I am celebrating her birthday in her absence. She would have turned 102 today, and she would have done it in style, sitting at a table surrounded by friends and loved ones. Paul would have been there, of course, the love of her life. Their courtship and long relationship should be the envy of us all. James Beard would be at her side, as well.
I won’t speculate about the menu, but I would not be unhappy for Julia Child if a waiter brought her sole meunière at some point during the meal. I feel a lot of passion for that dish, because it is what awakened Child’s senses and opened her mind to the wonders of good food, and the preparation of it. It was November, 1948, and she and Paul had just arrived in France. They were on their way to Paris, but needed to eat during the drive. It was Julia’s (allow me to refer to her as “Julia”) first meal in France, and she writes of it in “My Life in France” in this manner:
Rouen is famous for its duck dishes, but after consulting the waiter Paul had decided to order the sole meunière. It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said: “Bon appétit!”
I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection. … At La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I’d ever had before.
As a child, I watched Julia on television. I am sure that back then I did not know what to think of her. My mother was born in Savannah, as was I, and I was very familiar with crab and shrimp and clams and pheasant and fried chicken and Cornish hen and even some less familiar sorts of seafood, but this tall woman with the funny voice … well, she had a way with those things that was different. She made me want to learn as much about them as I could. Little did I know that she would become a profound part of my life. I’m grateful she did, and I am certain many of you feel the same.
Every chance I get to “mingle” with Julia I take. In Napa, I visited Copia – the cultural and educational center dedicated to the discovery, understanding, and celebration of wine, food, and the arts in American culture – to see some of the pots and pans and other tools that she used in her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen. Copia, which she helped found, is now closed, but those pots and pans are in the Smithsonian, so when I was in D.C. in 2013 I visited them there.
I’ve spoken with people who met her, and with a few people who cooked with her. In Houston, I ran across a letter she wrote to Robert Del Grande, which now hangs in his restaurant, RDG+Bar Annie. I talk about her with people all of the time, and when I met Mike Lata in 2007 at Blackberry Farm we talked about how she is the reason he cooks. I have many of her books, and never tire of watching her shows: her solo ventures, segments with other chefs, and the beautiful series she made with her great friend, Jacques Pépin. I never met her, but it is not because I did not try. Once, when I was in Cambridge, I went to her house and knocked on the door. No one answered … I assume she was away. I don’t know what I would have done if she had answered.
Most profoundly, I cook with her. Not a day goes by that I don’t see her, in my mind’s eye, standing at a stove or counter, chopping an onion or pounding a piece of veal or hoisting a pot. She, in ways that I have yet to fully realize, taught me how to cook, taught me how to see the wisdom and grace that food possesses. And that is much more of a gift than that little boy watching her on television all those years ago could have ever expected.
Thank you, Julia, and Happy Birthday. I love and miss you.