Getting Ready to Celebrate the 100th birthday of Cuisine Queen Julia Child

julia child with chicken and meryl streep Getting Ready to Celebrate the 100th birthday of Cuisine Queen Julia Child

Left: The real Julia Child hams it up with a chicken. Right: Meryl Streep in Julie and Julia.

“I was 32 when I started cook­ing; up until then, I just ate.” — Julia Child

I’ve been a busy mem­ber of Canada’s food media for many moons — more than 30 years of telling sto­ries about my con­sum­ing pas­sion, 18 of them as food editor/columnist for Canada’s largest news­pa­per, the Toronto Star.

My work sleuthing sto­ries has been excit­ing, eclec­tic and, I hope, both edu­ca­tional and entertaining.

I’ve talked to cooks and din­ers behind the scenes and at the tables of home­less shelters.

I enjoyed an inti­mate three-hour Ital­ian lunch for two while chat­ting about her cook­book with film leg­end Sophia Loren.

A few months after 9/11, I spoke with Michael Lomonaco, once the exec­u­tive chef of Win­dows on the World and the man who escaped the Twin Tow­ers dev­as­ta­tion by a for­tu­itous fluke.

I chewed the fat on sev­eral occa­sions with for­mer Mafia cook and cook­book author Joe “Dogs” Ian­nuzzi when he called me from parts unknown while under the wit­ness pro­tec­tion plan.

Early in their stel­lar careers, I inter­viewed British food icons Jamie Oliver and Nigella Law­son — in the flesh.

But per­haps my fond­est mem­o­ries are of talk­ing shop, chat­ting about life and break­ing bread with my inspir­ing men­tor and beloved friend: North America’s cui­sine queen Julia Child.

Here’s how that all began.

In late 1990, I called Julia Child at her home in Cam­bridge, Mass., where she cheer­fully answered the phone. I was writ­ing a piece for my news­pa­per about what famous food­ies cook for din­ner par­ties. Her answer to that was sweet and sim­ple: “Some oys­ters with cham­pagne to start, then prob­a­bly Boeuf Bour­guignonne with Pota­toes Anna maybe fol­lowed by some good cheese and a nice pear.”

Once busi­ness was over, it was her turn to ask me a ques­tion. In typ­i­cal Julia fash­ion, she was curi­ous. “What’s Toronto like?” she asked. “Haven’t you been here?” came my reply. “No,” said she. I asked why. “Well, nobody’s invited me.”

Min­utes later, I was in the publisher’s office. A few months after that, in April, 1991, she arrived in Toronto as a guest of the Toronto Star for a one-day whirl­wind visit to our city.

The friend­ship begun that day con­tin­ued until her death at age 91 on August 13, 2004, when I wrote a full-page obit­u­ary for my newspaper’s A section.

A cou­ple of weeks before she died, I received a touch­ing mis­sive: two recipes for Tarte Tatin — a dessert I was research­ing — clipped from local news­pa­pers in Santa Bar­bara where she was living.

Julia Child was born Julia McWilliams in Pasadena, Calif., on August 15, 1912.

She grad­u­ated from Smith Col­lege in Northamp­ton, Mass., in 1934 and thought “it would be fun to be a spy” when she joined the Office of Strate­gic Services.

What she became was “a lowly fil­ing clerk who at least got to travel to places like Cey­lon and China.” It was in China that she met Paul Child who was 10 years older and worked for the U.S. Infor­ma­tion Service.

The cou­ple went to live in Paris in the late 1940s. Here, Julia attended the Cor­don Bleu acad­emy and soon opened a cook­ing school with her two co-authors-to-be Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle.

A late bloomer, she found her call­ing as the woman who brought a love of good food, in par­tic­u­lar French cook­ing, to North Amer­ica. This hap­pened in her late 30s dur­ing the period spent in France with her hus­band Paul when she had an epiphany while eat­ing lunch of oys­ters and Sole Meu­niere at a restau­rant called La Couronne in Rouen.

From then on, she was unstoppable.

She was the orig­i­nal celebrity chef when, in 1961, she burst onto the culi­nary scene with her low-budget, one-woman tele­vi­sion show on PBS called The French Chef. Almost imme­di­ately, it gar­nered a huge and loyal fol­low­ing. Her sem­i­nal book, Mas­ter­ing the Art of French Cook­ing, pub­lished in the same year, was 10 years in the making.

More cook­books fol­lowed. She was a reg­u­lar on TV. Most impor­tant, she became a beloved men­tor to cooks of every age, shape and social sta­tus by shar­ing her infec­tious pas­sion for prepar­ing deli­cious food then cheer­fully shar­ing it with others.

In 2009, the movie Julie and Julia star­ring Meryl Streep launched a whole new gen­er­a­tion of fans.

What has made Julia Child such an icon? It all boils down to that intan­gi­ble attribute: charisma.

She was larger than life — lit­er­ally and fig­u­ra­tively. At 6 foot 3, she had a lovely moon face and an unmis­tak­able, sing-song, plummy voice that may have seemed affected on any­one else.

She was gen­uinely out­go­ing and always wanted to know about you, her sur­round­ings and, of course, all things culinary.

She didn’t fit any mould. She was a famous woman who didn’t act it. She was just plain lov­able and, as they say in Yid­dish, a real mensch.

Last but not least, she was a teacher who was seri­ous about her mis­sion: To impart the cru­cial ele­ments of tech­nique in cook­ing. Her humour and love of life made the other part effort­less: To share a love of good food cooked well.

Since resign­ing from the Toronto Star in 2007, I have been a free­lance food sleuth, writer, broad­caster and cook.

A col­lab­o­ra­tion with Toronto non-profit group Food­Share will yield a cook­book this fall. I have a mem­oir in the works. And this blog is ongoing.

But my first love these days is cre­at­ing documentary-style audio podcasts.

Watch this space and social media (Fol­low me on Face­book, Twit­ter, and Pin­ter­est)  for an excit­ing series of audio docs I’m work­ing on with pro­ducer Sean Ras­mussen and social media guru Melissa Lei­th­wood to cel­e­brate Julia Child’s 100th birth­day this August 15.

In fact, let’s con­sider this entire year a cel­e­bra­tion while we raise a toast to Julia Child. As she liked to say: “Bon Appetit!”

Cheese Souf­flé

There are ver­sions of this sweet and sim­ple dish – a Child trade­mark — in almost all of her many cook­books includ­ing my favourite: The Way To Cook (Knopf). With a tossed salad and hunks of crusty baguette, it makes a lovely light lunch or sup­per. I didn’t bother mak­ing a col­lar for the bak­ing dish, which makes for an ele­gant pre­sen­ta­tion as described by Child, but it looked and tasted great. You’ll need a 6-cup souf­flé dish or straight-sided bak­ing dish.

About 1 tbsp soft­ened but­ter
2 tbsp finely, freshly grated parme­san cheese
2½ tbsp but­ter
3 tbsp all-purpose flour
1 cup hot milk
¼ tsp paprika
A pinch of grated nut­meg
½ tsp salt
Pinch of ground white pep­per
4 egg yolks
5 egg whites
1 cup (about 4 oz/125 g) coarsely grated gruyere cheese

Pre­heat oven to 400F.

Grease bot­tom and sides of bak­ing dish with soft­ened but­ter. Sprin­kle on grated parme­san, turn­ing dish so cheese adheres to its sides and bot­tom.
In medium saucepan, melt 2½ tbsp but­ter over medium-low heat. Add flour and cook, whisk­ing, until mix­ture foams, about 2 min. Remove from heat. Whisk in hot milk. Return to heat, bring to boil, reduce heat and sim­mer 1 to 2 min. or until thick­ened. Remove from heat; stir in paprika, nut­meg, salt and pep­per, Stir in egg yolks, one at a time, until com­bined
Using man­ual or hand-held elec­tric mixer, in medium glass bowl, beat egg whites until stiff and glossy. Whisk about a quar­ter of them into sauce in saucepan, then del­i­cately fold in remain­der alter­nately with grated gruyere. Care­fully turn mix­ture into pre­pared bak­ing dish.
Reduce oven tem­per­a­ture to 375F. Bake souf­flé 25 to 30 min. or until puffed and nicely browned. It will fall slightly as it cools. To serve, hold serv­ing spoon and fork upright and back to back in mid­dle of souf­flé and pull it apart.

Makes 4 servings.

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