Tall Tree and Sweet Flower: Julia Child in Sonoma | Leo Racicot

from Gastronomica 14:3

Julia Child stood out like a diamond wherever she was, not only because she loomed so tall, not only due to that Julia cartoon chortle she let loose with so liberally, but because her spirit, her natural joie de vivre dazzled you instantly. She raised being a bon viveur to an art, a lifestyle. Julia got people cooking and eating lusciously, and almost single-handedly transformed the American table into more than a plate of steak and a baked potato. She owned her craft, and she knew it. Nothing was snob-driven about it. It was confidence, and she possessed it in spades and it was always lovely to behold, lovely to listen to her talk and to watch her work.

She often (though not as often as she would have liked) could be found dwarfing the rooms of Last House bungalow in bonny Glen Ellen visiting her pal, Mary Frances (M.F.K. Fisher). The two had met during that predestined winter when she, MF, James Beard, and the still-mysterious Michael Field (not nearly enough has been written about this culinary nonesuch and his contributions to global cuisine) gathered together at Julia and Paul Child’s French country house, La Pitchoune (“The Little One”), for the first of many glorious and historic visits in the years to come.

Following a hip replacement operation, Mary Frances was somewhat bedridden, and so “guest chefs” would grace her already graceful home and do the cooking and be company for her. It was not uncommon to walk in to find Julia, Chuck Claibourne (Craig), Judith Jones, or Jim Beard at the stove/sink/cabinet/fridge chopping/kneading/dicing/pureeing away, the sunshine laying its California warmth over warm bread or a fresh tossed salad. This band of merry chefs, chattering away like woodland creatures, filled the eaves and corners of the bungalow, their wit and laughter rising like the bread dough in the cozy oven, echoing out past the door to the wild lupines outside. They were special souls—kitchen royalty—but they didn’t flaunt it, although once in a while James Beard would become crusty in his comments, causing his compatriots to whisper, “That One wouldn’t give a cough drop to Camille!”

Three cooks at the sink: Craig Claiborne, Jim Beard, and Julia in M.F.K.’s kitchen.
Photograph by Paul Child, courtesy of the Schlesinger Library Women’s Collection, Radcliffe College

Julia and MF held each other in high regard, as friends, yes, but also as women who had managed to make it big in industries (food and writing) previously dominated by men. Mary Frances, in fact, had felt compelled to choose the rather masculine and mysterious pseudonym, M.F.K., to have her books even be seen by chauvinistic publishers. “They thought M.F.K. Fisher must be some sort of Oxford don,” she would laugh.

Though not a pretty face, Julia’s was a genial, unique face, made even more genial and unique by TV fame. By contrast, Mary Frances’s face held a soft, perfumed kindness, an “I like you right off the bat as long as you don’t show me why I shouldn’t” prettiness and accessibility; her complexion glowed like pink tissue paper, translucent and light, no makeup needed. She was the supple, more feminine of the two. Julia often joked, “I’m the man.”

MF welcomed new people in without conducting an interview. Any scrutinizing of you was done inside her. Julia was more the “50 questions” type. “So where are you from? What do you do?”

Julia was more impulsive than MF, if only slightly so. One time, I remember Julia had a sudden idea that we should all go over to the vineyard to pick fresh grapes, and maybe some snails (if snails were to be had!). Most of us needed the ladders provided for the Mexican migrants who worked the ranch. What a sight to see Julia, her oak branch arms upstretched—Is this a word? It seems the only word for it!—without strain reach even higher than we on our ladders could. Her sister, Dorothy—she easily dwarfed the 6’2″ Julia by a mile (those McWilliams sisters were a marvel and a hoot to behold)—reached and won the unannounced competition for “most snails and grapes picked.” It became something out of an A.A. Milne tale when Kim Scheufftan decided to motor us all up to Petaluma, where we sat on the dusty, dry grass and made a late lunch of our booty and tossed jokes and bons mots like volleyballs across the net of the afternoon’s goodwill. A winning day!

A view from M.F.K.’s kitchen porch.
Photograph by Paul Child, courtesy of the Schlesinger Library Women’s Collection, Radcliffe College

Another time, I observed for the first time ever, though not for the last, Julia’s habit of throwing things on the floor after she was through with them; recipes, letters, books, newspapers, and magazines were flung to the ground until there she was, this giant Buddha of a Soul, sitting amid a big mess.

One moment stands out: Mary Frances and Julia were poking through photos taken of Julia’s French Chef TV show, seeing which ones were suitable to be included in a new book. In one photo—a very fun photo—Julia is seen on the set of her show not from the front where the audience saw her; rather, from the side—a sidelong view. There, crouched on the floor all around her at her feet, unseen by the audience, was her crew handing her pots, pans, spoons, spatulas, as needed. “My mice,” she liked to call them. Julia, who had been vetoing each and every photo she and MF examined by tossing it to the floor, said of this one, “Oh, I don’t know!” and sent it sailing away like a Frisbee only to have MF’s cat, Charlie, leap to the air to catch it and paw it approvingly. The two gals had a good laugh. “Well, that settles that,” said Julia. “That picture’s in!”

Julia, even late in life, was made of strong stuff, ageless energy, waking with the rooster and working nonstop until past midnight. In my favorite Julia Child story, she is making her way through San Francisco International toting two enormous pieces of luggage with ease. (Keep in mind that she is nearing 90). Two ladies, maybe late 50s, early 60s, lugging light, little makeup cases and travel satchels, appear, huffing and puffing. Julia sees them and says, “However do they manage?!” I said, “Who?” And without so much as the slightest trace of irony in her voice, Julia said, “The old folks!” And on she marched down the terminal runway, taking giant steps like Paul Bunyan…

M.F.K. Fisher, Last House, Glen Ellen, California.
Photograph by Paul Child, courtesy of the Schlesinger Library Women’s Collection, Radcliffe College

MF and Julia held a profound lifelong affection and admiration for one another. They shone. Being with them, you felt you were inside a pearl, or inside twin pearls, looking out at the world and all its possibilities with new eyes. With them, there was always food in the bowl, heat in the hearth, laughter and peace at the table. What more could be wanted?

Picture the two of them—tall tree and sweet flower—their long day in the kitchen done, walking their glasses of wine out to the yard and beyond to the field, the sun so grateful to bring its glow to their dusky, burnished companionship, the eucalyptus trees clacking in the breeze of evening. We can imagine what they say to each other as Julia waits for her ride to the airport—

“See you again in the spring…”