By LAURA REILEY
Times Food Critic
It's a goofy parlor game, from the wimpier half of Truth or Dare: With which famous person, living or dead, would you most like to share a meal? My answer doesn't require complex weighing of pros and cons ("John Lennon vs. Gandhi, both vegetarians, but Lennon might be more fun."). Mine is simple. It's Julia Child.
Why? She was a 6-foot-2, trilling-voiced late bloomer who even her husband once called "wildly emotional" and "an extremely sloppy thinker." But she was a plucky enthusiast, an intrepid explorer and a woman of prodigious appetite.
In her final years, living in Santa Barbara, Calif., she discovered La Super-Rica Taqueria — a dump, I tell you — and fell in love with its down-market chorizo tacos, thick gorditas and stuffed pasillas.
She loved food. Not in a Rachael Ray-yummo way. She made mistakes but she didn't cut corners. She was prone to saying things like, "Remember, if you are alone in the kitchen, who is going to see you?" But this meant you could just rinse off a rogue chicken breast that had slipped off the counter, not substitute powdered hollandaise for your own. Her French bread recipe drags on for more than 10 pages, with diagrams and descriptions as complex as the electrical wiring on the space shuttle.
But I don't just love her for her lifelong commitment to demystifying French cooking without dumbing it down. I love her because of her Cinderella story. She's Rocky Balboa, she's Seabiscuit, she's the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. She once confided to her sister-in-law, "To think it has taken me 40 years to find my true passion."
She had the longest-running TV cooking series ever. She was 50 years old when it started. She was nearly that old when she and Simone Beck wrote the seminal Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which legendary New York Times food editor and critic Craig Claiborne once said "may be the finest volume on French cooking ever published in English."
She wasn't French, she didn't have a face for television and her laugh could make dogs howl. Nonetheless, she was a lusty, life-affirming superstar. And as with so many Julia Child fans, my happiness for her successes seems personal. She's mine somehow. But before she was mine, she was my mom's.
• • •
My mother was an 18-year-old college freshman when she came by family life the hard way. Despite the odds, she rose to the challenge, washing cloth diapers in a ringer washer, breast-feeding in a tiny powder room when her husband's fraternity brothers stayed too long on poker night. It shames me now to think of all the things this young mother gracefully did without (no Diaper Genie? no baby monitor?).
The sticky part was mealtime. She was raised to eat well, mostly Midwestern restaurant fare with prime rib night and Manhattans with extra cherries. But her earliest attempts at dinner live on in infamy: gelatin molds with suspicious chunks suspended in their murk, casseroles rife with cream of mushroom soup, a birthday cake in a meatloaf pan with seven-minute icing that needed way more minutes.
My family moved to Northern California during the Summer of Love, hippie culture quickly permeating our little apartment. Along with it came 10-pound loaves of brown bread baked in coffee cans, alfalfa sprouts and granolas filled with flax seed, dates and other things to keep you regular. But somewhere along the line, my mom started drifting over to the television set, with its jury-rigged bunny ears, after Sesame Street and Mister Rogers' Neighborhood were over.
On PBS's The French Chef, she watched this horsey woman make dishes with sexy names: boeuf bourguignon, cassoulet, charlotte Malakoff with ladyfingers. And she was inspired. Deeply suspicious at first, we all came around. At age 6 I could deftly cut the hairy choke from my artichaut au beurre citron or plunge a small spoon into the cap of a souffle to see the cloud of steam escape.
For my mother, it was confidence building, this talent we were all wowed by. Part alchemist, part snake charmer, her mad skills prompted my little brother to exclaim proudly, "Mom's a good cooker!"
Julia Child led my whole family to the dinner table, a place we spent many of our happiest hours, where conversation spun out languorously like the ribbon of a perfect creme anglaise. I never knew Julia, but she has always had an honored place at my table.
Laura Reiley can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 892-2293. Her blog, the Mouth of Tampa Bay, is at www.blogs.tampabay.com/dining.