CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Cambridge, Mass.
On a sunny winter afternoon in Julia Child's expansive kitchen, ,, lunch is poached eggs over homemade hash, an endive salad with French olive oil, wine vinegar and lemon -- and a bottle of Chardonnay.
But it is nothing compared with the other activities she has on her burners:
*Promoting the American Institute of Wine and Food.
*Trying to establish master's degree programs in gastronomy at universities.
*And fund-raising, such as a gala dinner and cooking demonstrations in late June for Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven, Conn.
The 78-year-old Ms. Child is in fine form, talking with her famous forthrightness on a range of topics during an interview at her great, gray pre-Victorian house, surrounded by a white picket fence, on a quiet residential street not far from Harvard Yard.
Ms. Child's kitchen is both spacious and intimate. Free of froufrou, the kitchen is decorated with a utilitarian flair. Sunlight streams into the dark green room, which is filled with Pegboards holding a lifetime collection of molds, ladles, scissors, beaters, whisks and kitchen gizmos. Copper pots and pans hang like golden trophies. A seemingly endless variety of crocks and bowls line up atop the plain wooden cabinets. A large table at the center of the room holds groceries, writings or meals.
A hale and hearty Ms. Child, dressed in flowered blouse, sensible slacks and sneakers, darts around the kitchen and pantry as she prepares lunch. She stirsthe hash, chops the fresh herbs for the salad and nurses the eggs. When pita crisps stay too long in the oven, she gives them the heave-ho into the sink and prepares English muffins in their stead.
"It's interesting when you speak to someone who is not familiar with the profession," she says in her familiar vibrato voice. "They look at you in a bemuuuuused way [and think]: 'Silly person.' Don't you find that?"
Ms. Child wants people to be less bemused and more "culinary literate."
Nine years ago she co-founded the American Institute of Wine and Food, an international organization. The non-profit educational organization has 20 chapters with more than 6,000 members. The goal is to have about 30 chapters and 30,000 members.
The school has become a major part of Ms. Child's life, even more than writing books, creating videos and appearing on television programs. She is enthusiastic about it, as if she had just uncovered the secret to a great sauce.
"We're really off and running," she says with trademark gusto. "But it takes a long time to get these things going."
Who belongs? For $60, she says, anyone. But a closer look at the membership roster will show a ragout of "movers and shakers in the wine and food business, every type of fisherman and apple grower, restaurateurs and passionate consumers."
"The object is to learn about the quality in the wine and food and to improve on it and to act as a clearinghouse and meeting place. That's another thing the institute is interested in: the dissemination of information."
Which leads to one of Ms. Child's favorite subjects: "The fear of food."
"The tragic thing is that people, especially women, they're so fearful. All the information is right there: about fat, about nutrition, about how much butter you can have. But people don't pay attention to it. They just listen to the latest thing in television. There are some people who don't dare eat any butter or bacon -- at all. I think one of the problems is the way it has been presented. I think you get scientists in there talking about scientist-type language.
"We're interested in getting nutritionists to be gastronomers and getting cooks to be conscious of nutrition. On the whole, to [nutritionists], food is medicine. I think very often they're so afraid that people are going to overdo, they don't want to say anything is fun and good for you.
She points to "those three poison grapes" several years ago that caused consumers to give up the grape, "and that whole Alar scandal" that hit the apple industry at its very core.
"There are far more natural carcinogens [in nature]. Plants all have their own protective devices to ward off enemies and so forth, and very often they are carcinogens. . . . There are more in natural foods than you find . . . in pesticides.
"And poor old Meryl Streep getting involved. There are a lot of simple, frightened parents who, if anyone said there is even one chance in a million of danger, they won't do it.They want zero, which, of course, is impossible because you wouldn't eat anything, especially natural foods, which have just as much problems as other foods."
Ms. Child pooh-poohs nutritional findings that take on the momentum of a craze, such as the focus in the news on cholesterol.
"Cholesterol is only one factor [in health]," she says. "Exercise, obesity, variety [of foods], high blood pressure, smoking are also factors. And most helpful or dangerous of all are your own grandparents [because of heredity]."
Ms. Child's own background would not indicate any hint of a career in food. She was born and raised in Pasadena, Calif., and graduated from Smith College in 1934. After a brief stint in advertising, she joined the OSS [Office of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA]. During World War II she was sent to Asia, where she met her future husband, Paul, a Bostonian in the diplomatic service. After the war they were transferred to Paris, and she attended class at the Cordon Bleu.
"It was a major moment moving over there," she says. "I just realized this was a profession I was looking for all my life, really. I admired the deep seriousness with which the chefs took their work. Nothing was too much trouble to produce something wonderful, and that just appealed to me very much. And I didn't run into any who didn't like teaching people and sharing their knowledge.
"If I hadn't been at the Cordon Bleu at that time, I think I would
never have gone into this. I was just lucky to have that wonderful opportunity to learn from someone from the old school, a wonderful teacher, my old chef [Max] Bugnard. But all the people at that time had that attitude: generous, expanding of the profession.
"Then I happened to meet my French colleague, Simone Beck, and she, like me, was a middle-class woman, and it was wonderful to meet her because we had the same feeling about things."
With more Americans going to postwar Europe and the Kennedys in the White House, the timing was right for French cooking to be embraced by Americans more accustomed to gelatin salads, canned hams and TV dinners.
"I just happened to arrive at the right time, which was very lucky for me," she says.
In the early '60s, her husband, Paul, resigned from the globe-trotting American diplomatic service after nearly 20 years, and the couple settled in Cambridge.
After a television interview in which she was promoting her first book (1961's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I," written with Ms. Beck and Louisette Bertholle), Ms. Child was asked by WGBH-TV, the educational television station in Cambridge, to create three pilot cooking programs. The first dishes she prepared were omelets, coq au vin and a non-collapsible souffle. The shows were so popular that she was given her own series, which began in 1963. She was 50.
When she began the show she had no idea that it would become a food phenomenon. "I think we were paid $25 or $50 a show. I would have paid them, it was such fun todo."
lTC The 200-plus episodes of the show were immediate hits, inspiring some people to be amateur chefs, turning others into armchair cooks. "The French Chef" was followed by the series and accompanying books, "Julia Child and Company," "Julia Child and More Company" and "Dinner at Julia's." In the '80s, she also became a semiregular on ABC's "Good Morning, America," which is the only television she does now.
Along the way, the easygoing Ms. Child, with her common-sense charm, became an American icon.
"Oh, I hope I'm believed, not just beloved," she says. "That's the main thing. I'm a searcher-out of the truth."
She also responds to her celebrityhood with ego-free logic: "Once you're off television, you're dead. So don't get a swelled head."
Though she has received thousands of complimentary letters over the years, there have been "a few abusive letters, which I always enjoy. They're always fun." Many of these missives come from vegetarians or animal-rights supporters.
She says she also receives letters from anti-alcohol people with boeufs of their own.
"There was one letter from an old lady from Woonsocket, R.I., and she wrote to our station: 'That Julia Child, she's in the pay of the liquor industry. I saw her the other day putting teaspoon after teaspoon of booze into a dessert.' Well, I never put any [booze] in by teaspoon. That was a fun letter."
More seriously, she warns against the proliferation of "neo-prohibitionists."
Ms. Child says there are no more epic cookbooks in her plans. The last one, her seventh ("The Way to Cook," 1989; Knopf; $50), "took so long to do."
"I may do another book, little stories about food events. I think it would be fun, like Christmas in Provence [France] and a few things like that."
There has not been a Julia Child autobiography, "nor will there be," she says flatly. "I don't think it would be of much interest. And it doesn't interest me, that's the main thing."
What does interest her is cooking, an activity that is endlessly surprising, she says. ("As my old chef at 92 said, 'Almost every day, I learn something new.' ") Most of her friends are of the same mind.
"If they're not really interested in food at all, I find that they usually don't interest me very much," she says. "They tend to have none of that sort of gutsy side to them. I'm into people who do. I think that has something to do with people's natures, that [if they don't like food] they don't have sort of an erotic side."
Her life in food has been a great banquet, and she recommends culinary careers to others.
"In my experience, there's been a great camaraderie. It's wonderful being in a profession where everyone knows everyone and, except for a few sour apples, everyone helps everyone else. It's a very good profession for young people. It's passionately interesting. You have to like people. It's very, very hard work, but it's one of the most rewarding professions."