This article appeared in the Toronto Star as the obituary for Julia Child a week after her death in California on August 14, 2004, at age 91.
The first meeting with my magnificent mentor and dear friend Julia Child began inauspiciously.
The date was March 31, 1991. The place: Toronto Pearson International Airport.
I was a bundle of nerves when I arrived at the appointed time to welcome North America’s celebrated cuisine queen. The carefully orchestrated plan was to accompany her to the Four Seasons Hotel, Yorkville, with a brief stop at my home for snacks and a glass of wine.
Child, then 78, was in good health and brimming with energy. She had already expressed enthusiasm for the following day’s action-packed schedule. Dubbed April Food Day, it included a book signing at The Cookbook Store, a glitzy lunch with Toronto’s movers and shakers prepared by five of our city’s top chefs followed by a cooking demo by her at George Brown College.
This highly anticipated one-day visit, hosted by The Toronto Star, was the result of a phone interview earlier that year for an article about famous foodies and their favourite home-cooked meal. I recall Child citing Boeuf Bourguignon, Potatoes Anna and “a nice pear with cheese for dessert.”
Then, in typical fashion, she turned the tables, questioning me about my job and life in Toronto.
I asked if she’d ever been here. Her response: “No one’s invited me.” A quick visit to my publisher’s office was followed by a return call to Child. She immediately accepted the Star’s offer to bring her here and play host.
At Pearson’s arrivals area, I began to panic. I was obviously at the wrong gate. Child was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly, I turned around and there she was. Totally unmistakable, more than 6 feet tall, though slightly stooped, and ferreting through her purse for my phone number.
She was travelling alone – no handlers, no entourage, not even her trusty assistant Stephanie Hersh with whom I’d discussed details of this trip. Breezily, Child brushed off my profuse apologies and jauntily joined me in the limo, one small travel bag in hand.
Soon we were cheerfully sharing Asian-inspired munchies and a bottle of Alsace Riesling at my kitchen table.
Child pulled out her powder compact when the Star photographer’s flash began to pop – a momentary interruption between questions about me, my two daughters and Canadian food.
That night, we both stayed at the hotel, Child in a penthouse suite, I on a lower floor. Before heading to her room, my new buddy invited me to join her for breakfast.
That morning, I made an embarrassing confession: I had a phobia of being alone in elevators (several years of psychotherapy later, this is now cured) and was stumped about reaching her top-floor abode.
In minutes, Child was at my door. As the two of us made our ascent, she offered gently in a motherly tone, “You know dear, you should ask your daughter to help with your fear. I’m sure she could.” This lovely woman had remembered our conversation about my elder offspring Esther, now a full-fledged psychotherapist, who was studying psychology.
We ate, then Child excused herself to phone her beloved husband Paul who was in a nursing home after suffering several strokes. “He’s got the dwindles,” she’d told me the day before.
The affection was palpable in her inimitable voice coming from the other room. “I’m up in Canada, dear – with the heavy book,” she told him, a reference to the hefty tome which she considered her definitive work: The Way To Cook (Knopf).
That morning, Child carefully, calmly and caringly signed books for more than 800 excited fans.
After a magnificent lunch at the hotel, she stood up to speak, raving about the food and Reserve IceWine from Inniskillin. “I love Toronto; you’re a real food town,” she said to a table of beaming faces. “It’s a shame we don’t know more about you in the U.S. You should do more P.R.”
During the meal, I overheard Dave Nichol, then Loblaws high-profile president, asking Child to put her stamp of approval on his popular chocolate chip cookies. “I don’t endorse things,” she told him kindly but firmly. “It destroys your credibility.”
However, she was a practical soul and later wrote asking me how to contact “that wealthy supermarket executive” so she could request financial support for her pet project, the American Institute of Wine and Food.
As we stood to leave, Child asked me to bring her to the kitchen to meet the chefs. I’ll never forget their faces as we approached the glassed-in chef’s office where all five were chewing on baguettes stuffed with salami. Nor their joy as she heartily shook hands and sincerely thanked each one.
After her stellar demo performance at George Brown, hampered by glitches with some blunt knives, we returned to our hotel. I was a tad pooped, though high on life. Child, full of vim and vigour, felt like a bite to eat so we sat down in the lobby lounge.
She requested two favourite foods from the motherly waitress who did not recognize the celebrity guest: a large, dry martini on the rocks in a big wine glass with a twist of lemon and a hamburger, rare to medium-rare.
As Child devoured the burger, which was extremely well-done, I ventured, “How is it?” “Edible,” came the reply. “And the martini?” I asked with trepidation. Child’s answer was short and sweet: “Perfect!”
I wrote about this and heard afterwards that heads had rolled at the hotel. I’m sure Child would have been upset. Food was important to her but so were people.
This prolific, undauntable woman returned to Toronto three more times over the years, in each case to promote a book. During that time, we kept in touch by letter, occasionally by phone and frequently by e-mail.
In 1994, I talked with her at CBC’s downtown headquarters about her latest book, Baking With Julia (Morrow). I’d closed my notebook and put down my pen when Child turned her lovely round face to me.
“So Marion, how’s your love life?” she asked, knowing I was single from previous chats. I mumbled something about things being bleak. “How’s yours?” I piped up, knowing she was now a widow. “I had a beau but he died,” came the matter-of-fact reply. She saw I was stuck for words and saved the day by adding, “At my age, it happens.”
In 1999, I went to Cambridge, Mass., to visit family. Child immediately invited me for breakfast at her beautiful Victorian home near Harvard Square.
You can imagine how magical it was to sit in her cozy, sunny kitchen decked with copper pans eating creamy scrambled eggs and sipping strong coffee made by her own fair hand.
Four years ago, that kitchen was transferred intact to the Smithsonian Institution when Child moved, as she had long planned, to an assisted-living home not far from Santa Barbara in California.
I knew my friend was not recovering well from knee replacement surgery almost two years ago. In fact, there were at least 20 e-mails from Hersh to this effect. Still, Child and I continued to discuss food including the best way to make Tarte Tatin for which she recently sent two recipes clipped from newspapers.
I received an e-mail in May saying how much she enjoyed lunch in the garden under the apricot, fig and avocado trees. Also, that she hoped our paths would soon cross.
So it was a shock to hear she’d died in her sleep on August 13, news I received while on holiday in England. When I returned, there were calls from media who wanted to interview me but several chef friends just wanted to talk.
“I watched her make those Pears in Puff Pastry at George Brown,” said Joanne Yolles, pastry chef at Pangaea. “I made it the next day and have been using her recipe ever since.”
Donna Dooher, co-owner of Mildred Pierce Restaurant and The Cookworks, keeps Child’s biography beside her bed. “She loved people and knew cooking is the best way of showing your love,” says Dooher. “She was very unpretentious and brought joy to cooking.”
I cherish these words from Hersh, who included them in a beautifully poignant message sent to those on Child’s e-mail list just after her death.
“Julia said that ‘When you die, you’re dead; and that’s the end. There isn’t anything else.’ But I know in my heart that she was happily surprised to be wrong. And I am sure she is eating an In-N-Out burger with Paul on the beach surrounded by friends and family and Escoffier who is undoubtedly intrigued with the burger.”
Child once said, “Cooking is the best work because you can eat the results.” I’ll think of that when I prepare, then savour her unequalled Cheese Souffle, Food Processor Pastry, Salade Nicoise and Shrimp Sauteed with Lemon, Garlic and Herbs.
I’ll also relish the advice she offered young people when I interviewed her a couple of years ago by phone. “They should get into the food business. They’ll join a wonderful group of friends and be part of one big family.” Then she added, “After all, Marion, that’s how I met you.”
There will never be another Julia Child. She was one of a kind. Charismatic, funny, clever, a class act and the epitome of the Jewish word “mensch.”
Dear Julia, as a fellow atheist, I hope you’re wrong about death.
As a fellow foodie, I pray the burger you’re eating on that beach is medium to medium-rare and has a large, dry martini on the rocks to wash it down.