The day Julia Child died, her assistant and my friend of many years, Stephanie Hersh, came to spend the night at my home. She had answered a thousand emails verifying that Julia was dead, and simply wanted to get out of Santa Barbara. I made Stephanie a turkey burger for dinner. I opened a bottle of red wine and drank it. Steph probably had a Diet Coke as she's never been much of drinker, though as you can imagine she certainly knows about great wine and food. She had one of the world's finest teachers.
I cooked the turkey burgers and topped each one with thinly sliced red onion and creamy ripe avocado. I make the same burgers at least once a week. Not unusual. My husband was late that night and we sat in the kitchen instead of the dining room at my tiny 1950's table. I was so grateful we were in a smaller space.
My kitchen felt like a cocoon, and if ever someone needed protection, it was Stephanie that night. The room was warm with grief. Stephanie was devoted to Julia. It was much more than a job.
Rolling down those sweet, freckled cheeks of Stephanie's were non-stop tears. Then, interspersed, came big, funny stories of Julia. And we would both laugh again, until we cried. It was hard to swallow.
She told me the story of her first day working with Julia. Stephanie, a professionally trained chef and secretary, went out for a day of temp work to the kitchen of Julia Child. She was hired and stayed for fifteen years. And in the last moments of Julia's life, it was Stephanie standing at her bedside.
Months had passed when she called to ask me if we could go together to a Julia memorial being held at the Napa's chic Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts. Julia had helped fund and create Copia. It was a monster of a building but had spectacular gardens. It was a food museum with a myriad of wine and food tasting programs, but Copia never really took off. I think it was a mixture of poor marketing, mixed messages, and certainly a lack of money that eventually brought it to its demise. It had a very confused presence and I remember thinking it didn't ever know if it was fish or fowl. And there was never enough of Julia's essence there.
We headed to Napa with a big bag of peanut M&M's and a box of tissue. It was more than we needed. The time passed quickly with Stephanie telling me new Julia stories and me reminding her of my favorite moments with Julia. Julia loved having fun and if you were a friend you might have known she played the famous SNL/Dan Aykroyd piece at her own dinner parties.
Every hour of our road trip, I told Stephanie that her life with Julia was a book. I still think it is.
The day of the memorial, the sky was the prettiest blue which matched Julia's eyes perfectly in the photograph being projected on a giant screen. The picture was Julia toasting the unknown photographer with a glass of champagne. It was a perfect blend of Julia with nothing but unabashed joy mixed with a hint of I-don't-mind-a-little-trouble starring at you. I imagine the photographer must have been handsome to get that shot. It was never a secret that Julia loved men.
Many people spoke of Julia's joy at the memorial. Her dear friend, Anne Willan, Robert and Margrit Mondavi, Stephanie, and even Martha Stewart. Martha was on her way to jail but the gossip that day was not about her sentence, no, it was all about her famous purse. Her Hermes bag was being "handled" by one of her assistants. At one point when the assistant was shopping in the Copia gift shop, I spied "Mr. Hermes" in the wheel barrel converted shopping cart. I wanted to remember every detail because I knew Julia would love to hear that story later, she'd think it so silly. I kept forgetting that Julia was dead. It wasn't a sad day to me but more a testament to a great life and the amazing woman who lived it.
Copia gave us all a glass of Julia's favorite pink Champagne with a fancy name that I have forgotten and gorgeous gourgeres (French cheese puffs). It was a perfect balance of sweet and salty. I stood close to the serving table for seconds of both. One for me, one for Julia.
Afterwards, there was a butter tasting in the corner of the lobby. There were those dry little crackers that look like Barbie's toast with different European varieties of butter. I could hear Julia telling me that people should never be afraid of butter. And then her big laugh, "It certainly hasn't done me any harm!" she would snort.
It wasn't until the party had ended and the last glass of champagne was drunk and I went to find Stephanie that I finally felt the impact of losing Julia. It was when Stephanie remarked, "You know, she always called me Dearie."
Stephanie is teaching An Insider's Story at a few select Sur La Table stores this month. Denise Vivaldo is the founder of the Denise Vivaldo Group Inc., which provides food media and cookbook services. Her official title is, "Big Cheese."
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