Mike and I shot this video of Jacques Pepin talking about Julia in his kitchen last October. As I looked at this morning, I thought, “Wow, this is a long way from covering cops in Florida.”
In 1995, I was a reporter at the Sarasota Herald-Tribune. I’d moved up to a beat gig after spending more than a year on the obit desk. At some point, after covering endless series of school board meetings, press conferences and reporting stupid, horrible crimes committed by stupid, horrible people, I started to wonder. Was this journalism thing really for me? What did I really want to write about for the rest of my life? Was it murder and politics, or perhaps something else?
My mother, the smartest woman I know, advised that answer was right in front of me. Literally. We were chatting in the cheap but cheerful apartment I rented on the edge of a half-decent neighborhood in Bradenton, Fla. I’d erected an enormous wall of shelves with concrete blocks and lumber loaded with cookbooks, food history books, and fading copies of Gourmet. “I would think you’d want to write about what you like to read, but what do I know?” she said. Of course, she knows everything. But how to set out to be a food writer?
I went to a bookstore and bought a copy of Shaw’s Guide to Cooking Schools. Inside its red jacket, I read about the most extraordinary thing ever: a food writing symposium held at The Greenbrier, a posh West Virginia spa. Back in that day, I had to actually call to ask them to send me a list of the speakers via postal mail. The packet arrived and it was thrilling. The biggest news? Julia Child would be there.
I was born in the late 1960s on a farm in Michigan. Between my parents strict rules on viewing and our inability to get any real channels like NBC, we were stuck mostly watching PBS. By the time I became conscious of the world around me, Julia was in it. I grew up watching her talk about chickens and rescuing Hollandaise. My life changed directions repeatedly as a kid. I went from a big family on a farm to a comfortable suburban home that felt like a raft on which my brothers and sister kept evacuating. My dad was diagnosed with cancer when I was eight. Three year later, I moved to Florida, where we’d had a second home. Not long afterward, he died.
I started to watch her when I was three-years-old. She was who I turned to when I was eight and started to cook for myself in the afternoons when I came home to an empty house. I brought Mastering the Art of French Cooking to scho0l as a show-and-tell the same year, prompting one girl to call me a “weirdo.” (She would not be the last.) I threw my first dinner party cooking from that book for my high school friends at age 16. When I moved away to college in Chicago, I’d watch her, homesick for my family.
At The Greenbrier, I’d get a chance to meet her! In person! So, I ate beans and rice for nearly two months to save the money to go. I saw Julia the first night, but didn’t have the guts to talk to her. The next morning, I went into the first session a few minutes later. I quietly, breathlessly collapsed into a chair. A couple of minutes later, the side door opened and I heard a familiar voice ask, “Is this seat taken?”
It was Julia Child.
I stammered no, and she dropped her impressive physical self next to me. “That salmon at breakfast was so good, I had to stay and finish it,” she whispered conspiratorially.
She took copious notes of the morning’s session. She asked questions and made jokes. When the subject of getting kids interested in cooking came up, a male attendee with a regional cooking show told the group, “Sometimes, I use a 12-year-old kid on my show.”
Julia’s hand went up. Without missing a beat, she deadpanned: “Really? How do you cook him?”
As we broke for lunch, she closed her notebook with a satisfied smile. “I always love to come to this workshop. You learn so much,” Julia said. This amazed me. After all, she was Julia freakin’ Child. I assumed she knew everything there was to know about food and cooking. I politely told her so.
She laughed. “Oh no, you can never know everything about anything, especially something you love,” she said, patting me on the knee. “Besides, I started late.”
At an evening reception, I told her the story about the short obituary and the ad for Le Cordon Bleu at my desk and my plan one day to attend her alma mater. She assured me that going to Le Cordon Bleu was the best thing she ever did in her life.
Our paths crossed again a couple of years later while I was working for Microsoft. Another group on my campus was holding a party to celebrate the release a CD-ROM featuring Julia Child, and I wrangled an invite. I had no idea that Julia would be at the party, so I was taken aback when once again, I ended up sitting right next to her. I reminded her we’d met at The Greenbrier and she nodded. She remembered our conversation. “So did you go to Le Cordon Bleu?” she asked. I didn’t have an answer, and we changed the conversation. She was curious about technology and wanted to know what I was doing. I explained I was the food and restaurants editor for Sidewalk.com, which she found intriguing. Then, she wanted me to explain why her AOL internet connection was so slow.
Julia Child died in 2004, when I was in the middle of my culinary training at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. I never got to truly thank her for all the inspiration she gave me, and still gives me today. I think Julia Child’s popularity endures because did what we all want to do with our lives: she lived it passionately and generously, on her own terms with great conviction. If that’s not success, then I don’t know what qualifies. So, happy birthday, Julia. And thank you for everything.
- Check out my review of the Julia Child app, released as a tie-in with her birthday.
- I’ll be talking about Julia and serving up some confite de tomate provencal at the University Bookstore tonight in Seattle.
- As part of my gig as a board member for the International Association of Culinary Professionals, I worked with the Julia Child Foundation to develop a special one-time writing, food styling and photography award based on Julia; if you’re a member of the IACP, take a look. (Entry is free, but you have to be an IACP member to participate.)