Happy birthday Julia! As the 10th anniversary of her death passes, remembrances of Julia Child on her August 15th birthday take me back to 1983. When now I realize my lunch with her was very close to her 71st birthday—and we celebrated my graduation from culinary school in Paris together.
My not-so-secret dream when I was in college was to go to cooking school. But I was pursuing what I thought was more legitimate study: a four-year degree in science. As a chemistry major I had higher aspirations for a career in medical research. But I was working my way through school in the garde manger of a private club kitchen, at a French cookware store selling (and buying) high-end culinary tools and assisting traveling cooking teachers, even catering cocktail parties for my parent’s friends. Finally recognizing my unhappiness at school, my mom asked me what I really liked? My immediate reply: “To cook.” So she steered me to the school of home economics, where all my science credits transferred into a Bachelor of Science in nutrition and food science (a consumer service-based version) in 1981. I landed a job in a large corporate test kitchen—but not before grudgingly filling out an application for an “international culinary fellowship” my mom had found in one of the many cooking magazines she had strewn about our family room. I never thought I had a snowball’s chance of getting it, but gathered the letters of reference from my college advisor and the chef I worked for and mailed it in—minutes before moving halfway across the country.
Fast-forward about 10 months, I’d just gotten home from work, and my phone rings. It’s my mom, absolutely giddy because she’s just talked to Julia Child! Julia, the giver and mentor, had established a fellowship for young Americans who already had some culinary skills and advanced education, but needed what she considered important French classical training. With the goal that it would bring them back to continue her work educating Americans about appreciating and making good food. She had awarded one or two already, with the recipients heading to Paris. When my mom called, she said that Julia would be calling shortly (of course the phone number on my application was my parents' home). And she did. We had a brief conversation that consisted of her asking “are you still interested in going to cooking school?” and my reply of “YES”! But I had the small problem of a job and despite 6 years of high school and college French, pretty limited language skills. So I negotiated an unpaid leave of absence, spent some concentrated time at the Alliance Française, and winged my way to Paris the next year. I attended LaVarenne Ecole de Cuisine to earn an advanced culinary diploma. British food writer Anne Willan, who founded LaVarenne, was a tight friend of Julia’s. So for the short life of the International Culinary Fellowship (it morphed into other scholarship programs) the handful of lucky wanabe chefs ended up at Anne’s doorstep. The highlight of my time in Paris was my graduation, when Julia and Paul Child came to school and had lunch with my small group of fellow graduates. Julia sat at the head of the lunch table, which was the same table we ate at every day at the end of morning class. I sat at Paul Child’s right, and I truly believe I’ve never met anyone so dapper and gallant. We had a raucous meal, lots of laughter, and when Julia lifted her soup bowl to drink the last drop of a shrimp bisque we’d made, we all felt like family.
Throughout the years I experienced what so many of us who knew her did—a kindness and true caring about colleagues who were passionate in the same way she was about sharing our knowledge of cooking, good food, and wine with Americans. We kept in touch; I have a collection of the 3x5-inch postcards with her logo and typed missives she’d send whenever I reached out to her to share a professional success or personal milestone (getting married, having babies). All signed with her familiar scrawled “Julia” at the bottom. We had the kind of collegial relationship of a mentor and mentee, but I’ve always thought of her as my fairy godmother and that I’m just one of her many acolytes.
Postscript: I've had a few people ask what I thought of the movie "Julie and Julia." First off, I wish I'd had the idea to do what Julie Powell did! Secondly, Meryl Streep totally channeled Julia (even though she's much shorter in stature.) Thirdly, I completely disagree about the assertion at the end of the movie that Julia didn't acknowledge or like what Julie did. Julia loved anyone who cooked and I can't believe that she would not have really liked that Julie truly used her books like college textbooks.