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Julia's joie de vivre

Chef who took us from TV dinners to coq au vin still beloved in her centenary year

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WASHINGTON -- Like a fine wine, which she was known to enjoy, Julia Child is aging well.

Yes, she died two days short of 92 in August 2004, but her spirit lives on. Aug. 15 marked what would have been her 100th birthday, and she would have liked nothing more than to celebrate with a big slice of cake made with lots and lots of butter.

Or, as she once famously said, "If you're afraid of butter, use cream."

Eight years after her death, Child remains a virtually untouchable American icon, even among foodies who are not known for playing well with others. As she did in life, she remains clear of any food fight, like a good cream, rising to the top.

"Her presence was like that of a goofy aunt or of the really warm elder-statesman grandmother," says Dana Cowen, editor in chief of Food & Wine magazine. "She was in the pre-snark world. She just floated above the fray."

Often given credit for opening the door to the fresh food revolution in America, which is still going strong today, Child's centenary is being celebrated in books, on PBS and at the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C., where the famous turquoise kitchen from her home in Cambridge, Mass., is getting a new home of its own.

Out of public view recently because of museum renovations, the kitchen will be back on display for a limited time, through Sept. 3, to celebrate the centenary. (It will reopen permanently in November, the anchor of a new exhibit hall titled Food: Transforming the American Table, 1950-2000.)

Child's kitchen has been one of the most popular exhibits for the museum's 4.6 million visitors annually, many making the pilgrimage just to visit Julia. In the eight months the exhibit has been closed, docents say visitors have continually asked about it.

Visitors will find Child's famous copper pots, outlined in Magic Marker and hanging on pegboards, on a new display wall. Also returning is the yellow stripped Marimekko oilcloth that covered her kitchen table, and the paintings and cutouts of cats that adorned corners of the kitchen. Even Child's AT&T Spirit phone returns to its place on the counter, left of sink, La Capelli Hair still on speed dial.

'Happy to be alive'

Meryl Streep played Child in the 2009 hit film Julie & Julia, a movie that introduced Child to a whole new and younger generation.

She perhaps summed Child up best when promoting the film on The Charlie Rose Show. "How do you define that thing that certain people have?" she asked. "She seemed happy to be alive every day of her life."

Being a good sport helped, something she might have learned growing up as the tallest girl in class back in Pasadena, Calif. In reality, she was almost six-foot-five, although Child always insisted she was only six-foot-two.

Child's biographer Bob Spitz -- his Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child (Knopf, $29.95) came out last week -- says she did not enjoy people making fun of her voice because she didn't think there was anything wrong with it. But she eagerly, and often, hammed it up, even imitating Dan Aykroyd's famous blood-spurting Saturday Night Live skit about boning a chicken (and "saving" the liver).

Pretense was not a word Child knew. She summed up her remarkable life quite simply during an interview with the CIA (Culinary Institute of America) in 1990: "I was the right person at the right time."

That right time was the early 1960s, when Child returned from Paris -- her husband Paul was in the Foreign Service -- having learned the basics of French cooking. She decided to share those basics with an American public still feasting on frozen peas, starting with Mastering the Art of French Cooking with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle in 1961.

Her motto: learn techniques, forge ahead, never apologize and never, ever look back. And use butter, but in moderation.

"Her mantra of moderation was true," says chef Ris Lacoste, owner of RIS restaurant in Washington, who was a friend and feted Child on her 90th birthday in a PBS documentary. "She would have half a sundae. She'd cook salmon poached in vermouth but always have vegetables. She ate right and enjoyed life."

She was as much a feminist as Betty Friedan, who was emerging at the same time, telling women to take charge of their own lives. Child was a supporter of Planned Parenthood and was public about her breast cancer when she had a mastectomy in 1968.

Judith Jones, Child's editor at Knopf for more than 50 years, says she, too, was in the right place at the right time. She and Child were like two peas in a pod.

"We had a very parallel awakening to what we loved and wanted to do," says Jones, who is in her late 80s and retired in Vermont. "But you have to act on it, and that's what we did."

Julia remains with Jones every day. She cooks in a kitchen where Child-inspired pegboard walls hold her pots and pans and where most everything is on open shelves --a Julia trademark. "So you can see if you're running out of lentils," Jones says.

PBS, which Child called home for years beginning with The French Chef in 1963, is celebrating her 100th birthday online, through social media and on TV -- early episodes will be aired during the celebration. Fans cooking their own versions of a Julia dish can share the experience through blogs on PBS Food and Twitter (#CookforJulia).

"We're encouraging people to get into the kitchen and cook, which is exactly what Julia would have wanted," says PBS president and CEO Paula Kerger.

There's even an app. A condensed version of Child's seminal cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking: Selected Recipes, is now available for download on the iPad, Nook Tablet and Nook Color by Barnes & Noble. Introductory price: $2.99. (List price is $4.99.)

Child wrote or co-wrote 18 books -- with sales totaling six million copies -- including best sellers such as The Way to Cook (1989) and Baking With Julia (1996), according to publisher Knopf. Mastering the Art of French Cooking has sold more than 2 million copies alone.

The anniversary has been a long time coming for Spitz, her biographer, who spent four years writing the newest homage to Child, rummaging through 86 boxes of her papers and writings stored at Harvard.

"I rank her as one of the great women of the 20th century, right along Eleanor Roosevelt and Jackie O and Oprah," says Spitz, author of the 2006 bestseller The Beatles. "This was a woman who not only changed how we eat but how we live. The food thing has evolved since her, but she lit the fuse, and the fireworks are still going off."

-- USA Today

 

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition August 18, 2012 E1

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