Written for Edible Santa Barbara - Winter 2020
“People who love to eat are always the best people.”
Julia Child was being interviewed on television. When asked to what she owed her longevity she said, without missing a beat, in her trademark warbling, cooing voice, “Red meat and Gin!” I was captivated. Here was a woman who spoke her mind. She told the interviewer that we should eat all things, but in moderation, and that butter, cheese and crème fraiche were all good for you. This was language I understood. She was speaking about food the way my French grandmother had. I couldn’t explain the instant connection I felt with her, but I did, and immediately set up about putting pen to paper, to write Julia a thank you note for just being, well, Julia. Deciding to write the note was the easy part, delivering it was more complicated.
I knew that she lived in Montecito, a few miles down the road from where I lived as it turned out. I had also read that she had built a house in Provence, called La Pitchoune, a house that was filled with friends, good food, laughter and conversation, a house in which she tested recipes, made jam from fruit picked in the garden and cured olives from the ancient, gnarled trees that dotted the property. By a complete coincidence, I had recently cured some olives, and decided to add a jar to the note propped up on my kitchen table. Two days later it was still there. My wise mum, nodding her head in the direction of the note and olives, stated the obvious. “They are not going to deliver themselves you know, Pascale. Let’s drive them over to her place.” “Um, yes I will” I remember replying, to which she promptly picked up the card, olives and my car keys, saying in her practical no-nonsense voice “Non, we are doing this now”. I tried to reason that one could not just waltz over to Casa Dorinda and ask to see Julia Child. We didn’t see her of course, but left the package for her at the reception desk.
I thought no more about the package until about four weeks later when a small, white, typed postcard arrived in the mail. It was from Julia. I was completely stunned, and touched that she had taken the time to send a few words detailing how she had taken the olives to a friends for dinner. I was so delighted that I sent her a thank you for her thank you, this time accompanied by a jar of apricot jam. One week later I received another card. She had eaten the entire jar with friends over breakfast one morning. Incredible! I pondered sending a third thank you, but decided that may be regarded as over enthusiastic on my part. I was still pondering contacting her again, when fate intervened.
I received an unexpected call from a friend. “Whatever you’re doing, drop it. I’m coming to pick you up. Julia Child is giving a talk at my sister’s house and you’re coming with me to meet her!” Thirty minutes later I found myself in an enormous private kitchen with sixty other people, all devoted fans. I stood at the back of the room and watched their rapt attention, hanging on every sage word spoken by the often-witty Mrs. Child. It was at that moment that I fully understood the reverence and regard everyone held her in. Her television program and book had not made the transition to Britain, so I had not grown up hearing her voice, nor seeing her on The French Chef. I bought a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking after I had moved to California, and had delved into it, comparing her recipes with my grandmothers to see how closely they followed each other. They did in so many ways. Eerily so. Now, here she was, 40 feet away from me, with a sea of eager people itching to ask her questions. After the cooking demonstration she sat in an adjoining room signing books. I saw no opportunity to approach her, and was about to leave, when I was suddenly propelled toward her by the host of the event. “Now’s your chance, introduce yourself” She said, and left me standing in front of her.
Julia was seated in a very low chair so one had to either bend down over her or basically get down on one knee, which is precisely what I did. Like a supplicant, I realized afterwards. I wasn’t quite sure what to say, so introduced myself by telling her that I was the one who had sent the olives and the apricot jam. I didn’t for an instant think she would remember, but was once again astonished that she did. We briefly discussed the source of the olives, France, my heritage, Provence and food writing. She then suggested that we should “get together” when she got back from her planned visit to the east coast. “I’ll be back in six weeks, call me.” She said, scribbling her phone number on a tiny piece of paper. I thanked her and said I would.
“The only real stumbling block is fear of failure.
In cooking you've got to have a what-the-hell attitude.”
Six weeks later to the day, my lovely Mum called and asked, “have you called?” No. I had not. Nor did I the next day, or the next. What on earth was I going to say? Finally knowing that I would have to answer the inevitable question of why I hadn’t called, I picked up the phone and dialed her number. I expected someone else to answer the phone. I did not expect her sonorous voice on the other end of the line. Ah…now what should I do? Perhaps I should have thought this through a little more carefully! “Ah, Hello Julia, It’s Pascale.” I explained. We chatted for a few minutes about her trip. Then I invited her to lunch, at home. “I don’t drive you know” she said. “Not a problem.” I replied. “I’ll pick you up.” A week later I did just that.
“One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.”
? Julia Child, My Life in France
It was to be the first of many meals we shared together over the course of the next few years. She had a great appetite for the food she liked to eat. If she didn’t like it, she usually, deftly ignored the dish. I tested recipes on her. Before you ask, had I lost my marbles in doing so, who better to tell me if the dish worked, or not! I once served her a lentil terrine. She took one bite, put her fork down and made a face. I took a bite. I made a face too. It was much too dry. We didn’t eat it. I apologized. She held up her hand and said, “Never apologize for your food.” Right. I took a deep breath. I went back to the kitchen and served something else. Lesson learned.
“You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made,' [Chef Bugnard] said.
'Even after you eat it, it stays with you - always.”
? Julia Child, My Life in France
I have a penchant for Provence and its food. I cooked many of my favorite dishes for Julia, including a golden, buttery Tarte a l ’Onion, but as much as Julia loved Provence, the dishes she seemed to love the most were firmly ensconced in the pantheon of classic French cooking. She mopped up the crème fraîche sauces I made with gusto, and relished the canard a l ’orange. One day, I decided to make her a cheese souffle. It had risen beautifully and I placed it carefully on the table between us. I quickly stepped into the kitchen to get the salad, by the time I returned, less than two minutes later, Julia had spooned out half of the soufflé onto her plate and was tucking in. “I adore soufflés” she enthused. She was enjoying herself. I was too. Sitting on the terrace with her that day, eating that dish, is a memory I will always treasure.
Serves 8 people
3 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon for the soufflé mold
3 tablespoons unbleached flour
1 1/3 cups milk
2 tablespoons crème fraiche
8 oz grated Gruyere, Compté, Cheddar or Emmenthal or a mixture including some goat cheese
5 egg yolks
8 egg whites
This is very good served with some crème fraiche or yoghurt that has been mixed with finely chopped chives and parsley.
We feasted and feted together. We dined at home and in restaurants. We laughed and chuckled about the news, politics, and food. I loved cooking meals for her.
On one particular occasion, a special birthday celebration for my mother, we stopped to pick Julia up on the way back home. Jay, an old family friend was visiting from the East Coast. He was a grand gourmand and something of a gourmet cook. He and my mother used to cook up a storm together when he visited us in London. “Who are we picking up he asked?” “Julia” my mother answered. “Do I know her?” he asked as we pulled up outside her home. I should add at this point that Jay was a formidable business man, and not a person to be easily surprised. It was therefore a charming and priceless moment when Julia was helped into the car and seated next to him. He was momentarily speechless, but recovered to be a gallant dinner companion, and wonderful raconteur for the rest of the evening.
Thumbing through my copies of Julia’s books, reflecting on the meals I shared with her, I found the menu from that evening, their place cards, and a photo showing Jay; pleased as punch, with Julia and Mum laughing on either side of him, tucked between the pages of the recipe for Pommes Anna. Time telescoped back to that dinner in true Proustian fashion, and found myself savoring each course in my taste buds, hearing the clinking of glasses, the children’s laughter, and Happy Birthday being sung.
Smoked Salmon Millefeuille with Watercress and Arugula Salad
Rib Roast with Sauce Bordelaise
Petit Pois Genevieve and Pommes Anna
Plateau de Fromages
Gâteau au Chocolat
Poignantly, I realized how much I miss those conversations, dinners, her bon mots and no-nonsense views on life.
Julia encouraged me to write about food, and was one of the first people to pre-order my first cookbook. She insisted that my co-author and I cash the check that she had written for it, guessing, correctly, that we would rather have framed it. “I will know if you haven’t” she said with a knowing look in her eye, adding practically, “This is business.” I deposited the check.
She had high expectations of those around her. I strove to live up to them and her oft quoted adage, “You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces - just good food from fresh ingredients.” Her maxim has become my raison d'être.