09/10/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Gwenie & Julia

I wish there was a more specific word for "letter," because to say that Meryl Streep is letter-perfect as Julia Child is not exact enough: her performance in Julie & Julia, a movie worth watching just for the delight of being in her company, is indistinguishable from the real woman, giving me an intimate visit with a cherished, vanished friend. I met Julia when she was getting ready to move from Cambridge to Santa Barbara, went grocery shopping with her as she bade farewell to the shopkeepers who had helped her stock her larder all the years she lived there. The privileged expedition was for a feature I wrote for the Wall Street Journal Europe called "Shop Talk," where I interviewed the famous while they went shopping, which somehow put even the most constrained people at ease. Nothing was needed to put Julia at ease. She took to buying produce like a...well, like a lettuce leaf to salad. It was I who was a little uneasy, as it was right after 9/11 and I had been nervous about flying to Boston. "You couldn't find a safer time to fly," she'd said on the phone, and as it was Julia, I listened. And was I glad.

We went first to buy fruit. I picked up a green fig and a purple fig. "What's the difference between these?" I asked her. "Well," she sort of sang, "those are purple...and those are green." We stopped in a deli and she ordered mortadella. "What are you going to do with that?" I asked. "Eat it!" she proclaimed. From there we went to a large super-market where she said the fish was the freshest, and she picked up some oysters. I hated oysters, but as it was Julia, said nothing. A young housewife with groceries and a toddler in her basket stopped us to greet and say goodbye to Julia, teary-eyed. She'd never met her, but she wanted to tell her how much it had meant to the community that Julia actually lived there, how much she had done for everybody, especially women, how sad everyone was that she was leaving. Julia received it all with matter-of-fact grace, thanking her, holding up a garlic and telling her -- and me in the bargain -- that we should always squeeze them to make sure the buds were hard.
Then we went back to her house and had lunch. I took pictures of her kitchen, the wonderful kitchen that is now in the Smithsonian, so perfectly reproduced in the movie, that I felt an actual pang, as if it were a loved place from childhood that I was allowed to revisit in a dream. We sat at her good wooden table, and she opened a bottle of wine, and offered me an oyster that she opened with a knife. I tried to conceal my malaise. "Taste it," she said. "It's all lovely and sea-bottomy." To savor the ocean in an oyster. I had never thought of that before, and really tasted.

She had forgotten to get bread, so I went to her freezer and found half a loaf (better than none) and we defrosted it. In all that time, nothing had been said about the attack on us only a few days before, or the attackers.

She paused over her glass of wine, a look of sorrow changing her wonderful face, in spite of how good it all tasted. "How could they have lived among us so long," she mused, "and still hated us so?"

Maybe it all would have been different if they'd had lunch with Julia.