Tuesday, August 11, 2009

My Life with Julia

My life with Julia -- big fish

Julie Powell never met Julia Child, though she cooked her dishes every day for one whole year, as I understand it, and wrote a blog about it called the Julie/Julia Project. Then there was the book, and now the movie, and what a lot of bling there is about that, mostly because Meryl Streep reportedly does such a fantastic job ‘getting’ Julia’s warble and stance while at the same time softening the granite outlines of the large woman in a way we have never seen before but know must exist.
My life with Julia -- and Paul

Julia so adored her husband, Paul Child that we know there must have been a winsomeness beneath it all; and she was so passionate about France and food that we know her public persona must have been but a banked and presentable version of the white-hot passions that filled her.

Poor Julie, though – she’s not getting much respect from most critics. How she must wish that director Nora Ephron had not tied HER book to Julia’s. Or not. After all, what would JULIE AND JULIA be without Julia’s MY LIFE IN FRANCE? But then, would it have occurred to anyone to make a movie without Julie’s blog/book?

Well, who knows. What I do know is that I’ve watched and heard a multitude of interviews with Meryl Streep and Nora Ephron, and others peripherally associated with the matter, but I’ve not heard nor seen hide nor hair of Julie Powell. But more to the point is the fact that the interviewers are always saying “I never met Julia Child, but...”
Nora Ephron said that, too. “I never met Julia...”
“But,” I suddenly think with a jolt, “I did!”

And I did, not only once but several times – well, at least three. As a matter of fact, lots of Vermonters met Julia and spent some time with her – the students and instructors at the New England Culinary Institute, for example. That’s where I first met her, in 1990, when Julia and Robert Mondavi had founded the American Institute of Wine and Food. She was at NECI at the Inn at Essex, to promote AIWF, to preside over the first commencement there of eight young cooks, and to promote her latest and last book, THE WAY TO COOK. I followed the great lady on her rounds all day and wrote about it in a piece for the Vermont Sunday Magazine called The Zen of a Day with Julia Child. When I said goodbye to her she told me, “Keep talking about food. Write about it. Keep it in front of others.”
The Zen of a day with Julia

She was concerned, she told us, that a fear of food generated by contradictory reports on the bugaboos of fat and cholesterol and pesticides, etc., at a time when the old avenues of learning about food had fallen into disuse, would permanently cripple American gastronomy.
“We must try to make sense about ridiculous things like oat bran – things that keep popping up and scaring people.”

The next time I met Julia was the celebration of her 80th birthday with a glorious dinner at Hemingway’s, orchestrated by Ted and Linda Fondulas. That was on August 18th, 1992. I wrote about that, too, but I can’t find the article though I’ve searched high and low. In so doing I’ve had a fascinating time looking through old columns – I had two columns a week in the Herald back then – and I have to say that I did my best to recognize and battle against the deepening degradation of our diet even then, and to celebrate real food.

That wasn’t easy, because the government and the big food producers were feeding us a lot of crapola that we had only our own hunches to rely on in opposing it. We have a lot more proof now that it WAS not only rubbish, but deadly rubbish, but we also have twenty years of brainwashing to undo.

Just the other day I was listening to an interview done by the host of the radio show Here and Now with some peripheral Julia people, when she squeaked, “but we can’t go back to eating that way – Butter!!! Now that we know it’s killing us!”

Oh. My. Dear. God! If butter is killing us, imagine what the antibiotics, hormones, chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides are doing to us. Just imagine what Julia would say to such idiocy! Food Science? What an oxymoron. We don’t know enough about food to invent it.

I never did find that article about the Hemingway/Child dinner, but I wrote about it later in Issue 1 of my foodletter Cook/Speak, where I detailed one of the dishes we had at Hemingway’s that night – Halibut and Lobster with Vanilla Butter and Sweet Corn. I went into great detail in that recipe (which Ted Fondulas graciously explained to me) but the main point to be gleaned is that a vanilla bean cooked with wine and shallots until reduced is a wonderful drizzle for lots of foods in the vegetable and fish families, and maybe even beef.

I sent Julia a copy of that first Cook/Speak, and have a lovely little thank-you note from her still, signed by her in green ink.
Thank you note

The last time I saw her, Leo and I were just leaving a food seminar at Radcliffe, in Cambridge, when I heard that familiar trilling voice and, before I could stop myself, had turned and said hello. Julia was flanked by two equally tall people bundled in winter coats – it was November, just before Thanksgiving as I remember – and they created a warm and intimate coterie of which I immediately felt an interloper. But she was charming, and I had no choice but to introduce her to Leo, who said, “It’s an honor to meet you, Mrs. Child.” And he should have stopped right there but did not. “We so enjoyed hearing you on Garrison Keillor last night.” She may have looked puzzled as I looked at her, aghast.

I think, I hope, I truly trust that Julia Child had never sat down to a lovely glass of wine and a sumptuous Saturday night supper in her beautiful Cambridge kitchen with the radio tuned to Prairie Home Companion, and listened as Garrison’s sound effects man warbled a bad imitation of her. I’m sure she hadn’t – didn’t she always have good friends with whom to enjoy food and intelligent conversation?

I clamped Leo’s arm firmly in mine and dragged him away, waving my last goodbye to Julia Child. As I say, so many people are exclaiming that they never met Julia Child. Why, I lament, oh Why could not Leo have been among them?

Julia, oh Julia. Thank you for championing good food for nearly fifty years.
I’m so glad I knew you – ever so slightly!

... we’re so lucky...

Rutland Area Farm and Food Link is sponsoring Jill Richardson, one of my favorite speaking-out bloggers and author of RECIPE FOR AMERICA: WHY OUR FOOD SYSTEM IS BROKEN AND WHAT WE CAN DO TO FIX IT, on Tuesday August 18, 6:30pm at the UU Church of Rutland on West Street. Jill is a fresh voice in the movement to create a healthier and sustainable food system. This book will be part of the burgeoning food social movement, as it provides a guide to the most important issues and how to work on them. This event is free and open to public. Come learn more about the work that RAFFL is doing to create a sustainable food system right here in the Rutland region and how this work relates to the bigger national picture. And enjoy a tasting of locally grown and produced food!


Lyla said...

I loved your reminiscences regarding Julia. I must confess to being disappointed when I read Julie Powell's book. I wanted to love it, but got tired of her whining and didn't at all appreciate the cheap shot she took at Julia toward the end. What you wrote is far better. I wish Nora had made a movie drawing a parallel between your life in writing and Julia's. I bet it would have made for an even better movie and a far better book. Good work.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Why that is the sweetest thing!
The fact is that when Julia turned 80, I was just about to turn 50, and my first (and only) book was just being published. Julia told me that she had just begun to enjoy her writing and television success when she was 50, and that I should persevere. Generous woman.

Lyla said...

I'm glad you're taking Julia's advice. Penny Bobik Klett recommended your cookbook to me so I ordered two copies, one for me and one for a friend. I loved the book nearly as much as I love tomatoes. (That's high praise.) Here's to Dowagiac High, Lyla Overton Fox

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Ha! I thought I'd heard that name before! Nice to meet you!
Glad you're enjoying Tomato Imperative! I hope you're not suffering that Late Blight that I've just found on a cherry tomato plant that's intertwined with a Striped German. I'm trimming the bad spots because I want to save the German, which shows no signs of disease yet, and has lots of plump green fruit. I love good tomatoes.

Lyla said...

I just made Ina Garten's delicious panzanella with great, fresh tomatoes. Tonight it's baked zucchini with more great tomatoes and fresh basil. Good to be in touch.

Penny said...

Hi Sharon and Lyla,
It sounds like a class reunion around here! Just wanted to put my two cents in. Sharon - what a privilege to have known Julia. I am envious. Today is her birthday by the way. Lyla - Glad you two wonderful writers have become reaquainted.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Three -- count'em -- three wonderful writers! And that's not even counting David. Thanks to Mr. Scott and Mr. Klette, eh? I am well-acquainted with Penny's lovely blog (loved the shrimp and veggie stacks, Penny), but how do I see your writing, Lila?

Penny said...

Sharon, Lyla has had articles published in Newsweek. I emailed you one. She is also working on a mystery. There is more I am sure, but she is too modest to tell me. She taught writing at a college too.

Martha said...

What wonderful stories. And how lucky you were. I think she will become even more famous after this movie. Saw it for the second time today.

sharon parquette nimtz said...

Thank you, Martha -- as I told you in my email, I saw the movie the same day the column was published in the Rutland Herald, and thought it was absolutely perfect.

Penny, I can't wait to read Lyla's mystery!