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The Honolulu Advertiser

Posted on: Wednesday, August 18, 2004

Above all, Julia Child taught us to love fine food

By Emily Green
Los Angeles Times

Julia. Had Julia Child dominated only 20th-century cookbook publishing, which she surely did after producing the bibles of dinner-party cookery between 1961 and 1970 ("Mastering the Art of French Cooking," Volumes 1 and 2), we might have known her by her full name, or even "Mrs. Child." But from the moment she first appeared in the public-television studios of WGBH-Boston, she became and stayed simply Julia.

Julia Child, 1912-2004, was America's irrepressible apostle for the good life, and for good food.

Associated Press

In a way that few celebrities or politicians ever penetrate our lives, Julia was an honorary member of all of our families, the nation's Auntie Mame. The country didn't take to her because we wanted to actually eat snails. It took to her because no other American before or after Julia has radiated such unadulterated joy straight from the TV studio into our homes.

Julia loved food. Not all food. French food. Good food. Cooking wasn't something she had to learn, she was a child of privilege from Pasadena, Calif., and could have joked her way through dinner parties consisting of Steak Diane and Baked Alaska like her contemporaries.

But after a spell living in France after World War II, she experienced something alien to America: the celebration of food as a way of life. Once converted to the French conviction that breakfast should be spent contemplating lunch, and lunch contemplating dinner, she became America's irrepressible apostle of the good life.

By the other day, in the hourly news bulletins about her death only 48 hours shy of her 92nd birthday, most of us have heard her chronology. How she was born in Pasadena, educated at Smith, served during World War II in the Office of Strategic Services, married artist-cartographer Paul Child, moved with him to Paris. How she formed a cooking school with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle (co-authors of the "Mastering" books), about the 1963 debut on PBS and the succession of TV shows — "The French Chef," "Julia Child & Company," "Julia Child & More Company," "Dinner at Julia's."

What's missing from that great big list is the quality that made her Julia, the combination of lustiness and merriment that propelled her halfway around the world. It was this quality that brought her back to America bubbling with possibilities for the kitchen. It was her spirit that won the hearts of Americans TV viewers.

To the world, she looked Bostonian, right down to the piping New England voice. But study her endearing brand of cheek, and it was unmistakably Californian. It was de rigueur in her day for rich Pasadena girls to go to college back East. Smith, Vassar and Radcliffe were full of tanned Westerners learning to stay pale, smoke cigarettes, drink martinis and say "toe-mah-toe."

She got the accent and capacity for gin down, but never quite escaped her Western bravado. "I was a ham," she joked about her response to the camera, the whistles, the costumes, the jokes that attracted generations of non-cooks to her shows. Perhaps. She was came from a place where people grew taller, drank more, laughed louder.

As snippets of her shows replay over the next few days, the focus will be her boozy bonhomie, her inimitable recoveries as she flubs the souffle or drops the flounder.

But watch closely and you will see what made her as beloved by serious cooks as people seeking entertainment. Study how intently she pats ice over the fish as she demonstrates how to thaw a frozen salmon slowly, on ice in the fridge, in order to preserve the all-important texture. Watch as she salts a chicken, saying "use about a teaspoon" but not measuring (never measuring), then how she rubs it lavishly with butter and sticks it emphatically on a spit. If you're not aching to eat it, you're on the wrong channel.

No cookbook, not even her own, has driven people to the kitchen, or had quite the same effect on Americans as watching the woman herself.

As she gained in fame, she was joined on her shows by other celebrity cooks. Occasionally she was a study in sportsmanship (watching Emeril Lagasse put the entire contents of a bayou into a stock pot, she was a consummate diplomat). The most touching partnership was with French chef Jacques Pepin. As he would construct the tarts, she would commend the use of butter.

As the vogue for Mediterranean cooking swept over America in the 1980s, and relentless health scares begat tide after tide of fad diets, Julia remained an unfazed defender of French cuisine. Asked what to use if you couldn't digest cream, she quipped, "Butter."

The appetite for food TV has grown. Food shows have given way to food channels, and countless new hosts. But America has produced, and loved, only one Julia.