The Woman Behind the Icon | Darra Goldstein and Corky White

For five years now, Gastronomica has celebrated eclecticism by featuring the work of scholars and artists, amateurs and professionals, cartoonists and cooks. Only once before (in Fall 2001) have we devoted an entire issue to a single subject. But last year, after Julia Child died, it seemed only right to compile a special issue to honor Julia and deepen our understanding of her place in American culture.

Julia wasn’t merely a narrow popularizer of French food or an implausibly tall and high-voiced TV personality. She was a far more complicated person than those readily accessible images might imply. How many viewers of The French Chef or readers of Mastering the Art of French Cooking knew that she began her career in the Office of Strategic Services, or that she spoke out against McCarthyism, or that she really did devote weeks to testing and retesting recipes to make sure that they worked perfectly? Julia Child’s recipes represented far more than their precise measurements suggested. By opening the nation to a new range of gastronomic possibilities, she truly changed the way Americans thought about food. Yet even that was not enough for her. Julia believed that with her dream of a good culinary landscape came social engagement, and that responsibility is something she did not shirk.

In these pages you’ll discover the woman beneath the icon as you learn about Julia’s politics, for which she was willing to stick out her considerably long neck. It is worth noting that despite the hate mail she received for her political stance, she backed down not an inch. Julia had the power of her convictions—whether that meant making a proper baguette from scratch or standing by her progressive political beliefs. She chose at some risk to do the latter publicly, and for this, too, she deserves praise.

Inside you’ll also find the playfully erotic poems her husband, Paul, wrote for her birthdays. You’ll share in the jokes—sometimes off-color—that she loved to tell. And you’ll find out what happened the first time she dined alone. Yet even with these offerings, we merely begin to touch on the richness of Julia’s life and legacy. I hope that it will prove a starting point for others to consider her contributions.

As usual, we have an exciting roster of writers and artists, including people who knew and loved Julia and those who never knew her but loved her anyway. Special thanks are in order this time around. First, to my husband, Dean Crawford, who not only suggested an issue devoted to Julia Child but shepherded it through with his continual love and support; Corky White, who recruited an amazing cast of contributors and kept me laughing, even at the worst moments; Jacalyn Blume, from the Schlesinger Library, who brought undiscovered treasures to our attention and whose cheerful competence kept the project on track; Jane Canova, Gastronomica‘s dauntless managing editor and de facto house counsel; Frances Baca, Gastronomica‘s brilliant designer, who turned an especially challenging batch of materials into a splendid issue; and the production team at the University of California Press, whose enthusiasm for Gastronomica never wanes.

For about a year now, Julia Child has been my nearly daily companion. You couldn’t ask for a better one. When Darra Goldstein asked me to join her in putting together this volume, I hesitated—for a nanosecond. But Julia was more insistent than anything on my crowded schedule, and now I’m finding it hard to say that our work together, Darra’s, Julia’s, and mine, is done. I have more than revisited Julia in this work; I have heard new lessons in the same old wonderful tones. I hope that her voice—funny, valiant, passionate, intimate—comes through loud and clear.

Using editorial privilege, I will speak of how she was—and is—part of my life. Forty years ago, as a young bride, I had two cookbooks: Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume i. I show these volumes, covered now in grey duct tape, to my anthropology food classes. They have become fetishes for me, in the anthropological sense of objects imbued with layers of magic and identity. Each opens to its most stained and used page: J of C, to Brownies Cockaigne, and JC’s, to Reine de Saba. No coincidence that both are chocolate.

When the books and I were still relatively untried, I was a very young caterer and often desperate for help. When you are only as good as your last meal, you need skill and nerve. I had little of the first and sometimes too much of the second, but both failed me on occasion. Julia had offered to help at such moments. I suspect all of my calls to her began in tears. One example will suffice.

Preparing a casual luncheon for fifty Europeanists at Harvard, I burned a cauldron of Ukrainian borscht, and the acrid stench filled the room. In terror, I decanted the lot into several clean pots, sat on the floor and sobbed, thinking all was lost. Still gasping and tearful, I called Julia.

“Dearie—get working! Do you have lemons? Squeeze them into the soup; they’ll cut the scorch. Do you have sour cream? Make sure they take a lot of it! More fresh parsley! Now, here’s what you do: in the nicest tureens you can find, carry the soup into the dining room and announce the special of the day: SMOKED BORSCHT!”

Rescued. And taught a lesson not so much in cooking but in confidence, all in one fantastic demonstration of showmanship.

Through working with the wonderful writers in this issue, I have learned so many stories of Julia’s gallant, optimistic bravery. And more news of my old neighborhood and its denizens than my parents, who lived there, ever told me: reading the collection of Julia’s letters and those of her friends in the Schlesinger Library, I felt that I was eavesdropping on adult conversations from the staircase during my parents’ dinner parties. But Julia was so much less snobby, precious, or intellectually competitive than her academic neighbors. She was opinionated, and more power to her, but she hated sacred cows, and our world at the time had a huge herd of them.

One of these letters rings with Julia’s iconoclasm; she could make fun even of French pretensions and “authenticity”:

This dogmatism in France is enraging … making a damned mystery out of perfectly simple things just to puff themselves up. … For instance, I am always having fun asking various people about La Vraie Bouillabaisse, and get as many dogmatic vraies recettes de la vraie B as made by the vrais pecheurs as I ask questions. … Well, says one woman, “Nous, nous de la vraie Mediterranee, nous ne mettons jamais les tomates dans la Bouillabaisse, nous, jamais. …” Balls. La Vraie Recette from le vrai cuisinier provencale Reboul, has tomatoes. … (To Avis De Voto, 28 February, 1953)

My last encounter with Julia, just before she moved west, cast the same old glow. After many good-bye parties and public appearances, Julia and I were shopping. We pushed our carts through the market together. Her companion helped her find just the right things, some strawberries, greens—mesclun, I believe—then a stop at the fish counter for six perfect oysters, down the aisles for a bit of veal, a crusty bread, a half pint of heavy cream. As we went through the market, I noticed that a cluster of carts, at a respectful distance, was following, and indeed one man was taking exactly what Julia had taken, even asking the fish man to give him “the same oysters Julia bought.” When we reached the checkout, I turned around and saw a huge half-circle of carts massed behind us. I nudged Julia, who seemed not to have noticed her following: “Turn around, Julia! Look who’s here!” And she did, seeing a sea of broad smiles and love. She waved and called out, “Bon Appétit!”

Corky White