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Great Old Broad Series: Julia Child

CookingJulia ChildCloris LeachmanEartha KittElaine Stritch

Last Sunday's screening at New Haven's Lyric Hall of the documentary "Broads,"that features salty, outspoken interviews with actresses of a certain age remind me of some of my own favorite interviews of like-minded dames.

 I began my "Great Old Broad" series last week with my 1992 interview with Maureen Stapleton. On Saturday, my 1998 piece on Cloris Leachman, a 2001 interview was posted Sunday with Elizabeth Ashley and on Monday, there was my 2008 piece on Elaine Stritch. Tuesday, there was my 2008 piece on Olympia Dukakis. On Wednesday, an a 1998 interview with Estelle Parsons; Thursday, my 2008 piece on Debbie Reynolds; on Friday, my interview with Ann-Margret.  On Saturday, it was my 2000 interviw with Eartha Kitt. Today, I end this round of my Great Old Broad series with a compilation of several interviews I did at the home of Julia Child following the news of her death just shy of her 92nd birthday.

By FRANK RIZZO

   Poached eggs over corned beef hash -- I can still taste that delicious food memory of Julia Child, along with the crispness of a Sanford chardonnay, the rich whiff of a fine French olive oil, her kindness and laughter while sharing her secrets in her kitchen. Not to mention the burnt pita crisps.
    On hearing of Julia Child's death Friday, just a few days shy of her 92nd birthday, poignant images rushed to mind from the two times I had interviewed her at her home in Cambridge, Mass.
    The first time was in the summer of 1981, when we chatted on her outdoor patio. She was 69, and her husband, Paul, 10 years her senior, was still well. He would eventually move into a nursing home, suffering from ``the dwindles,'' as Julia touchingly called it, before ``he finally slipped off the raft'' and died in 1994. They were married in 1946 and had lived in Cambridge since 1959.
    The second time I interviewed her was in 1991, when she was 78. For that interview, she made lunch.
    Julia lived at 103 Irving St., in a quiet, residential, maple-tree-lined neighborhood not far from Harvard Square. It was a three-story gray pre-Victorian house with black shutters, a white picket fence and an apple tree. Her well-shaded yard, she said, was not conducive to growing a vegetable garden, but she still managed to grow basil among the begonias.
    The kitchen was dismantled when she moved to her native California in her final years and is now part of the Smithsonian Institution. It was a perfect reflection of its owner -- cheery, well ordered and eminently practical. There was little frou-frou here; just useful things collected over a career of cooking.
    On the olive green walls were peg boards from which hung molds, ladles, beaters, muffin tins, whisks, graters, sieves and scissors (with black outlines drawn on the board so you knew which space to return the implement). Plentiful copper pots and pans hung like burnished trophies. Endless varieties of crocks and bowls graced her plain, wooden cabinets. A six-burner Garland gas range was off to one side of the kitchen. At the other end was a large refrigerator. (When I asked her to open it for a peek, she happily obliged but noted it was fairly bare because she has just returned from a trip.)
    A large table with a butcher-block top was in the center of the room, surrounded by tall stools. The counters and tables were height-adjusted to Julia's 6-foot-2 frame, which by that time began its stoop of old age. But though her body was bent, her spirit was thoroughly engaged on this crisp late-winter day, and her voice still had that vibrato richness that was so ripe for imitation.
    Dressed in a brightly flowered blouse, slacks and sneakers, she moved about the kitchen with a slower though still determined pace. (``I like to fuss around and talk, if it's all right with you,'' she said.) I offered to help, but it was a simple meal that she was preparing -- an endive salad with French olive oil, wine vinegar and lemon; baked pita chips; poached eggs over corned beef hash -- and she had everything under control. The only thing she asked me to do was to open a bottle of chardonnay with a contraption I had never seen before. After many minutes of failed wrangling on my part, she patiently showed me how to work the rather amazing gizmo. My subsequent duties were then downsized to pouring.
    She answered as many questions as I could toss her way while gathering fresh herbs to mix in a large wooden salad bowl, chopping shallots to perk up the hash and nursing the simmering eggs. But the interview quickly eased into a leisurely conversation, rambling off into so many tangents that I forgot to check on my notes, and she forgot to check on the pita crisps in the oven. Burnt, she flipped the pan's contents into the sink with a single flick of the wrist, took a package of Bay's English muffins out of the fridge and put them in the toaster. ``These will do just as well,'' she said, ever the adjuster of kitchen errors.
    It was a quintessential Julia moment: never being intimidated when things didn't go your way in the kitchen -- and having some fun in the process. I also remembered what her husband Paul, an urbane Bostonian, had told me about his wife: ``There's no fakery or putting on with Julia. She's a natural, and I think that's what people respond to.''
    As she served lunch on her country French plates, I asked how she felt about being an American icon. She dismissed the notion with a friendly ``silly boy'' smile. ``The celebrity thing is ephemeral,'' she said. ``It's gone as soon as you're off the tube. It is also part of your baggage, so you just better accept it. But once you're off the tube, you're dead, so don't get a swelled head.''
    I protested, saying that despite being off the air for stretches at a time, people had great affection for her.
    ``I hope I'm believed, not just beloved,'' she said. ``That's the main thing. I'm a searcher-out of the truth.''
    What so many of the obituaries missed about Julia or passed over last week was an integrity unique in contemporary times. In an American culture where people sell their souls at the first glance of fame, Julia was pure and purposeful, steadfast in her refusal to attach her name to commercial products. The only things she promoted were her own books, the Public Broadcasting System and fund-raisers for her favorite nonprofit organizations, like Long Wharf Theatre, thanks to her longtime college chum Betty Kubler.
    ``Once you endorse something, your usefulness is through,'' Julia said. ``Your credibility is damaged. And whatever it is you've endorsed, you're stuck with it. You don't want to lose possession of yourself. Now I can say anything I like.''
    She was a writer's dream because you could ask her anything, and she'd give you a direct, pithy and often amusing answer that was sure to vie for a highlighted quote. With Julia, there was a lack of pretense but not opinions.
    Sometimes my questions were purely voyeuristic, such as what would she bring to a potluck supper. She said beef stew, New England clam chowder or a potato salad made with the freshest ingredients would be good choices for a neighborhood gathering. ``Or something made of puff pastry, if I had the time to make it,'' she said. ``But something that was fun to do.''
    I also asked if she ever craved junk food, like maybe a Twinkie. ``Well,'' she said, ``I love hot dogs that are made well. And I love hamburgers. I don't think I ever had a Twinkie. Or an Oreo.''
    I asked if she thought human memory archived ``tastes'' from long-ago meals?
    ``Or does taste have memory?'' she countered with an existential twist. ``Yes, it certainly does, because some things you can absolutely remember. An easy one is to remember the smell of Provencal cooking when you smell the garlic and the onions being simmered in olive oil. Or the smell of mussels cooking in wine. These aromas are quite haunting.''
    I also asked what meal she would prepare for God.
    ``To show him the wonders of the earth?'' she pondered, playing with the what-if notion. ``Well, [I] once did a lovely dish of poached fresh artichoke bottoms filled with oysters in a white butter sauce, and that was awfully nice. [I] would add some truffles, too. Then I would add one of my duck recipes, some lovely fresh asparagus, some braised Belgian endive and some of my fresh French rolls. For dessert, a puff pastry rectangle filled with pastry cream with some raspberries covered with a caramel sauce. And then some sherbet.''
    Bon appetit, Julia.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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