Thursday, August 13, 2009


No question about it, it is a Julia Child summer. The day I’m posting this is (Aug. 13) exactly 5 years after her death at almost 92. America has rediscovered and fallen in love again with the culinary Demi-goddess. The book, the movie and just about every publication on the market right now has some “Julia” story to tell or some take on the phenomenon.

…not my first admiring commentary

In the face of such a barrage of “all things Julia,” I will also add my thoughts to the din, but will defend myself slightly by noting that this is not my first admiring commentary about the great lady. My first recorded statement concerning her was in the cookbook that I co-authored in 1980’s, not the current summer of ’09.

“Serve your mistakes…”
A Texas Family’s Cookbook was published way back in 1985 by Texas Monthly Press. In the preface, among other ramblings I wrote, “Due to such step-by-step books as Mastering the Art of French Cooking and to the work of other modern culinary pioneers, Americans began to embrace French cooking. We were able to attempt, successfully, beautiful French classics, and we learned not to be disheartened by failures. To paraphrase Julia’s attitude on her television show, she told us things like ‘Serve your mistakes-they’ll never know.’ This led to a vastly broadened appreciation of French cooking.”

…few assumptions and lots of explanations
Most French cookbooks of the time (before 1960), were written by French chefs in French, then translated into English, and assumed much expertise on the part of the reader. Then, in 1961 came the publication of volume 1 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle, and Simone Beck. This book was a detailed approach to the art of cooking with few assumptions and lots of explanations. Also, it had beautiful illustrations by Julia’s husband, Paul Child. It was followed by a second volume of the same title and, in early 1963 by the famous “The French Chef “cooking show on Boston’s public television station.

TV cooking show as entertainment…
Every celebrity chef cooking show and personality today owes their existence to this seminal event. Long before the term “foodie” became a familiar part of our day to day conversations, Julia had sown the seeds. Absolutely and without question in my mind, Julia created the “TV cooking show as entertainment genre,” that we take for granted in today’s world. Even the less than sentimental Anthony Bourdain wrote…” the saintly Julia Child sought to raise expectations, to enlighten us – teach us – and in fact did…”

…her innate generosity
It was not just her cooking expertise, amazing confidence and colorful personality that has secured her place in the public’s imagination, even though those gifts should not be underestimated. Her talents were enormous, but it was another aspect of her character that made her more than the sum of her parts- her innate generosity.

…enthusiasm and encouragement
There were no “chef’s secrets” that Julia tried to conceal, no elitist celebrity distance that she sought to maintain. Her enthusiasm and encouragement to other aspiring chefs and authors is legendary.

…culinary “gospel”
As a young cook in the early 70’s seeing her shows had certainly been inspiring and fun. It was her books; however that were for me culinary “gospel.” I never considered cooking all the recipes in her books, but I knew friends who did or at least claimed that they did. Many times, I found myself consulting volume I or II of Mastering the Art of French Cooking for some dish or technique that I had claimed as part of my repertoire and was required to prepare professionally. More than once, I found myself up in the wee hours of the night perfecting a recipe, being guided step by step by Julia Child.

I was as excited as though I was meeting royalty…
I have never forgotten it either and always felt a great sense of personal connection with her, as did thousands of other fans and cooks. So, when the chance came to actually meet her in Seattle in the mid 80’s, I was as excited as though I was meeting royalty, a rock star or great entertainment figure, which in a very real sense, I was.

…the book had been well used.
My book had just been released and I wanted to present her with a copy. I didn’t imagine that it would be of any real use in her kitchen, but I did hope that she would be pleased by my thoughts expressed in the Preface about her contribution to American cooking. Of course, I took my old battered and food stained copy of Mastering the Art for her to sign, which she and husband Paul, graciously did. She also noted that the book had been well used. That signed copy remains one of my career treasures to this day.

…not even my own name.
Upon receiving the gift of my book to her, she politely asked that I sign it, as well. Just for the record this was one of the first times I had autographed the book, as it was newly published. I sat down and opened the book, took pen in hand and sat there. If I had made any mental notes about what I was going to write at that moment it was lost to me entirely. In a lifetime of food service and catering, I have certainly met my share of celebrities. This though was somehow different. I was star struck, I couldn’t think of a thing, maybe not even my own name.

…being from Texas and all
The Childs waited patently with the statuesque (6ft. 2) Julia towering above Paul and smiling at me. I think that after a few minutes (she must have had plenty of experience with this sort of thing) it dawned on her what my situation was. Then, in that distinctive and singular voice she came to my rescue, saying in a stage whisper, “You know Joseph being from Texas and all; you could sign your books with Bon Appetit Y’all!” With that suggestion she relieved me of the autographing angst and gave me a theme and a story to last the rest of my life. This is a story that I have told at the conclusion of my cooking classes, programs and demonstrations for many years and I always will.

Thank you Julia and Paul and Bon Appetit Y’all!

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