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joie de Julia

Published Oct. 1, 2005

On a winter day as warm as toast, you arrive precisely at noon at her grand Victorian home. In your hand are flowers, in your heart is affection, and in your stomach is a knot of stage fright, for you are about to have lunch with the most famous chef in America.

What you hear first is the familiar singsong soprano that was satirized on Saturday Night Live _ "Hell-OOO!" she says. "It's so good to SEE you again!"

What you see is the smiling face of Julia (McWilliams) Child, who will be 85 in August and who remains as compelling as ever, warm, intelligent, provocative, opinionated, witty, and gracious, too, as she accepts the blooming cyclamen.

"Oh, it's GOR-geous," she says, positioning the plant on the kitchen table in such a way that light slanting through the window emblazons the ruby petals.

Julia Child has reigned as America's favorite cook since The French Chef was introduced on public television in 1962, way back in the dark ages of American cuisine, when even Martha Stewart, along with everybody else, was dining on frozen Salisbury steak.

"You have to project back 35 years," says Julia's producer, Russell Morash. "You couldn't buy a garlic press in Boston. Markets didn't carry leeks. Do you know what they were serving at the Ritz-Carlton? Codfish cakes and baked beans. People could boil eggs or scramble them, but that was it. So, when Julia cooked an omelet, people were dazzled."

"At the time," she says, "French cooking was the cat's whiskers. Most of what people ate in this country was a kind of terrible ladies'-magazine food, awful! We were in Norway for a luncheon by American women and what did they serve? A gelatin in the shape of a banana _ a PHALLIC symbol _ and it was filled with diced marshmallows, grapes and bananas. It was AWFUL!"

These days, Child is appearing weekly in a PBS series, Baking with Julia. (In the Tampa Bay area, the program will resume at 12:30 p.m. March 29 on WEDU-Ch. 3. More classic Julia Child pops up on cable's Food Network.) She's promoting a companion cookbook. This year she'll spend 200 days on the road. She'll vacation in France in the spring and teach in Italy in the fall.

Raised in Pasadena, Calif., Julia Child went to Smith College, sang in the choir, and was graduated in 1934 with a degree in history.

After college and a stint with a New York ad agency, she joined the Office of Strategic Services, predecessor to the CIA, and during World War II was assigned to Ceylon, where she met Paul Child, a sculptor-artist who would become her husband.

After the war, they married. Paul went to work for the State Department. They lived in Paris for six years, and at first, in terms of French cooking, Julia didn't know oeuf from boeuf.

"When I married Paul, I had to learn to cook, because he'd been brought up on good food."

For six months, she attended classes at Cordon Bleu, then studied with several outstanding chefs. With two French women, Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, as partners, she established a cooking school in her home; in 1961, after 12 years of preparation, they published Mastering the Art of French Cooking (Volume 1).

For harried housewives, beleaguered brides and liberated men, watching Julia on The French Chef from 1962 till 1973 was the equivalent of tuning to Wyeth on art or Updike on writing.

Dressed in plain skirt, plain blouse with sleeves rolled to the elbow, and a denim apron with a towel tucked at the waist, she would mince an onion with blinding speed and, using a cleaver, amputate the wings of a chicken _ THWACK! THWACK! _ with the authority of an executioner.

Moving about the makeshift kitchen in a seemingly muddle-headed manner, she came across as the Columbo of cuisine, and viewers concluded, heck, if she can do it, so can I.

On camera, nothing rattled her.

Once, she was about to demonstrate the flipping of an omelet.

"See, if you flip anything, you have to have the courage of your conviction, particularly if it's loose like this."

She flipped the omelet and it splashed all over the stove.

"Well, that didn't go very well," she said, scraping up eggs. "See, when I flipped it, I didn't have the courage to do it the way I should have, but you can always pick it up, and, if you're alone," she said, redepositing the eggs in the pan, "who's going to see!"

She was fun all right, but she was changing America, too.

Some condemned men opt for a final meal of cheeseburgers and a milkshake, but, if Julia Child were a condemned woman, she would have another meal in mind.

"Well," she said, warming to the challenge, "I'd certainly have some oysters and some foie gras. It would be raw oysters, although I love oyster stew made in the Grand Central Station way. And the foie gras, I think that's so good, when it's crisp on the outside and meltingly tender on the inside. And, let's see, I'd probably have a duck dish of some kind.

"I have an awfully nice one I do myself, where the duck is quartered, then sauted in Absolut and potatoes and onions that make a nice sauce with duck juices and the flavor of the potato.

"But it's a draw between that and _ I love potatoes Anna, where they're sliced and just cooked in butter, and I'd have something nice and green, like green beans, although maybe they wouldn't have enough flavor for the duck, and fresh asparagus cut up into pieces and sauteed in butter, that's always good.

"And I think braised endive is awfully good. That, again, has a lot of butter. Undoubtedly, I'd have a nice salad, VERY carefully and VERY nicely dressed. A lot of people don't pay enough attention to the dressing, and they're not tossing it properly so that it's fairly lemony.

"And then some kind of a great chocolate dessert, probably my Charlotte Malakoff au chocolat, with butter and cream and almonds and chocolate. Yes, that would be delicious."

Is this suicide by cholesterol?

She laughs.

"And I'd have a beautiful wine of a Chablis type for the oysters, and for the foie gras a glass of Yquem, and then with the duck a lovely merlot. Oh, and I left out cheeses! Of course, Roquefort and Camembert and other nice ones. I wish we'd start making more cheeses in this country. And with the chocolate dessert, I'd have, let's see, some nice champagne."

Are you trying to cheat the executioner?

"Well, you'd want it to last several days, wouldn't you?"

So, how is her health?

"I'm getting a little stiff. I have knee problems. They don't work as well as they did, but otherwise no problems. I have a good appetite. But you have to hope for the best and keep yourself active. What makes me feel older is stiff legs. I mean, I can't go out and play tennis or climb mountains."

It has been three years now since the death of her husband, Paul, who had inspired her to become a chef.

"He had a stroke in his 80s and ended up in a nursing home," she says. "That was difficult."

Do you miss not having had children?

"Well, there was a time in Paris when I was 30-something and I thought I was pregnant. I was terribly pleased, but it turned out I was bilious from having eaten too much cream. It would be nice to have had children, but I would not have had my career. Not having children means you're alone and there's nobody to care for you when you're old and feeble."

When asked to speculate about her obituary, she ponders a moment.

"It would say that Julia Child encouraged home cooking and the pleasure of food, that she made it a respectable hobby, something fun and creative and not drudgery."

And what of death? Where do you think we go after we die?

"Paul thought we go back into this great ball of energy which is the source of life, but I don't particularly care, do you? I think you should just try to do the best you can here."

Friends tell of the Julia experience

Stephanie Hersh, baking expert and assistant to Julia Child:

"When I began to work for her, I had no idea she had such energy. In New York, we had a lunch to go to, then a James Beard tasting of chocolate and champagne, then a demonstration on wine. I wasn't used to pacing myself, and everywhere we went, it was food and wine. By 11, I was ready for bed, but she said, "Well, where shall we have dinner?'

"I thought, "My God, 11:30! It's my bedtime, her dinnertime?' But we had so much fun. Then we had to be at the studio at 5 a.m. When I woke up my head was spinning. She was already in the limousine. I wanted to assure her I don't behave that way nightly. I said I felt as if I'd been dancing on tables.

" "Oh, you were,' " she said, " "and you were very good.' "

Sally Jackson, president of Jackson & Co., a public relations firm:

"My father calls her the most unanimously loved woman in America. No one leaves her home without praise. At dinner, she assigns guests a task, and it's all so convivial. One stirs risotto, another pours wine, another serves dessert. Knowing the limits of my culinary skills, Julia assigns me to wash the lettuce and the dishes.

"One night, as I was leaving, she said, "Oh, Sally, dear, you're a very good dishwasher.' "

K. Dun Gifford, president of Oldways Preservation & Exchange Trust, a Boston-based organization to promote the study of food:

"On a flight, I asked how she accomplished so much. She said she slept a maximum 5 hours a night, then had to get up and get busy.

"I said, "That must be rough on your marriage,' and she said, "Oh no, dear, just the opposite. Most people take a tea break at midmorning, but for me, midmorning was a time to go back to bed with Paul and watch the morning news and snuggle.'

"Five years ago, she threw her back out and was confined to bed. She called and said, "Dear, remember how I like McDonald's french fries?' I said yes. "And how we like martinis?' I said yes. She said, "Well, on your way home, why don't you go through Central Square, get a couple of bags of McDonald's french fries, and when you get here, I'll have the martinis ready?'

"I laughed and said, "You've got a deal!' "

George Berkowitz, chairman of Legal Sea Foods, a Boston restaurant:

"When she started the cooking show, she wanted to do something on swordfish, and so I brought a swordfish to the studio and she kept it on ice. She took out a beautiful French serrated knife, and I asked where she got it. She said, "If you like it, George, I'll get you one.' Six months later, she walked into Legal with a French knife as a gift, and I never forgot her for that."

Art Buchwald, at her 80th birthday party:

"Julia Child was the only one in Paris I knew who had a sense of humor about food. Everybody else was so serious. They'd say, "Do you find the wine nice? Does it make you feel good?' I thought, what baloney! But Julia? She didn't care. She'd say, "Do you want red or white?' "