My Dinner with Julia

Photograph re-blogged from Epicurean Epistals

Photograph re-blogged from Epicurean Epistals

As I was finishing up my Masters Degree in English, I thought it might be a good time to survey my prospects. There seemed to be all of three possibilities. One, join the ranks of struggling, starving Boston-based poets, a group that, back then, proliferated in the Boston area like kudzu in southern Georgia. Two, take a high school teaching job where I could teach poetry and prose fiction to adolescents who hated poetry and were suspicious of prose. Or three, a slapdash combination of the first two.

However, one day as I was leafing through a new alternative newspaper dedicated to food and dining in Beantown, a fourth prospect presented itself: this publication was looking for writers. As I read, I felt a surge of adrenaline: This could be the answer I’d been looking for! If I could just land a gig writing for a food and restaurant publication, I might still be a struggling poet, but at least I wouldn’t be a starving poet.

At that point, I had never written anything in the gastronomic sphere, but I didn’t see this as a hindrance; hey, I was still young and a quick learner. Plus, I had spent much of my life before grad school eating a few meals a day, which had to count for something. So I quickly made my way over to the paper’s office, a sheath of clippings from my other journalistic ventures in hand. A day or two later, I got a phone call from the editor-in-chief who gave me an assignment. That assignment was followed by another, and then another, and before long I was made Associate Editor of the “Boston’s Food and Dining Monthly”, with my own regular features in the popular tabloid.

As the designated “Educated Eater” of the staff, I got the chance to eat a lot of great meals, along with a fair number of not-so-great meals. Perhaps most important, the position allowed me to forge friendships and acquaintances with some quite interesting and talented people – including one bona fide culinary icon.

The opportunity to meet that icon started at one editorial meeting in early spring when my editor-publisher floated an enticing offer: he mentioned that one of the paper’s loyal subscribers was one Julia Child. Yes, that Julia Child, the famous French Chef of PBS. So why, he asked, don’t we see if we could persuade Julia to grant us a long interview. Such a piece would be a significant boost to our paper’s reputation and also, probably, our circulation. It was a possibility too juicy to ignore.  

I myself had already become a second-tier Julia Child fan under the strong influence of my college-era girlfriend, herself a devoted, long-time Julia Child fan. Even though she (the girlfriend) wasn’t much of a cook herself, she loved watching the French Chef’s breezy kitchen manner and resourcefulness and, after some initial reluctance on my side, had turned me on to the show and its casually charismatic star. Soon that girlfriend and I were regularly setting aside early Saturday afternoons to catch episodes of the show.

So when the paper’s chief editor suggested that we do an interview with this icon, I gamely agreed to take on the assignment and before long set out on the French Chef’s trail.

About a week later, I turned up at a forum where Julia Child was one of the featured speakers. Following the talk, I slipped into the line of autograph seekers, and upon reaching the front of the line, I held up a copy of the latest issue of our paper in one hand while offering my business card with the other. To my shocked delight, she smiled broadly and admitted that our journal was one of her favorite local publications, and that she was a fan of my own work. And she said this with such an upbeat tone, underscored with a warm smile, that there was no hope of doubting its sincerity. Hearing these words in the genial warble of Julia Child, this star I myself was a fan of, just doubled the thrill of receiving such praise. It then took me a few moments to fully swallow my surprise and get out the main question I was there to deliver.

To my further delight, when asked whether she would be open to an interview for the paper, she agreed immediately, even giving me her home phone number so that I could contact her and arrange a day and time for our interview.

Things proceeded quickly from there. Our publisher first set up a deal with a Back Bay restaurant as venue for the interview. The restaurant offered a free dinner for four if we would just strategically mention that restaurant several times in the subsequent article. (Captions for photos counted in this regard.) We then worked out a day and time for the dinner, and when we reached the matter of where we should meet up, I got the biggest surprise of all: Julia Child suggested we start off the evening by coming to her home for aperitifs.

When I told my  girlfriend – the big Julia Child fan – that at our next dinner out, we would be sharing the table with Julia and her husband, she was over the moon. When I added that we’d first meet the couple at their home, she orbited that moon several times.

 On the appointed evening, decked out in our casual best, we arrived at the Child household early for our big dinner date. We walked up and down the street a few times, soaking up the atmosphere, until the scheduled time for our appearance arrived.
Julia’s home was a large house on a quaint Cambridge street just a croissant’s throw from Harvard Yard. That particular stretch of Irving Street was rich in American cultural history: the Child home itself was the former residence of the great American Idealist philosopher Josiah Royce. Just down the block was the house of Royce’s friend, Harvard colleague and ideological sparring partner, William James, while right across the street from the Child abode stood the boyhood home of the godfather of American experimental poetry, e.e. cummings.

With such an impressive domicile, we were wondering who would answer the door bell – a maid with a charming accent of uncertain provenance, perhaps a butler in full livery and ramrod posture? When the door opened, we were actually greeted by Julia herself.

Standing there in the doorway, the French Chef was a commanding presence. When I had first encountered her at the forum, she was sitting down, but I could tell even then that she was a rather big woman. Now, seeing her upright, I realized how big she was: not only was she tall (over six foot), but she was broad-shouldered and big-boned to boot. Later, I would tell people that if there had been a professional woman’s football team back then, Julia Child could well have played linebacker on the team.

Her husband Paul was just the opposite: shorter than her, slight and bespectacled, he looked like a professor at a small Liberal Arts college. (I would later discover that this mild-mannered gent had been a judo instructor with a fourth-degree black belt in that art.)

Their personalities were also divergent. Paul was soft-spoken and slightly reserved. (He had undergone major surgery shortly before our meetings, so this may have been a factor in his relatively subdued manner.) Julia was the quintessential Julia Child one saw on her various TV shows: bubbly, outgoing and effusive, with a ready store of anecdotes, opinions and advice.

Despite their differences in appearance and demeanor, the deep affection between the two was clear at just about every moment. Julia seemed to dote on her husband, ten years her senior; the fact that they had met and married later in life may have played a role here. (Late marriages often are the most successful, as they allow us to get all of our youthful mistakes out of the way.)

After the initial greeting, Julia led us into the most appropriate part of the house for our get-to-know-each-other session: the Child kitchen. This was a large, high-ceilinged chamber, typical of kitchens in Cambridge houses of the late 1800s (when the house was built). As we settled into our seats, it struck me that most of the apartment in which I was then living could have fit into that one kitchen.

It was not only the size of the kitchen that was impressive. One wall there was covered with pots and pans carefully mounted and stretching from one corner to the other. Written on the wall next to each pot and pan was a number. This, Julia explained, made it easy for her to quickly find the absolutely right cooking utensil for whatever dish she was about to prepare.

The four of us then shared stories of our varying backgrounds and how we had all found our separate ways to the Greater Boston area. As we talked, Julia served our appetite stokers: trim glasses of sherry and a bowl of Pepperidge Farm goldfish. The goldfish crackers took us aback: was this possible, that the illustrious French Chef would be serving up something so … well, pedestrian? We were too polite (or cowed) to ask, but Julia had read our bemusement and explained that she was quite fond of these cheese-flavored crackers. They were not only light and tasty, she said, but also served as a splendid complement to the sherry.

This preference for a nibble that was anything but haute cuisine was a key to the Julia Child personality that I came to know; that unaffected manner she displayed on the show was not just a pose for the camera. This was clear in her laid-back manner, her ease in conversation, as well as the breadth of her food preference and subjects of interest.

Following the sherry and goldfish, it was off to dinner. Her choice of vehicle was another example of her unaffected way: a battle-tested Volkswagen Beetle. But it, too, bore a distinctive Julia Child touch; wrapped around the aerial was a wire, which was then attached to a large ladle. This, Julia explained, was her personal banner, so that the car would be easy to locate, even in large parking lots surrounded by a sea of other vehicles.

The complimentary dinner was … oh, let’s be kind and say it was something of a major disappointment. The appetizers were hit-and-miss, while the mains were mainly miscalculations. Good, fresh fish filets had been smothered in heavy, flour-based coverings, while the scallops had the texture of battered rubber balls. A dessert sampler sent out by the kitchen was adequate, if uninspired. I suspect that some of the people in the kitchen were local poets tending stoves until their big publishing break came through.

I started to squirm in my nicely padded seat. If an amateur gourmet like myself could detect how wanting the dishes were, I could only imagine how this would offend the refined palates of Julia and Paul Child. And out of all the fine eating places in Boston, this was the place our paper had chosen to wine and dine American gastronomy’s most famous couple? Would the mediocre meal put a pallor on the whole evening?

The answer, thankfully, was ‘no’. The celebrity TV chef actually went out of her way to be charitable. She pointed out the strong points of the meal (the freshness of the fish, the richness of some of the desserts, one of the appetizers that was simple but quite tasty) and suggested how they could have avoided the bad choices made in the kitchen and presented a much better meal.

If the meal was a disappointment, the interview itself was an all-out success. Julia held forth on food in general, the vast improvements in the Greater Boston gastronomy landscape over the previous years, and where she saw Beantown and American cuisine going in the upcoming years.

She also showed that her admiration for those Pepperidge Farm goldfish was not a fluke: at one point in the interview, she admitted that she was quite the fan of McDonalds’ French fries. And not just a minor fan; she allowed as to how McDonalds’ fries were, in her wide experience, second only in quality to those of a small restaurant in the south of France. (The secret to the fries’ success, she said, was that McDonald’s used good, fresh oil. Too many places were in the habit of reusing oil when making their fries, she revealed.)

Our editor-publisher would later sell that part of the interview – highlighted by the McDonalds’ tribute – to the National Enquirer, which in those days paid rather handsome fees for short but interesting pieces such as that. The editor and I then split the Enquirer money fifty-fifty. The money was enough for a struggling writer like myself to ignore the fact that although the words in the piece all belonged to either Julia or me while the selection and editing came from our editor-in-chief, the article ran under the name of the Enquirer editor down in Florida who had green-lighted the article.

But to return to Boston: at the end of the evening, as we exchanged goodbyes with the Childs, Julia said that she and Paul would like to reciprocate by taking us out to dinner soon. Of course, I took this as standard politeness, an offer to be discarded at the first opportunity. Surely, no one as renowned as Julia Child would really invite a lowly journalist like myself to dinner.

But Julia Child was not one given to such counterfeit courtesies. Not too long thereafter, an invitation to join Paul and her for dinner did come. I was, once again, delighted. The only disappointment was that the dinner was not to be at the Child home, prepared by the French Chef herself, but at a small restaurant tucked into a cosy nook in Cambridge. The head chef at this bistro, Julia explained, was a very promising young talent who was about to give up his post and head off to France in order to hone his skills more in the homeland of haute cuisine. She and Paul had been intending to visit the bistro at least once more before the young chef’s departure, and she thought it would be nice to have me and my lady join them.

By that time, my long-time lady and I had parted ways, so I invited a good friend who liked to cook and was also a big fan of the French Chef TV show. We again met up at the Irving Street residence, were again invited into the hallowed kitchen, and were again treated to fine sherry and Pepperidge Farm goldfish. This time, the conversation involved a lot more discussion of cooking and preparation, as my date this time was much more experienced in the culinary arts than did my ex-girlfriend. Pleasant preliminaries completed, it was off to the bistro for dinner.

The food that evening was immeasurably better than the meal we had had on our first meeting. Also, as there was no interview this time, the table conversation was more wide-ranging, less directed, and richer.

As on my first dinner with Julia, the celebrity chef was again the quintessential Julia Child. Which meant that she acted more like a favorite aunt than a celebrity. Probably because it was our second dinner, she was even a bit more open and ready to dispense her opinion on many things. And one undeniable fact about Julia Child: she had quite strong opinions and was fully unapologetic in sharing these opinions.

During the course of our two dinners, Julia delivered her views on subjects such as sports and religion. (She was not a big fan of either one and devoted no more than a sentence or two to the subjects.) Not surprisingly, her views on a number of culinary issues were sharper and more detailed.

For one thing, she was not very enthusiastic about the developing trend toward pursuing healthier diets, avoiding red meats, sugars, fats and such items. She felt that the obsession with healthy food was draining the fun and excitement out of eating. And that was a terrible loss in her well-tested opinion.

She also expressed deep doubts about the authenticity of the hot and spicy dishes that had become standards at eateries offering what they billed as Szechuan Chinese cuisine. Pointing out that she and Paul had both spent some time in Szechuan during the Second World War, she said they couldn’t remember ever being served a single spicy dish there. (She and Paul were both there in China doing intelligence work for the American OSS, the forerunner of the CIA.)  

But even though she was quite opinionated, Julia never came off as being adversarial or overbearing in the way many opinionated people are. There was an ease and a sense of good will towards other opinions when she dispensed her own. You had the feeling that she could get along nicely with many people that she totally disagreed with. I myself strongly disagreed with some of her strong opinions, but this did not dent my affection for her or Paul in any way.

Outside the French restaurant, we again bade adieus, then headed off in our separate Volkswagens to our separate homes. I never enjoyed another meal with Julia and/or Paul, though we did maintain periodic contact throughout my years in the Boston area. I often consulted the renowned chef by telephone for information and tips for other pieces I wrote. Her tips and info were often invaluable, always helpful.

She did, however, turn down a challenge from a Chinese restaurant owner to debate the subject of Szechuan cuisine. This restaurateur, a Chinese native who had himself lived in Szechuan (now more commonly Pinyined as Sichuan), read our interview and was rather irritated by Julia’s claim that spicy dishes were not a major feature of the Szechuan kitchen. She may be a great French chef, this fellow sneered, but she clearly didn’t know what the “real people” in Sichuan province ate. He implied that foreigners on wartime duty in China lived in a sanitized bubble that kept them from seeing how the natives really lived and really ate. He would straighten her out in a toe-to-toe exchange on the truth about that popular cuisine.

I was actually quite glad that the proposed debate never took place. Not only had I developed a good, amiable working relationship with both of these people, I had come to like both of them quite a bit. A heated debate prompted by my article might well have soured one or both of these relationships. It was much better that each remained set in his or her beliefs about Szechuan food, unencumbered by the arguments of the other.

Having maintained sporadic contact with the Childs until I moved to Europe, I completely lost touch with them after the move. In today’s age of the matured Internet, I probably would have tried to keep in touch via e-mails, Skype, maybe even Friended one of both of them on Facebook. But all we had available during the first years of my European life was snail mail and expensive long-distance phone calls.

Like the young chef at that favored Cambridge bistro, I had taken off to Europe to hone my skills. I deeply regretted losing contact with so many of those people from the Boston culinary scene, Julia and Paul Child as much as any of them. But it was time for me to go on to something new and maybe bigger. Had I ever asked her advice on this, I imagine Julia would have said, “Boutez en avant!” (For those whose French is a bit rusty, that means “Charge ahead!”)

By Richard Lord