A toast to Julia Child

When I was a teenager during the 1960s, the women who had the greatest influence on my life were Eleanor Roosevelt, Jacqueline Kennedy and Julia Child. Mrs. Roosevelt’s dedication to human rights and her tireless efforts on behalf of those who had little still have a deep hold on me.

I was 11 years old when Jacqueline Kennedy became our nation’s First Lady. Mrs. Kennedy spoke fluent French, Spanish and Italian, loved books and made hats fashionable. As I watched her husband take the oath of office, I announced to my mother that when I grew up, I would wear hats and learn a foreign language.

Julia Child made her television debut in 1963. While my friends were watching The Beverly Hillbillies, I was glued to the set watching Julia in glorious black and white.

Julia left us on Aug. 13, two days shy of her 92nd birthday. Over the years, she had taught us plenty about cooking — and more.

Julia agreed with the late M.F.K. Fisher that "there is a communication of more than bodies when bread is broken and wine is drunk." She believed that the food was not a top priority; instead, sharing ideas and discussing the events of the day over a meal made the dishes more delicious.

On Feb. 11, 1963, Julia donned an apron and made history on public television with the debut of The French Chef. Her husband, Paul, the true love of her life, helped make Julia a household name. He was with her every step of the way from 1961, when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published, and saw her through many additional books, television shows and TV and personal appearances.

Paul planned and helped build their kitchen in their home in Cambridge, Mass., and when Julia finally moved back to Santa Barbara nearly two years ago, the kitchen was dismantled and sent to the Smithsonian Institution.

There’s been much talk about the timing of Julia’s first show. Jacqueline Kennedy, who loved all things French — the language, art, furniture, food and wine — hired Rene Verdon as White House chef. Although many American home cooks were preparing meals from boxes, cans and mixes, they became fascinated with Mrs. Kennedy’s style of entertaining. Julia intensified that fascination. She did it with intelligence and lots of humor.

When I was in graduate school in 1975, I shared a big old Victorian house with three other women, all of whom existed on junk food. I grew up eating real food because my Austrian-born grandmother always used fresh ingredients and instilled her love of cooking in my mother and in me. I told my roommates I would do the shopping and cooking and they could clean up.

I recall the first dinner I ever made for the four of us: tossed salad with Kraft Italian dressing, garlic bread, spinach lasagna and ice cream with sliced strawberries for dessert. We sipped a passable jug wine from Inglenook.

To us, it was a magical feast.

Thousands of meals later, I still carry Julia in my heart when I sniff a peach, roast a capon, whip egg whites and open a bottle of wine. She prepared what we thought were fancy French dishes early in her television career and, 40 years later, we all realized less is more, and simple and fresh are better.

I met Julia on a number of occasions. She was 6-foot-2 and one very funny lady. In 1996, when the International Association of Cooking Professionals met in Philadelphia, my friend Esther Press McManus — who joined Julia on her Baking with Julia show and is featured in the companion book — tossed a multi-course Moroccan feast in her five-story townhouse near Rittenhouse Square. The meal was in Julia’s honor and I was fortunate to have been invited.

Julia and I chatted away over sparkling flutes of French champagne. We talked about the food and wine revolution, which continues in America, watched Georges Perrier as he added a dash of Perrier to his champagne — "sacre bleu!" — and agreed that children should learn to cook and appreciate a simple meal, even if it is tuna on toast.

Julia was no food snob. She loved tuna-fish sandwiches, big juicy burgers and roast chicken as much as she enjoyed foie gras and sauterne.

After hearing of her death, I thought about writing a book called Cooking for Julia. I would ask American chefs to come up with recipes. The only guidelines would be the seasons of the year: Jacques Pepin would be given winter; Alice Waters summer, and so forth. I just might do it.

Speaking of books, I understand Julia was working on one — she might have finished it — about her love affair with France.

She and her beloved Paul were married on Sept. 1, 1946, at the home of Charley and Freddie Child in Lumberville, not far from New Hope. Charley and Freddie were Julia’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law. Julia met Paul in Sri Lanka during World War II while both were serving in the OSS, the forerunner to the CIA. After their wedding, they moved to France, where Julia graduated from the Cordon Bleu as the only woman in her class.

I own many of Julia’s books and continue to cook from them. Nearly seven years ago, Edward and I celebrated our wedding anniversary in New Hope. We checked into an inn and went shopping. I love to haunt used bookstores. I came upon a copy of The French Chef Cookbook, the companion to her black-and-white TV days. I also found Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Although I already owned a copy, I bought both books. There is a personalized inscription in the second book that I happened upon that November day. It reads, "To Ted and Dottie: Bon Appetit for all the good things of life! Freddie and Charles. February, 1970."

The handwriting is European in style. Freddie wrote the inscription in blue ink from a fountain pen. Charles wrote his name in deep green ink.

I did not know at the time who Freddie and Charles were. Several years later, I read Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child by Noel Riley Fitch. That’s when I discovered the identities of the man and woman who inscribed Julia’s book.

Bon Appetit, Julia. Toujours.