Julia & Me
“You live but once; you might as well be amusing.”
— Gabrielle (“Coco”) Chanel, French couturier
“It’s an honor to have you on board, Mrs. Childs,” announced the handsome flight attendant neatly clad in midnight blue slacks, white shirt and logoed tied. Bending over our seats, he whispered conspiratorially with a Texan drawl as broad as the state itself, “I’m such a huge fan. I have all your cookbooks.”
Julia smiled demurely, tilted her head in acknowledgement and said, “Thank you,” without mentioning the erroneous addition of an “s” to her name. In the thirteen years that I had been working with her, the faulty pronunciation happened with curious regularity, and some years before, I remarked how odd I thought it was that so many people put an “s” on the end of her name.
“Not really,” she responded. “Before I was known at all, there was a popular New York eatery called Childs.”
On that March day in 1993, three decades of public fascination with Child, the French Chef, had eclipsed whatever fame Childs the eatery had once enjoyed. That eclipse began the moment in 1963 when, from the display kitchen of the Boston Gas Company, she trilled her first WGBH-TV “Bon appetit.” Cooking enthusiasts became dedicated fans, and even viewers who would never make friends with their stoves tuned in religiously to catch the antics of this Lucille Ball-with-a-rolling-pin character in the kitchen. I watched all — was it 134? — episodes of “The French Chef” for the cooking, but I reveled in her humor. Spontaneous humor, such as the time she pulled a used bundle of herbs (bouquet garni) out of a bubbling stock and said, “It looks like a dead mouse,” and the time, to cover for a bell that inadvertently rang during taping, she announced, “That must be the plumber!” Unable to resist, she licked a rich chocolate batter from her spatula and told us with a smile, “That’s not part of the recipe.” I laughed out loud when the long, slim baguette of French bread she planned to slice for onion soup slumped lazily in the middle when she held it up, so she declared it pathetically lacking in character and flung it dismissively over her shoulder.
She peppered her instructions for proper, classic techniques with frequent, amusing soupcons of sound: “blump, blump blump” as she quickly sliced through mushrooms, “whomp” when she smashed her knife down on a clove of garlic, and a throaty, crackling sound when she broke off the claw of a lobster. In a distinctive voice that became one of the most recognized — and one of the most imitated — she told us to be prepared to “shoot the wad” on buying the best ingredients and “go whole hog” in fearlessly cooking them. The combination of her off-the-cuff, madcap quirkiness and her deeply serious commitment to things culinary made watching her addictive. She catapulted to fame. When, in 1966, Time magazine featured her as its cover story, dubbing her “Our Lady of the Ladle,” they wrote that her shows “have made her a cult from coast to coast and put her on a first-name basis with her fans.”
Her name, sans “s,” was unlikely to be forgotten.
“Want something to read?” she asked, reaching into her carryon and pulling out a stack of magazines.
I held up the spy novel she had loaned me. “No, thanks. I’m just at the good part.” Julia and I shared a passion for thrillers, mostly the ones that involved espionage. I could trace mine back to the Hardy Boys mysteries, which I discovered when I was eight. Julia honed hers during World War II, when she worked with the Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA. She had just loaned me The Spy Wore Red, and although she insisted that during the war she had only typed and filed, I knew the government had cleared her for high-security work, and my overactive imagination kept plugging her into the role of undercover agent depicted by the heroine of the nonfiction book. Julia admitted that she had wanted to be a spy but the “Oh So Secret” as she called the OSS, had rejected her. “They said I was too tall,” she would sigh. But of course, that’s the sort of thing a spy would say.
I felt something brush by my foot. “Here comes the deluge,” I said in a singsong voice.
“So much useless stuff,” Julia said as she discarded several scented inserts, subscription forms and coupon offers onto the floor. She didn’t make neat piles; she unselfconsciously tossed the “useless stuff” around our feet. We were seated behind the bulkhead; there were no seats with pockets in front of us so the floor was the only available receptacle for the mounting trash. I’d seen her do it often when in flight, and, being infinitely more self conscious, I always felt a compulsion to stand up and make a general announcement that we would pick them up before we left the plane. But Julia had no compulsion. Being so delightfully uninhibited, so completely comfortable with herself, she wasn’t concerned with what other people might think.
She thumbed through the magazines, paused intermittently to read articles that interested her, tore out several pages to read later and tossed the pillaged remains into a heap on the floor. The litter at our feet was growing in scary dimension.
“Would you like me to take those?” the flight attendant asked, eyeing the mess and slipping a navy blue apron over his head.
“Not now,” Julia replied, and then he looked at the pile at my feet and gave me a questioning look.
“It’s her mess,” I shrugged, and when he walked away, Julia gave me a quick, playful poke in the arm, and I responded as though she had broken it. I wasn’t traveling with Julia Child, “the star,” I was in the company of Julia McWilliams, the slightly naughty schoolgirl who took to elbowing and horsing around. Biographies, television programs and articles about Julia often allude to the fact that in her youth she had been a mischievous cut-up, a prankster, a party girl who loved to stir things up. “Had been” were not operative words. That fun-loving, mischief-causing character with a wicked glint in her eye was always very much there, elbowing and stirring up a little trouble whenever she felt like it.
The flight attendant returned. “We’ll be getting ready to land soon, Mrs. Childs.” And then, with a hesitant look at the clutter around our feet, “Shall I take these away now?”
“That would be very nice. Thank you.”
“Is there anything else I can do for you?”
Julia gently patted both her knees with open palms and said, “We’re supposed to have an airport cart pick us up. Where will that be?” Overall, Julia was blessed with remarkably good health, but stiffness in her knees often caused her extreme pain. “It was all that basketball in school,” she’d say. Although bad knees are just in the cards for some people, all that jumping may well have compromised them since her legs were very long and slender. I realized just how long they were some years before, when a fan sent her an enormous box of Vidalia onions that contained the instructions: “Store well-ventilated in a cool place.” When I asked her how she suggested we should store them, she handed me a pair of pantyhose, saying, “These should do it. We’ll hang them in the basement.” The entire box of sweet Georgia onions fit into the one pair of her stockings.
Good assistants know the recipes by heart, pay attention to the order of the presentation, and keep their eyes on what utensils need replacing on the set.
When standing and walking seriously began to tax her knees, she reminded everyone around her to heed her call to arms, “Save the Knees!” The Ritz Carlton Hotel, our lodging in Houston, had rallied to the cause and arranged for an airport cart to pick us up.
“It will be at the gate at the end of the walkway. I’ll make sure it is,” the attendant informed us as he walked away with his armload of trash.
“There it is,” I said, leading Julia toward the cart where a beaming woman driver was holding a sign that read, “Julia Child.” We loaded our carry-on bags, our computers and ourselves on board. When the cart began to back up, sounding its tooter to alert travelers that we were on the move, I said, “This is great. I’ve always wanted to ride on one of these.”
Julia responded without missing a beat. “I’ve always wanted to drive one.”
Her bright blue eyes smiled at me with a look I had grown to know and love in the more than a dozen years, and thousands of miles, I had been with her. It was the twinkling, teasing, conspiratorial smile that implied a connection, an understanding, a secret; it was a smile that she often gave me across a crowded dinner table when someone said something that we both knew more about but weren’t going to tell. The one she flashed with a wink of her eye to me during long demonstrations that said, “Hold on, we’ll be finished soon, and enjoying a cocktail and dinner.” That moment in Houston, the smile was saying, “Of course I drive. It’s my cart.”
There was never any question that Julia drove the cart. And, just as Julia always credited timing for her successful career, I credit the right place at the right time for my ride on her cart.
That ride began in Providence, Rhode Island, in 1980. I was thirty-six years old, married with two toddler sons, had graduated from culinary school and was running two cooking schools of my own. The husband and the children were intentional; teaching cooking was a delightful fluke.
In 1969, I married Philip Barr and we moved to Washington, D.C., where he attended dental school and I found a job teaching hard-of-hearing children. I quickly became fast friends with a fellow teacher who was supporting her husband through law school.
“We can’t just sit at home nights while our husbands study,” she stated emphatically while turning the pages of the latest brochure of community classes. “Here’s something interesting,” she said, handing me the catalogue so I could read about the cooking classes a local woman gave in her home.
I signed up for the classes not because I had a particular interest in food, but because it was something to do with a friend. But, from the moment I placed the nugget of herb-infused butter on top of the boneless chicken breast, rolled and fried it into an elegant stuffed Kiev, I was hooked. When I tasted the crisp explosion of unfamiliar flavor that a quick dip in hot olive oil made of a small, unimpressive bouquet of parsley, I wanted to know more about this food thing. I bought my first Julia Child cookbook, The French Chef, and watched her shows with a pad and pencil. Philip began to photograph our meals. When I watched Julia make something she called “Glamour Pouding,” I took copious notes, invited friends to dinner and wowed them with the “handsome molded dessert” that Julia promised me I would have if I did what she did on TV….
We returned to Providence, and I immediately enrolled in Madeleine Kamman’s Modern Gourmet cooking school in Newton Center, Massachusetts, where I systematically worked my way through the classic techniques of French cooking. In 1975, I passed my Modern Gourmet exams, received my diploma and opened my own school. I had been teaching classic French cuisine for five years, when, in the spring of 1980, a friend, Tina Frost, telephoned me.
“I’m calling for my husband, Fred. He’s heading up the committee for Providence’s Planned Parenthood fundraiser in October, and we’d like you to help out.”
I’d done volunteer work for Planned Parenthood before. I knew there was a need. “Sure. What can I do?”
“Julia Child has agreed to come to Providence and give two cooking demonstrations. We need help organizing them.”
Tah-dah! I was not just going to meet but work with the most important culinary figure in the country. Tina was giving me dates and venues, and I was mentally kneading images of me standing next to Julia, passing her utensils and ingredients with the efficiency of an O.R. nurse. She would say, “Bismark” and I would know exactly which pastry tip to pass her. “Brioche pan” and the fluted, tin mold would be in her hand.
I was lost in truffle heaven, but Tina’s next words brought me back to earth. “Julia’s bringing her own assistants, but she said we needed someone local with cooking experience who could take care of the food and the set. Do you think you can do that?”
Okay. I would be an orderly, not head nurse, but I would be there. “Absolutely! It’s what I do,” I said, stepping up to the plate with exaggerated confidence. True enough, it’s what I did. I just didn’t do it for Julia Child.
I made myself focus on the job and not the star. We needed food shoppers, dishwashers and prep cooks. Since the demonstration site was to be the Rhode Island School of Design’s auditorium, which in no way resembled a place where one could cook, we needed a cook top, ovens, a refrigerator, small appliances, makeshift sinks, pots, whisks, spoons, measuring utensils, food.
Julia mailed us detailed lists itemizing everything she would need, along with some specific instructions: the demonstration counter was to be thirty-nine inches high, four inches above the norm, the standing mixer should be a heavy-duty K5A — the “real McCoy” — and the rolling pin should be a proper ball-bearing one, at least sixteen inches long and “not some toy.” As did most Julie devotees, I formed my impression of her by watching her television shows. I’d seen the messes, the dropped potato pancake, the loaf of bread flung over her shoulder. She was someone who effortlessly winged it and didn’t sweat the small stuff. Those lists said that there was a finely honed structure behind her madcap exterior.
Julia even told us precisely what she would like served for lunch on the set: smoked salmon with “a nice salad” one day and a “real Rhode Island red clam chowder” on the next. A popular local caterer volunteered to do the salmon buffet, and I asked my mother to make the chowder. It wasn’t nepotism; her recipe was my great grandma Feely’s, and it was the best Rhode Island red clam chowder I’d ever tasted.
The day before the first demonstration, the Julia entourage arrived by train. The plan was for me to meet them at the auditorium where Julia would check the set before going to the hotel. Sylvia, one of my team of helpers, called me that morning.
“I told the committee we’d pick Julia up at the train station,” she said.
“You’re kidding?” I’m sure I must have thought a limousine would pick her up. At least it never occurred to me to offer to do it. Such things always occurred to Sylvia.
“Why would I kid you? I’ll pick you up first.”
The train was early, so when Sylvia and I arrived, Julia was already outside with her husband, Paul, Liz Bishop, Ruth Lockwood and several pieces of mismatched luggage, many emblazoned with enormous yellow X’s of masking tape for identification. A few oversized tote bags, bloated with an assortment of aprons, food and cooking utensils, were leaning against the suitcases. This small culinary cortege looked more like an AARP group back from a weekend tour than a television star and her roadies. At a lofty six foot two, Julia towered over the group and I realized how very tall she was and why the counters needed to be so high. In later years, she became somewhat stooped, but on that day, the sixty-eight-year-old undisputed queen of cooking stood up to her full six feet and two inches and greeted us with enthusiastic warmth.
“Hooray! You’re right!” she warbled, taking Paul’s arm with one hand and hoisting a tote bag with the other.
I smiled, or maybe I laughed. It is impossible not to the first time you hear that unmistakable voice in person — especially when it’s accentuating the word “hooray.”
“We are,” I said, accepting the bag she handed me. After multiple introductions, we squished ourselves into Sylvia’s small blue station wagon, with Julia, Liz, Ruth and me vying for space in the back seat… . I guess we all have different reactions to being in the company of famous people. Mine was to ask innocuous questions about the trip and the weather. Sylvia’s was to take a hostage. “Would you like to stop at Nancy’s house to freshen up? It’s along the way,” she lied. It was close to the auditorium, but it was a round about way to go.
“Why not?” said Julia, demonstrating how delightfully ordinary my extraordinary idol was.
While I made coffee and rooted around in the cupboards for something to serve with it, Sylvia dragged my complete collection of Julia Child cookbooks off the shelf and asked Julia to sign them for me. All the books were food spattered and dog-eared, and I half-expected bits of parsley and pieces of onion peel to trickle out. I thought ruefully of the protective Plexiglas bookstand gathering dust in the closet.
“How nice to see that they are so used,” Julia said, flipping through the smeared pages. Chalk one up for being a messy cook. Years later, after publishing my own cookbooks, I realized just how gratifying it is to see proof that someone has actually cooked from them.
As she signed each book, she passed it along to Paul, who wrote his name in a fine bold hand, with a jaunty scroll beneath it.
“Thank you,” I said, smiling what I thought was a nice, grateful smile and reaching for the book. He held it open in front of him and gazed reproachfully at me, for what, I didn’t know.
“You have to wait for the ink to dry,” he said authoritatively.
“Of course,” I said, meekly sliding my hand away.
When he determined that the ink was dry, his tone became gentler, and he directed my attention to the photographs and drawings in From Julia Child’s Kitchen, or “J.C.’s Kitchen,” as I learned it was always called by all those who had anything to do with it.
“I took the photographs over her shoulder so readers would see the food from the cook’s angle,” he explained. It was an innovation in food photography since most food photos aimed at tantalizing the appetite and not at teaching. Up until that moment, it had escaped my notice that the photos and artful sketches in Julia’s early books were Paul’s. For all I knew about Julia’s cooking, I knew little about her personal life. I’m not sure I even knew there was a Paul, so I certainly didn’t know that Julia’s husband, ten years her senior, had suffered a heart attack in 1974, followed by a small series of strokes from which he had never fully recovered. That day she made no apology or explanation for Paul’s peculiar scolding tone.
He turned to the front of the book and pointed out what he told me was a favorite photograph — Julia silhouetted in shadow in front of the window in the Marseilles apartment. “Julie looks really good in this,” he said, being the only person I would ever hear call her “Julie.” Somehow it instantly revealed the closeness that was theirs and gave me a glimpse of the extremely charming man who had governed Julia’s heart for some thirty-four years.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the kit-chen, Liz Bishop was perched on a stool surveying her surroundings. Liz had been working with Julia since the first television series. They were good friends. She was in her forties, brash and entertaining with a quick, bawdy wit and a sharp tongue that Julia found terribly funny. So did I. Then Liz said something that caught me off guard.
“You studied with Madeline?” she asked, raising her eyebrows and tilting her head in the direction of my Modern Gourmet diploma in the bookcase. This was a touchy subject because I knew that there was bad blood between Julia and Madeline. The times that Madeline even mentioned Julia in class, it was to say, “She is neither French, nor a chef.”
“Yes I did,” I responded, and Liz gave me an inscrutable smile so I gave it my own read: I would be condemned by association and deep-sixed before I got to demonstrate my O.R. efficiency or serve my great grandma Feely’s red chowder. But no one said anything more on the subject. Not then, anyway.
We spent close to an hour in my kitchen, getting to know each other, and smiling for Sylvia who, being Sylvia, had her camera and was snapping photos. Julia talked mostly about the recipes for the demonstrations, describing in detail how she planned to mix this or assemble that. The words, “perfectly,” “carefully,” and “impeccably” sifted evenly through her descriptions, and I knew she was sending me a message; “we don’t rush things.” As she spoke, she pantomimed cooking motions with her hands, and I remember how their expressiveness captured my attention. Julia had very long, graceful fingers, adorned only by a lovely, wide gold Tiffany wedding band. When she was imitating a culinary move, she cupped her palms slightly, tightened her knuckles a bit, and splayed her fingers gracefully in a most distinctive gesture. They were artists’ hands, chefs’ tools that never ceased to captivate me — nor did her eyes, which were the most delicate shade of pale blue and glistened as though tears were waiting to appear….
That evening, at the patrons’ gala dinner, I met Julia’s assistants, Marian Morash and Sara Moulton. My copy of Marian’s Victory Garden Cookbook, the landmark, definitive work on vegetables, was as worn and stained as my copies of Julia’s books. I had watched her on her own television show, “The Victory Garden,” but I didn’t know that she was married to Russ Morash, the director responsible for Julia’s successful burst into the television world… . Since both Marian and Sara had worked with Julia for a number of years and knew her routine well, I expected they would hardly need me for anything more than managing the dishwashing station.
The next morning, I stood back and waited for directions.
“Where should we begin?” Marian asked me. “You’re in charge.” How generous is that? Marian and Sara intended that I be the on-stage assistant to Julia during the shows, and their instant acceptance of me immediately endeared both women to me.
Julia’s demonstration that afternoon was devoted to fast puff pastry, a quicker but no less buttery version of the classically made, multilayered, flaky pastry known as pate feuilletee… . All that pastry with its turns and folds, rests and shaping meant that we were up to our ears in flour and butter with a lot of work to be done before the show, and we all seemed to be in constant motion. Jody Adams, now the award-winning chef of Rialto in the Boston area, was then a young assistant at my cooking school and one of my team. When I asked her recently what she remembered about those days on the set, she said, “Running. I remember all that running around.” This was in no small part because the only water source was the ladies’ room a good distance from the stage. Julia worked right alongside us, pausing only to briefly take in the aproned army around her and say, “Isn’t cooking together fun?”
When Julia took the stage at two o’clock that afternoon, an excited, chattering audience warmed all 600 seats of the auditorium. The house lights went up; Julia marched frankly onto the stage and was greeted by a great thunderous applause. She clasped her hands together over her heart and bowed her head in appreciation. The clapping went on and on, and she raised her hands above her head and applauded the audience. Gosh, she was some showman. The audience loved it and rewarded her with louder clapping and several whoops.
Finally, Julia took her place at the demonstration counter and we assistants stood at the back of the stage waiting for her call to arms. Liz was perched on a stool off to the side. I realized that Liz was a noncooking member of the team, a kind of major domo in charge of Julia’s arrangements and appointments. Unless need pressed her into action, she would remain perched. Ruth sat in the front row of the audience with Paul next to her. He held a small stack of handmade signs lettered with numbers on his lap. He was to keep track of the time and hold up a sign to let Julia know how much time she had left.
Assisting in a demonstration is all about anticipating. Good assistants know the recipes by heart, pay attention to the order of the presentation, and keep their eyes on what utensils need replacing on the set. We were well on top of things as Julia was whizzing her way through making pastry.
“ Ninety minutes!” Paul Child boomed in a loud voice that startled us all. Then the audience went dead quiet. Heads stretched and turned to see who dared cause such a disturbance. It well might have been an awkward, uncomfortable interruption, but Julia seemed neither uncomfortable nor interrupted. She never missed a roll of pastry.
“Thank you Paul,” she said, smiling at him, before telling the audience that her husband was keeping time. Just as the day before, when Paul had scolded me, Julia was not in the least bit embarrassed by his unconventional behavior. She was as unselfconscious and unpretentious in front of an audience as she had been in my kitchen… . The demonstration continued smoothly with all of us now nodding our thanks in Paul’s direction for his periodic time remind-ers. When Julia got to the sweet, almond pitiviers, she put the filling ingredients — sugar, butter, egg, almonds, dark rum and vanilla and almond extracts — into the food processor and pulsed them into a paste.
“This has to be well chilled before we put it into the shell to bake,” she told the audience as she handed me the bowl. I, in turn, passed it to Brett Frechette, one of the teachers at my cooking school. She was one of the best, a perfectionist. When I handed her the processor bowl, she looked in and whispered to me, “It’s separated.” I looked down and sure enough, liquid was seeping out of the paste. It had been mixed too quickly for the flavors to be absorbed.
“She can’t use it like this,” Brett said. I looked back to Julia to see if I could return the paste to her for fixing, but she was already on to the next recipe. And, I didn’t think I should disturb her by removing the processor from the set.
“The blender,” Brett and I whispered at the same time looking at the brand-new donated Waring blender sitting on one of the workstations. The workstations were long folding tables, which we had swathed in green check banquet cloths that draped to the floor. Brett grabbed the blender and scooted under the table near an electrical source. I gathered the ingredients and slipped them down to Brett, who turned them into a perfect, firm almond paste to replace the unusable, oozing one. The only person who seemed aware of the quiet whirring emanating from beneath the table was Liz, who smiled at me knowingly from her perch… .
As lunchtime approached, I found myself wondering if the chowder was really as delicious as I thought. Too late to do anything about it. Volunteers had set up a long table with china, silver, linens and an empty space for the large pot of soup that my mother was at that very moment carrying down the aisle. Rhode Island has three native chowders: a clear broth with clams and potatoes, creamy white chowder usually called New England clam chowder, and a red one. Our Rhode Island version is made with salt pork, both quahogs and clams, tomatoes, potatoes and served with a pitcher of hot milk and pilot crackers.
Julia stepped down from the stage to greet my mother, Billie Higgins Verde, who was beaming. My mother was Irish and her family’s food — primarily corned beef and cabbage and codfish balls served with homemade baked beans on Sunday mornings — took a lot of ribbing from my Italian father’s family. For her to serve her Irish family’s chowder, and not lasagna, to Julia Child was a real coup. More so when Julia asked for a second bowl.
That evening, the demonstration began as it had the day before with much applause and cheering. In spite of the elaborate menu, it was, so to speak, Child’s play for Julia. She whipped through cloaking the fish, spinning the caramel, raffling off the finished dishes and auctioning off the stage equipment.
But there was more. As I would come to know, a Julia show’s not over when the Julia show is over. There were fans to greet, books and aprons to sign and photos to be taken. Julia left the stage and sat at a table facing long lines of admirers waiting for autographs and a word with her. Some approached her laden with an entire collection of Julia Child cookbooks; others held only the program from the demonstration or an apron hastily purchased. They lingered, telling
Julia how she’d changed their culinary lives, recounting tales of their own kitchen disasters, sharing family recipes, asking Julia what was her favorite recipe, favorite restaurant, favorite anything. Julia listened attentively, commented graciously and answered all questions except those about favorites. “That’s a media-type question,” she’d say with her index finger raised. “I don’t answer those.”
It was taking a long time after an already long day. When one man babbled on, giving a cup by tablespoon description of his great aunt Ethel’s orange cake, I was ready to scream. Julia asked him what kind of baking pan aunt Ethel used. Where did she get the energy?
At last, with all the books signed and the last fan satisfied, Julia gathered the kitchen teams together for a group photo.
“Say cheese,” the photographer instructed.
“No. Say sou-ffle,” Julia corrected, overstressing the second syllable.
“Souffle?” I asked, wondering if Julia had randomly chosen a French word. Could we just as readily say “quiche” or “canard?”
Liz, Marian, Ruth, Sara, Paul, and of course, Julia were probably hoping someone would ask because, practically in unison, they looked at me, raised their voices and said, “Sou-ffle! See. You have to smile it right.”
We smiled our “sou-ffles” together and then sadly said “goodbye.”
A few months later Liz Bishop telephoned me. I wasn’t surprised to hear from her since we’d made a nice connection when she was in Providence, and we promised to stay in touch. She invited me to Boston, to lunch with Julia, and Julia had a question that did surprise me. Marian was working on a second book, had her own television show and a growing family that needed more of her time, so she could not commit to all the work Julia needed. Was I available to work with the Julia team? And, just like that, I hopped on Julia’s cart, and I would be saying “sou-ffle” with her for the next twenty-four years.
“Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child,” by Nancy Verde Barr, will be published in May by John Wiley and Sons.