand lamb and champagne with Child.

"This is going to be pretty incredible," said Jerry Pellegrino of Corks as he prepared dozens of racks of lamb before the dinner. "There's definitely excitement. I grew up watching her and watching Dan Aykroyd imitate her."

Yes, Child still has that distinctive Julia voice: high-pitched and trilling. It hasn't weakened even as her 87th birthday approaches on Aug. 15. And she's still immediately recognizable, although her 6-foot-2-inch frame is slightly stooped now by age.

As she and assistant Stephanie Hersh took a short walk along Broadway in Fells Point on Thursday, passers-by and shopkeepers called out greetings. A gracious Child, carefully using a cane to bolster aching legs, nodded hello as she peeked into the funky stores and restaurants surrounding the Admiral Fell Inn where she stayed.

"It's a charming place," Child said. "There are lots of nooks and crannies."

At the Friday dinner -- as caviar on fingerling potatoes and delicate shiitake and goat cheese strudel were passed on silver trays -- Child propped herself in a chair to talk to star-struck fans, many of whom were excited to see the woman who brought French cooking into American kitchens by way of TV and cookbooks.

"I thought it would be thrilling to see her," said Carol Cohen of Laurel, attending the event with her husband, Bernie, as a fifth-anniversary present to each other. "We watch Julia [on TV] every weekend."

Child has no plans to slow down, she says. She and renowned chef Jacques Pepin have a cookbook and TV series debuting in the fall. And she is very much involved in the wine and food institute, which she founded with vintners Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff in 1981 to promote a better understanding of food and wine.

One of the group's goals is to teach children about food. "We want to get young people interested in food, so they don't think it's all pizza and hot dogs," Child said.

As a gourmand who acknowledges she is a carnivore, Child believes that moderation is the key to good eating. "You're not supposed to eat 2 pounds of steak," she said, incredulously. "We'd be better off eating small amounts of well-marbled, aged beef."

Child, who didn't start cooking until she was in her 30s, credits her success to her early days on TV in the 1960s. "I'm not life-threatening," she says. "People think, `If she can do it, I certainly can do it.' "

Mary Grande of Sykesville, who attended the dinner at the Belvedere, agrees. "She has been the cooking angel on my shoulder since the '70s," she said. "I've got most of her books."

Allen Susser told the guests seated in the hotel's stately Charles Room that he wasn't worried about preparing food for Child, despite her grand dame culinary status. "She is a wonderful guest," he said. "She'll eat whatever you cook for her."

By the cheese course, Child was raving about the food. "It is delicious," she said, picking up a tiny wedge of Stilton. "It wasn't a fussy meal."

At the end of dinner, Susser's chef's jacket was auctioned off (to benefit the wine and food institute) in a spirited bidding contest that ended after Harriet Dopkin of Classic Catering People offered $1,200. Both Susser and Child signed the white coat, which Dopkin plans to frame.

"Julia has been my hero as long as I can remember," she said. "It felt right."

Child's other fans also weren't disappointed in the evening. "It was an honor to be here," said Larry Bershtein of Bethesda, whose mother treated him to the event as an early birthday gift. "She's a celebrity to all of us. She's a food goddess."

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