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Nancy Howard Cobb

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My Julia Child

Posted: 08/03/09 07:13 PM ET

In the early seventies, when many of my peers were marching against the war and for civil rights, I was collecting recipes in a gingham box and attempting to Master the Art of French Cooking on a second hand, three burner stove not much bigger than the black and white television sets that first brought Julia Child into homes across America.

Julia Child was my Betty Freidan, the wisecracking, groundbreaking grande dame responsible for my culinary awakening. Singlehandedly, Julia raised my kitchen consciousness. Bird's Eye begone. Duncan Hines be damned. The days of the obligatory chop were numbered.

In an act of solidarity I splattered her fleur-de-lis book jacket with beurre blanc and dog-eared page after page as I poached and pureed my way through her famous collaborative tome, my Book of the Month Club bonus. A determined twenty-one year old, I was eager to cook for my medical student boyfriend, even if it meant an extended triage apprenticeship in the kitchen of our third floor walkup on the outskirts of New Haven. Undaunted by deflated soufflés and so-so fricassees I pressed on, salvaging the liveliest casualties and serving them to anyone game enough to try them.

"Keep your knives sharp," Julia concluded in her introduction, "And above all, have a good time." Which in my case might better have read, "Replace that fleur-de-lis with a caduceus. And above all, do no harm," as more than one charred capon could attest.

Like many young women of that era, I assumed cooking was a woman's domain. My mother had done it. Her mother had done it. And so, de facto, I would do it, too. And under Julia's tutelage I did, for two years, until the relationship ended and I headed for New York to finish school and became a working actress. As my career blossomed, however, my kitchen skills atrophied. Auditions took precedence over all domestic duties, that is, until the day I married a non-cooking television producer and by process of elimination became the primary cook again. What once had been a pleasure, though, soon became a chore--until the day a miracle of culinary miracles came to pass: my husband was slated to produce a cooking show with none other than my Julia Child. Yes! My Julia Child. Hallelujah. Praise Bacchus. The guy would be getting on-the-job-training from the Queen Mom of cooking, plus, once he started to hang out with her, I would get to hang out with her too.

I first met Julia at the original Spago on Sunset Boulevard as Barbara Lazaroff hovered around us like a latter day Gloria Swanson. Dazzling in her intergalactic make-up, the woman you can no longer call Mrs. Puck directed the wait-staff Cleopatrically, with the flick of a lacquered fingernail, as her then-husband Wolfgang, in a starched chef's jacket and clogs, treated our party of eight to his trademark pizzas and California salads.

Although we were seated at opposite ends of the table, it was fun to watch Julia watch our contrapuntal hosts in action and dig into their signature dishes with gusto. At the end of the evening she met every sous chef, prep cook, waiter and busboy, posing for pictures and signing cookbooks, menus, and a dozen greasy aprons with good cheer. The essence of Julia's grass roots appeal was marked by her curiosity, generosity, good humor, and a complete lack of pretension. Julia always took her celebrity status with a shaker of salt.

The nineties -- era of cockadoodledoo cookery -- produced a gaggle of newly hatched restaurant chefs who, in an attempt to impress the visiting icon, often went out on a limb with oddly paired ingredients and elaborate presentations. Knowing what Julia thought of their fare made me want to sneak behind the scenes and say, Hey, she'd really prefer roast chicken with garlic mashed potatoes or corned beef hash and a perfectly poached egg. The quickest route to Julia's heart was real food. Which was not to say she didn't swoon, along with the rest of us over Thomas Keller's cuisine, per se. Real food, à la Julia Child, could be innovative and unprecedented, as long as it tasted good, was recognizable, and didn't stint on butter or salt.

Keeping it simple was Julia's rule of thumb. Take my initial visit to her house in Cambridge and our first but certainly not last happy hour where she served:

Julia's Reverse Martinis

Fill a glass with ice and dry vermouth. Float a little gin over the top.

(Noilly Prat and Gordons. Lemon peel or olives, optional.)

and

Julia's Hors D'oeuvres

Fill a bowl with Goldfish. (Pepperidge Farm -- original flavor.)

Julia and Paul Child moved into their cavernous clapboard house in Cambridge in 1956, five years prior to the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and set up a kitchen where polished copper pots and pans were suspended on green pegboard according to Paul's original outlines, his carefully traced circles marking spots for every piece of Julia's cookware. And in that very kitchen, to my good fortune, I ate everything from cornflakes to scrambled eggs and Julia's baked bacon to her favorite butterflied chicken, all plated on the Child's red rooster Provencal china and cooked on a six burner Garland whose patina and history were perhaps no less rich than that of the neighboring Fogg Museum.

It's fair to say my most memorable moments in her kitchen were more visual than gustatory: Julia, standing stoveside, wearing a red apron with a checked towel tucked in at the waist, sautéing green beans in the classic French style: tossing them up and swirling them around in a skillet glazed with butter and finishing them off with a squeeze of lemon; the small "Bon Appetit" ceramic plaque that overlooked the kitchen table covered in yellow and white striped oilcloth, the three legged Irish sugar bowl with its silver Norwegian spoon in the center; the black refrigerator with the banana magnets; the blue shopping bag with the calico cat that hung on a wall near the Dustbuster.

My favorite post-prandial pastime was to wander from room to room, imagining her home filled with family and friends in years past, its silent pantry still housing the china and stemware flanked by Paul's wine chart -- Champagnes and Rhones, Bordeaux and Burgundies -- all meticulously chronicled in pencil on graph paper and dating back to a vintage 1952 Bonnes Mares de Vogues.

Moving through the dining room, past the multi-leaved mahogany table that seated twenty-six of us for Julia's pot luck birthday one rainy summer, past the foyer into the front room with the baby grand piano, I would often end up in the library with bright modern sofas, a fringed Scandinavian rug, and two of Paul's paintings: one of cats in a garden, the other, over the mantle, of colorful rooftops and the lush French countryside beyond.

By all accounts, a bon vivant with a wicked sense of humor, Paul Child -- Julia's beloved renaissance man -- was a successful career diplomat as well as a distinguished writer, painter, photographer, gardener, and furniture maker. I have a reverence for the life they built together. The art, the rare books, the treasures amassed from years of world travel were awe inspiring, but if I mentioned this, Julia would have none of it. For her, even a hint of sentimentality was taboo. Looking back was not her style.

By the time I met Julia, Paul lived in an assisted living facility, diminished by a series of strokes. When I asked Julia if the Paul in her dreams was sometimes still in his prime, she said matter-of-factly, "Oh, I don't dream, Dearie."

"I think we all dream, Julia," I said.

"Well I don't," she said emphatically. And that was that.

Julia and I were not what you'd call soul sisters when we first met. I tended toward the ephemeral, Julia, the concrete. She called a spade a shovel. I hedged my bets. Ours was a friendship by proxy. At restaurants and in bookstores, on the set of her TV series and in green rooms around the country, at the Beard Awards in New York or cruising around Boston, lost again on another dead end street in search of a Chinese restaurant, I always took the back seat while my ex-husband and Julia chewed the fat. They were of a similar mind and temperament, quite different from my own, which is why their work together fared far better than our marriage did.

Still, over the years I relished being a regular on their team, and over time, Julia and I grew closer. The more we traveled together, the more we laughed. We drank beer and chowed down on ribs at Sonny Bryan's Barbeque in Dallas and chilli rellenos at Superico Tacoria in Santa Barbara, and, along with my daughter had root beer and In and Out Burgers on a picnic table at Henry's Beach near Montecito, surrounded by squawking gulls.

Once, in Chicago, at the end of a workday that began before dawn, I watched Julia greet the umpteenth person to rush up and remind her of the French Chef episode where she dropped the chicken on the kitchen floor. She never said, It wasn't a chicken, it was a potato pancake. She simply smiled and nodded and acted like it was the first time she heard that damn chicken story. No matter a person's station in life, Julia was ever gracious--egalitarian to the bone and always eager to learn. She constantly queried chefs about their techniques in the kitchen and computer wonks about the latest high tech advances. And whether 200 or 2,000 people were lined up at a book signing, she would listen to every memory while inscribing myriad volumes for a following that cut across age, gender and geography. In hotels and airports, people approached her without hesitation, eager to talk about her effect on their early years, often with tears in their eyes. Down-to-earth--on screen and off--Julia's medium was as much about connecting as it was about cooking. The director of photography for Julia's final three television series, the late Dean Gaskill, always said she spoiled him forever:

"I never worked with anyone like her. Julia set the gold standard."

Julia, of course, would demur.

Once, driving home in Boston after dinner at Gordon Ramsey's restaurant, Julia suddenly exclaimed, in a plum-toned burst of delight, "How lucky I am to have been in this business!"

And how lucky I am to have sampled a small portion of it while she was.

Cobb is the author of In Lieu of Flowers: A Conversation for the Living.