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Appreciation

The Special Spice of Julia's Kitchen

By Tom Sietsema
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, August 14, 2004; Page C01

"Red meat and gin!" Julia Child would tell people who asked for her recipe for well-being, in a high, warbling voice that was once described as capable of "making an aspic shimmy."

In the end, though, early Friday morning, the woman who taught generations of Americans how to master the art of French cooking -- and have fun doing it -- spooned into something gently ironic: French onion soup. Her final meal had been made from scratch by her longtime assistant, using one of the food legend's own recipes.


Child talks to reporters in 2002, when her kitchen opened at the Smithsonian Museum of American History. (Dennis Cook -- AP)

_____Multimedia Special_____
Panoramic Image of Julia Child's Kitchen
_____More About Julia Child_____
Recipes from 'The Way to Cook'
Review of 'An Appetite for Life,' Julia Child's biography
Dinner party menu from 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'
Recipes from 'Mastering the Art of French Cooking'
Recipes from 'Baking With Julia'
2001 Interview with Julia Child
_____Tom Sietsema_____
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Julia. Gone, and just two days shy of her 92nd birthday. There aren't many people who are instantly recognized by just one name, but she was one of them, right up there with Babe, Elvis and Marilyn. She was a giant in her field and in person, a towering 6-feet-2 woman who slipped into size 12 sneakers. As no small measure of her place in the hearts, minds and stomachs of Americans, after she vacated her home in Cambridge, Mass., in 2001, her entire kitchen was painstakingly taken apart (junk drawer contents and refrigerator magnets included) and rebuilt for display at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

Raised in Pasadena, Calif., Child didn't grow up in a home that cared much about food (a maid prepared meals), and it wasn't until she found herself in postwar Paris, with her husband Paul, that she mustered any real enthusiasm for what would become her passion. Some classes at Le Cordon Bleu, the world-famous cooking school, led to an introduction in 1952 to Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom Child opened a small cooking school and assembled many recipes into book form. "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was the result of the trio's collaboration. It took a decade to put together but became an instant hit when it came out in 1961. Writing in the New York Times, food critic Craig Claiborne referenced it as "probably the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work" on French cuisine then in existence.

Propelled to fame on Boston public TV beginning in 1963, Child wasn't the first person to pick up a knife and tell us on camera how to slice an onion or debone a chicken. But she was definitely the most entertaining. Remember the show where she flipped an omelet and it splattered on the stove?

"Well, that didn't go very well," she told viewers as she scraped up the mess and returned it to the pan. "But you can always pick it up if you're alone. Who's going to see?"

She never tried to be funny, she simply was funny.

During another program, the bell of a freight elevator went off in the background of the studio. "That must be the plumber," Child said, looking into the camera. "It's about time he got here!" In the early years, the budget was a mere $50 per show -- not including groceries. Her husband helped wash dishes, and the cameras kept rolling even if the star made a mistake. (Contrary to popular myth, Child claimed never to have dropped a chicken on tape.)

Child replaced people's fear of cooking with a sense of delight and adventure. She and the still-nascent medium of television were made for each other. As Laura Shapiro explained in "Something From the Oven," a history of postwar cooking in America, "Child had a charisma that blossomed with remarkable grandeur on screen, turning her into an authority figure who defied all the imagery the food industry had been promoting for decades." Far from old-fashioned or snooty, "she believed anybody could cook with distinction from scratch, and that's what she was out to prove."

Her sense of humor was matched by her attention to detail. Child spent a full two years investigating the secret to a proper (slightly sour and crusty) French bread: "It's the folding," she reported to her editor, Judith Jones, at Knopf. "It's all in the forming of the loaf!" Totally organized, she routinely spent up to 19 hours preparing for each 30-minute show.

With Julia, there was never an agenda. "Everything you saw was what she was," says Stephanie Hersh, Child's right-hand woman for the past 16 years. "The public persona was the private persona."

Even after she became a household name, the grand dame of cooking kept her Cambridge number listed in the phone directory. "She talked to everybody," Shapiro recalls. Child's nephew, David McWilliams, remembers dinners in his aunt's home interrupted by calls from strangers whose own meals were heading south. "My souffle is falling!" one cried. "Don't worry, dear," Julia would reassure -- then tell them how to repair the thing.

She was as democratic as they come. As a novice food editor in Milwaukee, I remember getting a call from a hostess who had been asked to reserve a hotel room for Child for a charitable event she was attending. The organizer was panicked about finding something regal enough, but when I called Child's secretary to find out what the legend preferred, I was told: "As long as the place has a good bar and a good burger, Julia will be happy." This from the woman who took haute cuisine and demystified it for the meat-and-potatoes masses.

Child had strong opinions and wasn't afraid to voice them. She loved Chinese food, anything with lots of butter and cream and things that looked like what they were supposed to be. Above all, she liked "honest food" -- simple, good cooking. Years ago, on a road trip with some gal pals, and armed with chicken sandwiches from home, she asked her companions to stop at a McDonald's. To the amazement of everyone in the restaurant, she ordered several bags of French fries and proceeded to eat them, with her sandwiches, in the dining room.

On the other hand, she detested undercooked vegetables ("crunchily underdone," she called them), cilantro, vertical food and anyone who tried to take the pleasure out of eating. She had this to say about the low-fat craze: "It's not food, it's a process."

Of the contemporary food scene, she was thrilled to see "educated people going into the business," but disappointed whenever she found someone who thought cooking was too much work. "If you want to learn a backhand in tennis, you learn how to do it, or if you're going to sail, you learn how to do it," she once told me in an interview. "Cooking should be exactly the same way. The more you know, the more pleasure you get out of it."

Child was modest about her status. "I'm not a chef," she always said. "I'm a cook and a teacher." One of the reasons her television program debuted as "The French Chef," aside from the fact she would be cooking French recipes, was because the title was brief. "So it would fit in the TV Guide."

Even in her later years, she thought she had much to learn. "That's the interesting part of being in the food business," she told me years ago. "You never know enough. I'd like to be a butcher, for instance." She also thought she should know more about dessert-making, particularly the detail involved in patisserie, although she admitted, "I'd rather spend my money, or calories, on the main course."

The end, at Child's residence in Montecito, Calif., with its view of citrus and fig trees, came quietly, just as Julia wanted it, said Hersh. "Julia died peacefully and comfortably in bed, with her cat, Minou."

"Bon appétit!" was how Child ended many of her shows. Now, for her many fans, it's those two words -- simple and honest -- that leave us with a recipe to remember.


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