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Valerie Phillips: Where would we be without Julia Child?

Published: Thursday, July 30 2015 2:42 a.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) 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.

FILE- In this Aug. 21, 1978 file photo shows American television chef Julia Child showing a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in Grasse, southern France.  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) (Associated Press) FILE- In this Aug. 21, 1978 file photo shows American television chef Julia Child showing a salade nicoise she prepared in the kitchen of her vacation home in Grasse, southern France. 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) (Associated Press)

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.)

Julia Child and Judith Jones work in Julia's kitchen.  PAUL CHILD (Nancy Palmieri, Associated Press) Julia Child and Judith Jones work in Julia's kitchen. PAUL CHILD (Nancy Palmieri, Associated Press)

"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.

Julia Child would have been 100 years old on Aug 15. (Associated Press) Julia Child would have been 100 years old on Aug 15. (Associated Press)

(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."

FILE-This 1967 file photo shows Julia Child explaining FILE-This 1967 file photo shows Julia Child explaining "with a little practice" you can do everything with the flare of a gourmet. 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) (Associated Press)

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

Her wealthy California family had a hired cook, and the 6-foot, 2-inch Julia McWilliams was more interested in playing tennis and basketball. After graduating from Smith College, she worked in the Office of Strategic Services during World War II and was stationed in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). It was there that she met Paul Child, also in the OSS.

Learning to cook: At age 34, Julia wanted to cook for her new husband, a sophisticated gourmet. "I went into it seriously with Gourmet magazine and 'Joy of Cooking' as my guides," she said. "It took hours to get dinner on the table, but he was encouraging."

When Paul took a job at the American embassy in Paris, she enrolled in France's prestigious Cordon Bleu cooking school. She later opened her own cooking school with two Frenchwomen, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. They called it "L'Ecole des 3 Gourmandes" (translation: "School of the Three Happy Eaters") and collaborated on a French cookbook for Americans. They tried to demystify French cooking with step-by-step, detailed instructions.

The Anne Frank connection: Julia's cookbook was rejected by several publishers before Judith Jones, a young editor at Alfred E. Knopf, helped her hone it into a user-friendly tome. Jones had a knack for picking winners; she also saved "The Diary of Anne Frank" from the rejection pile.

A few years ago I met Jones, now in her 80s and a senior editor at Knopf. She regaled the Association of Food Journalists with stories from her own memoirs, "The Tenth Muse" (Anchor Books), which would also make a great foodie movie.

When "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was finally published in 1961, the timing was perfect; the Kennedys had hired a French chef for the White House, Americans were doing a lot of traveling to Europe, and French food was considered the height of chic and sophistication.

Behind every great woman: Julia and Simone embarked on a do-it-yourself cross-country book tour to "drum up some sales," as Julia told it. They went to ladies' clubs, where they cooked things such as omelets, Roquefort quiche and fish mousse on a portable stove. Then, while Julia and Simone signed books, Paul (who by then was retired) washed the dishes, sometimes in a restroom sink if there were no kitchen facilities.

"I often marvel at this valiant and uncomplaining contribution to our cause by a former diplomat and cultural attache," Julia said.

To promote the book, Julia appeared on WGBH, Boston's educational television station, and demonstrated how to make an omelet. This led to a series, "The French Chef," that earned her the Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966.

DVDs of the black-and-white episodes show an unpretentious Julia energetically slapping around hunks of raw beef and pounding butter with a rolling pin to soften it.

Thanks to "Saturday Night Live" and other parodies, the public might assume she was a klutz. But if you have a chance to watch any of her shows, you realize she was actually very nimble — cracking and opening an egg with one hand without losing any bits of shell in the bowl or skillfully using a pastry bag.

In truth, her segments were painstakingly scripted and choreographed beforehand, with Paul timing each step with his stopwatch. In her memoirs, "My Life in France," as well as Bob Spitz's "Dearie," it's evident that Paul was an equal partner in her success.

Her legacy: In our youth- and looks-obsessed culture, would Julia have had a chance as a cooking show host today?

She was in her 50s when her shows began airing. Today's TV honchos might have overlooked her, thinking she lacked the beauty of Sandra Lee, the cool sophistication of Martha Stewart, or the body of Giada deLaurentiis. But her shows featured timeless technique, a wealth of knowledge and an encouraging delivery.

And without Julia Child, would there even be any cooking shows today? She came first, and paved the way for everyone else who followed.

Valerie Phillips is the former Deseret News food editor. She blogs at www.chewandchat.blogspot.com.

Email: vphillips@desnews.com

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