Valerie Phillips: Where would we be without Julia Child?

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 21 2012 3:45 p.m. MDT

FILE- This Nov. 24, 1970 file photo shows television cooking personality Julia Child preparing a French delicacy in her cooking studio. More so than the tools and techniques she popularized, Child's most lasting legacy may be her spirit and sense of humor. That was the conclusion of several chefs and food magazine editors asked to describe Child's memorable contributions to American home cooking as a new movie about her life is about to open. (AP Photo/FILE)

Nancy Palmieri, Associated Press

Last week, on Aug. 15, Julia Child would have been 100 years old. The culinary queen passed away in 2004, before she (and Meryl Streep) captured yet another generation of fans through the film "Julie and Julia" in 2009.

I've been reading the latest Julia biography "Dearie," by Bob Spitz, released to coincide with her birthday. I recommend it, as well as her memoirs titled "My Life in France."

I'm grateful for the phone interview I did when she was approaching her 90th birthday, and her parting words to me were "Cooking is really perfectly easy; it's been done for thousands of years. If you love to eat, you will be a great cook."

I had taken the day off from my job as food editor at the Deseret News, and was in the middle of organizing my cupboards when my editor, Chris Hicks, called.

Julia Child's "handlers" were trying to get in touch. She was giving interviews in connection with her 90th birthday celebration and had the next half hour free to talk. It was unlikely my chance would come again.

Feeling a little flustered, I grabbed a pen and notebook and dialed the number he gave me. When a deep, warbly voice on the other end said, "Hello," I introduced myself and started to ask for Mrs. Child.

"Oh, yes, they said you'd be calling me," the voice answered. Then it dawned on me.

"Oh, you're Julia Child! You answer your own telephone?" I blurted out.

"Yes, don't you answer your own telephone?" she asked.

"Yes, but I'm not Julia Child," I answered.

Having committed that gaffe, I quickly told her I saw her kitchen at the Smithsonian. (She donated the contents of her famous Cambridge, Mass., kitchen to the museum when she moved to Santa Barbara.)

"Oh, how were they coming with it?" she asked. "They were so persnickety about having to write down every little toothpick and all. I just left everything as it was."

"I miss the size of that kitchen," she added. "I have a very small and compact kitchen where I am now, in Santa Barbara. It's beautiful and very well-designed. But only two people can be in it at once."

Kitchen tools: Her Santa Barbara, Calif., kitchen contained a quick-cooking Advantium oven that used halogen lights. "It's one of those modern things where you can't tell it; it tells you," she said.

You may not be able to picture the queen of roast duck and souffles using a microwave. But she found it convenient. "When I'm home by myself, I can bake a potato in three minutes," she said.

(And at age 90, still being able to make your own dinner is an accomplishment, I thought.)

We chatted about some of the kitchen innovations she had witnesses in her lifetime, such as the food processor. "I couldn't live without a food processor. When you're making mushroom duxelles, it would take you an hour to chop all the mushrooms if you had to do it by hand. It's amazing."

Julia told me French cooking was still her favorite type of cuisine, "Because it's careful cooking by people who know what they're doing. I also love northern Chinese food. I don't cook it, but I eat it with great pleasure."

Cooking advice: For those who say they lack the time, Julia advised that good cooking doesn't have to be fancy and complicated. It's more about using good, fresh ingredients carefully.

"You can learn to do things like chopping and slicing very quickly. The more you learn, the quicker you are, and soon you don't even have to think to be able to do it."

She could have been talking about herself, since she didn't learn to cook until after she married.