My plane to Paris was scheduled to depart Boston’s Logan Airport at 6:45. We had boarded on time and were waiting to take off when the captain announced that some mechanical difficulties had arisen, so the plane would be grounded until they were repaired. Well, at least they were letting us off the plane, if only to cool our heels in the airport. We all filed back into the waiting area, disgruntled and hungry. But my annoyance turned to sudden exhilaration as none other than Julia Child sat down in the seat next to me! She was, as she always seemed to be, all smiles, undaunted by any unforeseen occurrence. Just another typical airport incident, her demeanor seemed to imply. I didn’t want to be a pest, but there were so many questions to ask. Which TV episode from The French Chef, I wondered, was her favorite? What did she think were the origins of Nesselrode Pie? And if she could luxuriate in any food at all, what would she choose? Her answers were confounding. Her favorite episode, it seemed, was “anything but Star Trek,” her favorite food, “anything but bad Chinese.” I found myself scrambling to write down her answers, save them for further thought—they must carry some deeper meaning. But to my dismay, the notebook I was holding turned out to be a damp kitchen sponge, and every time I wrote on it the ink seeped into the surface and bled. I somehow managed to peel back the layers of the sponge and write repeatedly on it, but the process was frustrating, and I despaired of ever being able to parse my scrawls. Meanwhile, Julia chattered on, making lively pronouncements about everything from sweetbreads to serving bowls. Thrilled at the distraction, I forgot about the delayed flight and all the inconveniences that would no doubt ensue on my arrival in Paris.
And then I woke up. Sitting up in bed at 4 A.M. I couldn’t help laughing. Even in death, Julia was making people smile, still making them comfortable with her (literally) larger-than-life personality.
Like millions of other Americans, I claimed Julia as part of my experience, which is why the news of her death caused such an emotional response. It’s true that I’d met her a few times, first in her Cambridge home when she had a group of us to tea after a lecture on Dutch still-life paintings at the Fogg Art Museum. I was new to the food world then, and wide-eyed at her kitchen, which was already famous for its pegboard delineating the shapes of the pans and for its complete lack of pretension. Even more memorably, in 1994 she presented me with the Julia Child Award for my Georgian Feast, affirming that I could, and should, continue my study of food. But these were fleeting encounters. Julia wasn’t a friend of mine except in the sense that she was to all of us who fell in love with her brilliant, wacky public self.
In the aftermath of her passing, I’ve been amazed at the outpouring of newspaper letters to the editor and postings on e-mail listservs—from people who never actually met Julia but whose lives she still managed to touch. Reaching out from her public television show, she encouraged us to take risks in the kitchen, to try the most sophisticated and difficult French dishes, and, above all, to have fun. Was it her confidence in us, her high patrician voice, or her totally unpretentious manner that made us fall in love with her? It’s always risky to call someone an icon. By doing so we pigeonhole that person, diminishing him or her to an emblem devoid of any complexity. But Julia did become an American icon, someone claimed by the American public; we felt comfortable enough to refer to her simply as “Julia.” You might say that Julia brought us up. She guided Americans in an understanding and embrace of French food traditions and fostered an intrepid approach to the kitchen.
To honor Julia, Gastronomica will publish a special commemorative issue in August 2005 devoted entirely to the cultural and culinary legacies of Julia Child.