Today would have been Julia Child's 100th birthday. The culinary queen passed away in 2004, before she (and Meryl Streep) captured yet another generation of fans through the film, "Julie and Julia" in 2009.
I'm reminded of the phone interview I did when she was approaching her 90th birthday, and her parting words to me, "Cooking is really perfectly easy; it's been done for thousands of years. If you love to eat, you will be a great cook."
I had taken the day off from my job as food editor at the Deseret News, and was in the middle of organizing my cupboards when my editor, Chris Hicks, called. Julia Child's "handlers" were trying to get in touch. She was giving interviews in connection with her 90th birthday celebration, and had the next half hour free to talk. It was unlikely my chance would come again.
I grabbed a pen and notebook and dialed the number. When a deep, warble-y voice on the other end said, "Hello," I introduced myself and started to ask for Mrs. Child.
"Oh, yes, they said you'd be calling me," the voice answered.
"Oh, you're Julia Child? You answer your own telephone?" I blurted out.
"Yes, don't you answer your own telephone?" she asked.
"Yes, but I'm not Julia Child," I answered.
Having committed that gaffe, I quickly told her I saw her kitchen at the Smithsonian. (She donated the contents of her famous Cambridge, Mass. kitchen to the museum when she moved to Santa Barbara.)
"Oh, how were they coming with it?" she asked. "They were so persnickety about having to write down every little toothpick and all. I just left everything as it was."
"I miss the size of that kitchen," she said. "I have a very small and compact kitchen where I am now, in Santa Barbara. It's beautiful and very well-designed. But only two people can be in it at once."
Her Santa Barbara kitchen contained a quick-cooking Advantium oven that used halogen lights. "It's one of those modern things where you can't tell it; it tells you," she said.
You may not be able to picture the queen of roast duck and souffles using a microwave. But, she found it convenient. "When I'm home by myself, I can bake a potato in three minutes," she said.
We chatted about some of the kitchen innovations she had seen in her lifetime, such as the food processor. "I couldn't live without a food processor. When you're making mushroom duxelles, it would take you an hour to chop all the mushrooms if you had to do it by hand. It's amazing."
What about those who say they have no time to cook? Well, good cooking doesn't have to be fancy and complicated, it's more about using good, fresh ingredients carefully, she said. Once you learn to do it right, it becomes easier. "You can learn to do things like chopping and slicing very quickly. The more you learn, the quicker you are, and soon you don't even have to think to be able to do it."
She could have been talking about herself, since she didn't learn to cook until after she married.
Her wealthy California family had a hired cook, and the 6'2" Julia McWilliams was more interested in playing tennis and basketball. After graduating from Smith College, she worked in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and was stationed in Ceylon (now the country of Sri Lanka). It was there that she met Paul Child, also in the OSS.
At age of 34, Julia began learning to cook for her new husband, a sophisticated gourmet. "I went into it seriously with Gourmet magazine and 'Joy of Cooking' as my guides," she said. "It took hours to get dinner on the table, but he was encouraging."
When Paul took a job at the American embassy in Paris, she enrolled in France's prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school. She later opened her own cooking school, with two Frenchwomen who also loved cooking — Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. They called their school "L'Ecole des 3 Gourmandes" (translation: "School of the Three Happy Eaters") and collaborated on a French cookbook for Americans. They tried to de-mystify French cooking with step-by-step, detailed instructions — including eight pages for a one-egg omelette.
The Anne Frank connection: Child's cookbook was rejected by several publishers before Judith Jones, a young editor at Alfred E. Knopf, helped her hone it into a user-friendly tome. Jones had a knack for picking winners; she also saved "The Diary of Anne Frank" from the rejection pile.
A few years ago I met Jones, now in her 80s and a senior editor at Knopf. She regaled the Association of Food Journalists with stories from her own memoirs, "The Tenth Muse" (Anchor Books, $14.95, paperback), which would also make a great foodie movie.
When "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was finally published in 1961, the timing was perfect; the Kennedys had hired a French chef for the White House, Americans were doing a lot of traveling to Europe, and French food was considered the height of chic and sophistication.
She and Beck embarked on a do-it-yourself cross-country book tour to "drum up some sales." as Julia told it. They went to ladies' clubs, where they cooked things like omelets, Roquefort quiche and fish mousse on a portable stove. Then, while Julia and Simone signed books, Paul washed the dishes, sometimes in a restroom sink or bucket of water if there were no kitchen facilities.
"I often marvel at this valiant and uncomplaining contribution to our cause by a former diplomat and cultural attache," Julia said.
Child appeared on WGBH, Boston's educational television station, and demonstrated how to make an omelet using her copper bowl and whisk. This led to a series, "The French Chef," that earned her the Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966. DVDs of the black-and-white episodes show an unpretentious Child energetically slapping around hunks of raw beef, and pounding butter with a rolling pin to soften it.
Thanks to "Saturday Night Live" and other parodies, the public often assumed Child was a klutz. But if you have a chance to see any of her shows, you realize she was actually very nimble — cracking and opening an egg with one hand without losing any bits of shell in the bowl, or skillfully using a pastry bag.
In truth, her segments were painstakingly scripted and choreographed beforehand, with Paul timing each step with his stopwatch. In her memoirs, "My Life In France," and the recently released biography, "Dearie," by Bob Spitz, it's evident that Paul was an equal partner in her success.
Julia told me French cooking was still her favorite type of cuisine, "Because it's careful cooking by people who know what they're doing. I also love Northern Chinese food. I don't cook it, but I eat it with great pleasure."
You can improve your culinary skills by helping and observing friends who are good cooks, Julia told me. "Jacques Pepin (a chef and friend) said when he first started at a restaurant as a boy, he was helping out doing the chopping and slicing, and he watched what everybody else was doing and how they did it. So when the time came, he was able to step into it, just by being with them and observing."
Cooking classes are a great shortcut to learning, Julia added. "You cook, and then you eat what you've cooked."
In our youth- and looks-obsessed culture, would Julia even had a chance as a cooking show host today? She was in her 50s when her shows began airing, and producers might have overlooked her, lacking the beauty of Sandra Lee, the cool sophistication of Martha Stewart, or the cleavage of Giada deLaurentiis. But her show featured timeless technique and a wealth of knowledge. She came first, and paved the way for everyone else who followed.