Julia's Joy of Cooking

America's first celebrity chef found pleasure and fame in the kitchen

August 14, 2004|By Rob Kasper | Rob Kasper,SUN COLUMNIST

She was lively and engaging with a high, almost comical voice, a trill imitated everywhere from Sesame Street to The Prairie Home Companion.

Yet bubbling through every encounter I had with Julia Child, who died Thursday at the age of 91, was her credo that cooking mattered, that cooking was not only worth it, but fun.

I interviewed Julia Child many times during the past 20 years. Most food writers in America did. She was easy to talk to. She had something to say. She read a lot more than cookbooks. Instead of a personage, you got a person.

FOR THE RECORD - A Saturday front-page article on the death of Julia Child and an appreciation in the Today section incorrectly reported when Child died. It was early Friday morning, according to family members.
The Sun regrets the errors.

She was, for example, an Elvis fan. I learned that at a Washington gala in 1992 celebrating Julia's birthday. Her assistant, Stephanie Hersh, told me that when Julia visited Memphis, Tenn., she cut a scheduled tour of an art museum to visit Graceland, the home of Elvis. Upon arriving at Graceland, Hersh recounted, Julia told a nervous tour guide to relax and show them "all the tacky stuff." And when Julia bought souvenir T-shirts, Elvis fans surrounded her, asking her to sign their copies of the Graceland cookbook. She gladly obliged.

The night before the birthday bash, I listened to Julia talk about politics. She predicted, correctly as it turned out, that that young man from Arkansas, Bill Clinton, would be the next president of the United States.

Another night, after a fancy fund-raiser for the American Institute of Wine and Food, a nonprofit organization founded by Julia, I happened to walk with her as she headed to her hotel room. After dining on fine fare, such as risotto with porcini mushrooms, Julia talked about hamburgers. She made hers, she told me, by tossing a tablespoon of sour cream, a pinch of thyme and teaspoons of grated onion into the raw meat of each patty.

She was not afraid to make a mess or make mistakes in the kitchen, a fact that her comic imitators seized on, sometimes depicting her chasing a live chicken around the kitchen. She laughed them off.

"Of course, you are going to make mistakes in cooking," she told me in a brief conversation a few years ago. "What is important is how you recover."

While she had little pretense, she also was media savvy. Two summers ago, for instance, I watched as television crews gathered at her reconstructed kitchen in the west wing of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History, and she happily obliged requests to repeat her signature "Bon appetit" wave for network crews.

For decades, she used the media to help deliver her message. Over and over again, she said that gastronomy was as important to leading a full life as art, medicine and the law. Most chefs had discovered this happy fact, she said, but the rest of the world had been slow to recognize this truth.

On the domestic front, she repeatedly said that the kitchen was the heart of the home, a room that should be filled with aromas and conversations.

While she never seemed shrill, she did have some bones to pick with theories of nutrition she regarded as narrow and alarmist. Rather than being an evil ingredient, fat, she said, played a valuable role in cooking, delivering pleasing flavors. Julia often worried aloud that new, lean breeds of cattle and hogs lacked taste. She also had little patience with groups that pushed what she called "fear of food," disproportional worries about the safety of the food supply.

The problem with the American diet, she felt, was not that people were cooking the wrong foods in the kitchen. Rather, it was that we were not spending enough time in the kitchen making home-cooked meals.

She knew, of course, that many people nowadays have said they didn't have enough time to cook. But she also knew that Americans tended to carve out time in our busy schedules for activities we enjoyed.

So that was her approach, making cooking a joy, not a burden, making the process of cleaving a chicken almost as much fun as eating the delicious, sizzling bird.

The last time I saw her, at the Smithsonian event two years ago, she was weaker physically, but still sharp mentally. She had become something of a cultural icon and had encountered plenty of fawning behavior. Fans gushed that they were grateful just to be in her presence. She was gracious when she heard such comments, but it seemed to me that what Julia preferred was less gushing and more peeling of potatoes.

When asked that day to name the favorite room in her house, she did not hesitate. It was the kitchen.

"When we had people over for dinner," she said, "the kitchen was the place where guests could sit and have a glass of wine, and I could finish the cooking and not miss any of the conversation."

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