The first time I had dinner with Julia Child, she cooked at my house. The memory came flooding back today after I finally got to see Julie/Julia, the new Nora Ephron movie starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child. (Other memories of another dinner she cooked for me came back as well, but that’s Part Two.)
She cooked at my house in San Francisco for a series I wrote when I was food and wine editor of the San Francisco Examiner in the late 1970s and early 1980s. It was called "Chef on a Budget." I invited well-known cooks and food personalities to devise a company dinner for four using only $20 in ingredients.
I lined up prominent local chefs and visiting stars such as James Beard, Jacques Pépin, Louis Száthmary, and Julia. A staff photographer and I went along as they shopped for the food, brought it all back to a kitchen, and cooked it so we could write down recipes. They rose to the challenge and came up with some great stuff. Most of the time, we did the actual cooking at a professional kitchen. I forget why we couldn't do that for Julia, but she was game to use the small kitchen in our house in Saint Mary's Park, a blue-collar neighborhood in San Francisco.
Before she shopped at my local supermarket, in fairness I alerted the manager of the store that I was bringing her. I never saw his produce department look so spiffy.
I did not, however, tell the neighbors. The last thing I wanted was for crowds to appear, seeking her autograph as she arrived to cook. Several neighbors, noticing the midnight blue stretch limousine that delivered her, later that day came by to ask who died. The only time they saw a limo in my neighborhood was when someone was getting married or buried.
Our kitchen lacked a professional stove, but it didn’t faze Julia in the least. She cooked her whole dinner on our 1950s-era chrome-top Wedgwood. As I recall, she sautéed chicken with a wine sauce for her main course. She served it over orzo coated with butter and plenty of freshly ground pepper. (To this day, I still make that orzo preparation, only now I use olive oil instead of butter.) I proudly pulled a Stony Hill Chardonnay from my cellar to drink with the chicken.
As the photographer snapped away, she cooked and I helped, scribbling notes for the recipes. When we sat down to eat, she could not have been more gracious or friendly. Several times she emphasized how much fun she was having.
I think what made it special for her was that we were rolling up our sleeves and cooking, not conducting a theoretical interview or posing for television cameras. And we were not trying to be fancy. She always abhorred any food that was too frou-frou, or too many hands assembling a picture-perfect dish. She liked real food, and the simpler the better.
The only people we told in advance of her visit were my brother-in-law Ed and his partner Bill. As a side business, they bought and sold Depression glass. They had collected a few 1930s-era mayonnaise makers, and they brought her one as a gift.
These were tall glass jars, the lid indented and pierced in the center with a hole just big enough to allow for a metal rod to slide through it. The rod had a handle at the top and something resembling a small potato masher at the other end, which fit over the convex jar bottom. The recipe for mayo was embossed on the side of the jar. The eggs, lemon juice and salt went into the jar. As the oil dripped through the hole in the lid, pushing the handle up and down blended it with the egg mixture to make perfect mayonnaise.
A true gadget lover and collector, Julia loved it. Several years later, when I visited her in her home in Cambridge, Mass., on assignment for Wine Spectator, she gleefully pulled it down from a shelf where she had it on display to show me. But that’s another meal, and another blog.
Colin Haggerty — La Jolla, California — August 16, 2009 10:54pm ET
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