August has always been a transitional month for me, as it is my birth month. Not that there is anything particularly special in that, since it can be assumed that one twelfth of the world’s seven billion inhabitants were also born in August. Still, I am rather attached to my birth month, if for no other reason than late summer is a great time to throw a party.
Therefore, I was particularly delighted to discover hat Julia Child would be celebrating her 100th birthday (posthumously of course) on August 15 of this year. To ward off any potential problems, the Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts, which she created in 1995, issued guidelines for hosting both public and private tribute events. Not the least of which was that the event “remain centered around Julia and the pleasures of the table.”
As it turns out, Julia’s fans really know how to throw a party. Knopf, publisher of her seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (co-authored with friends Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) hosted an eight-day celebration involving over 100 restaurants nationwide, each serving special Julia Child-inspired meals. Who knows how many unofficial and unapproved events also took place around the globe.
I wasn’t a close friend of Julia Child or even much of an acquaintance. I first met her in 1997, at the Food & Wine Classic at Aspen. I found myself standing in front of her after one of her delightfully entertaining seminars. I put out my hand, which she took and shook firmly, and introduced myself. She leaned slightly forward, fixed her piercing blue eyes on mine, and said in a high-pitched tone, “It’s a pleasure to meet you!” A few years later, after seeing her on various occasions, I again found myself standing beside her at an event. I put out my hand to reintroduce myself, which she took, and leaning forward said, “But of course I remember you!”
I have friends who knew Julia much better than I, dined with her occasionally, and even traveled with her on food and wine junkets. From what they tell me, she was gracious, charming, engaged, opinionated, outspoken, and fun to be with almost all of the time. A grand dame of the American twentieth-century cultural landscape, she wore her fame as casually as she would an old sweater.
I recently came across a photo taken of Julia in 1936, when she was 23 years old. She is sitting on a wall outside the family summer home in Saint Malo, California, in a button blouse with short sleeves and a pair of rather short shorts. One arm is thrust out to her side with the hand flat on the wall, propping her up, the other hand rests on the knee of one her long, shapely legs, which extend beyond the edge of the photo (she was six-foot-two, after all). Her hair is pulled back in a mass of close-cut curls. She stares intently at the camera, young, slender, and beautiful, with an air of Hollywood at leisure about her.
It is hard to image the life that girl would live, the stints with the Office of Strategic Services in India and China during and after World War Two, her long, happy marriage to Paul Child, the cookbooks and TV shows, the people she would inspire, the iconic figure she would become. The value of a life is reflected in what one leaves behind. Julia’s legacy is the passion and generosity of spirit she brought to life, especially for cooking, gastronomy, the culinary arts, and the pleasures of the table.
Until next time, à votre Santé!