Happy 100th Birthday Julia and a recipe for Reine de Saba (Chocolate and Almond Cake)
I don’t think about whether people will remember me or not. I’ve been an okay person. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve taught people a thing or two. That’s what’s important. Sooner or later the public will forget you, the memory of you will fade. What’s important are the individuals you’ve influenced along the way. – Julia Child
This is a celebration of what would be Julia Child’s 100th birthday as shared through the recollections and intimate stories of a few of her close friends and several members of Les Dames d’Escoffier International, of which Julia Child was a member. Les Dames d’Escoffier (LDEI) is a culinary organization that has helped transform the role of women in the culinary arts. I have also asked Melanie Young, current President of Les Dames d’Escoffier New York (LDNY) to share her thoughts on the future of LDEI in this evolving culinary world.
It has been many years since Julia Child awakened our culinary senses with her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef. To think that Julia’s first lunch in France with her husband Paul could alter the course of America’s relationship with food and cooking is dramatic. Oysters on the half-shell, Sole Meunière, salad after the meal and all served with a bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. Not all that unusual in France, but that meal was life changing for Julia Child and for so many of us who have been inspired by her. I would not be sitting here writing about Julia’s 100th birthday if she had not had such a great influence on my own life.
Contributing to this article, in addition to Melanie Young are: Carol Brock, the founder of Les Dames d’Escoffier International (LDEI), Dorie Greenspan (member LDNY and author of Baking with Julia and Around My French Table), and Margaret Happel Perry (Chair of the LDNY Scholarship committee). I also spoke with Nancy Verde Barr who was executive chef to Julia Child for eight years (1990 – 1998). In addition, she is the author of Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child and was the culinary producer for PBS’s Baking with Julia and ABC’s Good Morning America. These women have graciously shared their poignant memories of Julia.
Julia Child moved to France in 1948 when her husband Paul was offered a position with the United States Information Service (USIS). Her fascination with French food and cooking began after experiencing that first lunch in the town of Rouen in France at La Couronne. She was so inspired by French cooking that on October 4, 1949 (at age thirty-seven) she began classes at the École du Cordon Bleu to pursue culinary studies.
Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961 after some early difficulties with the initial publisher. Nancy Barr said, “She was thrilled when it was published. What made it really special was when Judith Jones at Knopf (Alfred A. Knopf) bought the book. She (Judith) had just returned from France and understood what Julia was trying to do. Julia was trying to change the way Americans wrote recipes and followed them. She wanted people to know how to really cook and with instruction. Julia was on a mission.” Approximately a year later, in 1963, The French Chef debuted on WGBH television in Boston. Julia was affectionately bestowed the title “Our Lady of the Ladle” by Time magazine in 1966.
In 1977, Carol Brock created Les Dames d’Escoffier to provide opportunities for women to advance in the culinary arts. Historically a male-dominated industry, LDE sought to break through this barrier with mentoring, education and networking opportunities for women. The organization also provides scholarships and is involved with philanthropic pursuits. If you are not familiar with Les Dames d’Escoffier, you may read more about the history of the group here.
Each year the organization recognizes and honors those women who have made extraordinary contributions to “the culinary, fine beverage, arts of the table or related field.” As one might expect, Julia Child was their first honoree. Carol Brock recalled, “On March 27, 1977 at the Carlyle (Hotel), the premier black tie dinner for the installation of new members to Les Dames d’Escoffier, Julia Child was made our first Grande Dame. And Jim Beard attended.”
Julia Child’s life was a robust one. She saw the humor in most everything. She was a great communicator, author, educator and she was a passionate lover. She was fun loving and a big flirt. Her style and grace where incomparable.
Margaret Happel Perry: “It seems as a student, Julia was from a different mold than the traditional eastern “Smithy” (Smith College). Her easy, energetic approach to life was a needed breathe of fresh air to the college in the 1930’s. This all embracing “it-can-be-done” attitude was something that carried her into the success of her TV programs and took the intimidation out of French cooking for her audience.”
That youthful can-do attitude and flirtatious style stayed with Julia her entire life.
Dorie Greenspan: “My husband Michael, our then college-aged son, Joshua, and I drove to Cambridge to take Julia to lunch right before she was to move to Santa Barbara. As we were about to leave the house, Stephanie Hersh, her long-time and wonderful assistant, pulled me aside and said, ‘You’ve got to take Julia’s walker. She hates using it, but you wouldn’t want her to fall while you’re in charge, would you?’ She said it with her signature twinkle and smile, but I knew that she was worried about Julia being wobbly. I grabbed the walker, got a quick lesson on how to fold it up and went out to present it to Julia. Too late – she was headed for the door. ‘Julia, I’ve got your walker,’ I called out. Julia linked her arm through Joshua’s, turned and said, ‘I don’t need a walker when I’ve got a handsome young man at my side.’ She leaned her head toward Joshua’s, smiled and didn’t touch the walker all afternoon. She did, however, pat my husband’s knee affectionately whenever she wanted to make a point. And even when she didn’t. Julia loved men and my men loved her back – and flirted back. ”