After spending several days at a food-writing seminar at The Greenbrier, Kathleen Purvis wrote this story about her experiences meeting Julia Child. It was originally printed in The Observer on April 10, 1996.
HANGING OUT WITH THE GODDESS OF GOURMET
By Kathleen Purvis
Let's say Zeus wandered down off Mount Olympus one day and plopped his mythological self down next to you, toga and all.
What would you say? How do you make small talk with someone who is larger than life?
Or maybe not Zeus. Maybe someone real, like Einstein, or Madame Curie, or Henry Ford or Coco Chanel.
Or how about Julia Child?
After all, at 83 years old (84 in August), the woman who took gourmet cooking out of fancy restaurants and gave it to home cooks qualifies as a bona fide legend. An honest-to-goodness cooking hero, a whisk-waving, duck-deboning, cream puff-packing presence.
So what did I do when Julia Child sat down next to me at a conference for food writers at The Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va.? I gathered my journalistic courage . . . and I blushed and stuttered and called her "ma'am." Hey, heroes may be hard to find, but they're even harder to talk to.
What becomes a legend?
One way to spot a legend is by looking for the ripple. People can't help it. They whisper and point behind their hands and try so hard not to stare that their eyes glaze over. Julia Child doesn't even have to be present to create the ripple.
At the check-in desk for the conference, I overheard as a young couple sheepishly sidled up to a hotel employee:
"You know, last night at dinner, we sat next to someone who looked exactly like Julia Child. But that couldn't have been her - could it?"
Assured that indeed it was, they stumbled away, shocked and apparently chagrined - they had dined right next to Julia Child and hadn't even known it. They'll be kicking themselves for decades for not paying closer attention.
OK, I'll admit it. I felt a little twinge of pride. I was there to sit at the feet of the cooking master, to drink in wisdom (and a dose of good wine).
Still, I had no idea just how much sitting and drinking in there would end up being. My conference schedule said Child would lead a seminar on CD-ROM publishing, and she'd do a cooking demonstration with Anne Willan of the hotel's La Varenne cooking school. And there would be a few fancy dinners, of course. That's what food writers do when they hang out.
But that's about all I expected. I hadn't figured on one thing, though: Julia Child has more energy, more of what her beloved French call "joie de vivre, " than any 83-year-old you've ever seen. She stays up late, she gets up early. She's there at breakfast, lunch, dinner and midnight snack. She's written nine cookbooks, but she still takes notes in a seminar on how to write for magazines.
Pass the goose fat and Burgundy, bubba. I'll have what she's having.
Still, after years as the ageless rock of high cuisine, the aging has begun. Child was once 6 feet 2. Now she is so stooped she peers up at my 5 feet 10.
Her eyes squint like a permanent grin, and gray dominates her bird's nest of hair. She leans on a walking stick, the result of a knee injury several years ago. Her dowager's hump is so pronounced she seems to rise back-first, and very slowly, out of her chair.
But she still has the face of a bulldog in the wind. Her demeanor is so firmly down to earth that you expect her footprints to be muddy.
And that voice, that much-imitated highfalutin' hoot, hasn't changed a note - even if the things she says float back and forth between sharp and vague.
"There's no excuse for not learning French if you want to cook. It's the language of cooking." Oui, madame.
On Saturday morning, she sat next to me through two seminars. In the break between them, she listened patiently as people approached and sought her advice, on cooking careers, on schools, on sources of food safety information. I turned my head away a little, trying to be polite and not intrude on their conversations.
Just as the second seminar began, she turned to me.
"That's the trouble - the older you get, the less time you have to clean out your closets."
I nodded and agreed, but I had no idea what she was talking about. Was that a reference to something someone had asked? Was she thinking about what she needed to do when she returned home Sunday? Or was that the punch line to a conversation from 20 years ago?
I puzzled it over and tried to imagine Julia Child's closets - dusty wine bottles, piles of linen napkins and the body of a brainless journalist wrapped in a gravy-stained tablecloth. I sat up straight and vowed to pay attention - and not ask stupid questions.
Now, it's not like Child shared some big secret to her longevity and success with me. She didn't lean over my chair at dinner and whisper, "Butterfat and black truffles, dear - that's the ticket!"
But I can make a couple of educated guesses:
For one, this is a woman who enjoyed the past - and adores the present. Throughout the conference, she talked little and listened much, with an interest best described as "lively."
Sitting next to me on Saturday morning, she peered at me closely.
"Tell me, dear, do you use the Internet much?"
In her seminar on CD-ROM publishing, she embraced computer technology heartily.
"Videos are linear, " she declared. "You can't stop them anywhere. To get from carrots to onions, you have to fast-forward for 10 minutes. It's very unhandy."
And the other secret is this: Pick something you love, then make it your own with every ounce of energy you possess.
In a cooking demonstration on Sunday morning, she buttoned a white chef's jacket, tied on a butcher's apron . . . and suddenly, well, she wasn't younger, really. But she was stronger. More definite.
Knife in hand to scrape the skin from a pile of duck legs, her movements were quick and sure. No vagueness, no hesitation.
And as she stood in front of the counter to whisk a vinaigrette, her stooped posture seemed quite natural. Of course she stoops, dear - you'd stoop, too, if you had been leaning over stockpots since 1948.
While she and Willan worked their way through Duck Leg Salad, Chicken Breast Stuffed With Figs and Blue Cheese, White Wine Granita With Fresh Berries and Julia's Ice Cream Surprise (vanilla ice cream topped with instant coffee and bourbon), they paused occasionally to discuss cooking. Willan suddenly asked Child, "What separates a good chef from a great chef?"
Child thought a moment.
"None of them are stupid, " she declared. "A really good chef is always questioning."
Yes, you are, Mrs. Child. And it was a pleasure to be there to hear your answers.
TIPS FROM THE PROS
A cooking demonstration by Anne Willan and Julia Child at the La Varenne cooking school at The Greenbrier included great food - and a few handy tips. Remember these when you're in the kitchen:
- To shake powdery spices over a dish, scoop up the spice on a knife blade. Then tap the handle to shake the spice over the food. The French call that "une pointe" - a point.
- When you're cooking in a hurry, use spring onions instead of whole onions. They're quicker to chop because you don't have to peel them, and they give much the same flavor.
- To work fast, master the art of chopping with two blades. If you have knives of different sizes, hold one in each hand and chop alternately with a quick, rapping rhythm. If they're the same size, hold them together in one hand and chop.
- Take the time to learn to use your knives quickly. "It's a little like learning the backhand in tennis, " says Child. "It just takes hours of practice.
Makes 6 servings
From Julia Child: "Leftover cooked duck is best, I think, served cold either with a condiment such as chutney or marinated in a dressing such as that described here. Warmed-over cooked duck unfortunately always has a telltale warmed-over taste to my mind." Child notes that whole ducks often roast unevenly; she advises roasting duck breasts and using the legs for this dish.
Sweet and Sour Dressing:
1 1/2 tablespoons finely minced shallot or scallion
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon wine vinegar or raspberry vinegar (can add 1 teaspoon balsamic vinegar)
1 tablespoon Dijon-type mustard
1 tablespoon sweet and sour sauce, such as Chinese plum sauce or hoisin, or minced chutney
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
Salt and pepper
Curly endive or romaine leaves cut into -1/2-inch strips, or mesclun salad mixture
4 uncooked leg-thighs from 2 roaster ducklings
Salt and pepper to taste
1/4 teaspoon allspice
Warm duck cracklings (optional)
In small bowl, blend shallots or scallions, lemon juice, vinegar, mustard and plum sauce or chutney with wire whisk. Beat in olive oil in droplets to make an emulsion, then beat in remainder in steady stream. (Set bowl on folded dishcloth to hold it steady while beating.) Season to taste with droplets of sesame oil and salt and pepper.
Wash and dry salad greens and turn them into a large bowl.
Peel skin and any clinging fat off duck legs and thighs. As neatly as possible, cut meat from bone. Arrange pieces in single layer between 2 pieces of plastic wrap and pound firmly but not violently with bottle or rubber mallet, widening them almost double to tenderize meat. Slice meat into lengthwise strips about -1/4-inch wide. Dust lightly with salt, pepper and allspice. (May be prepared ahead to this point. Cover dressing and set aside; cover and refrigerate greens and duck.)
Set wok or frying pan over high heat. Add enough olive oil to coat bottom. When very hot but not smoking, stir in duck meat, tossing and turning almost constantly for 2 to 3 minutes, until meat is browned lightly but still springy to the touch. It should be a pinky rose inside. Remove from heat. Stir up dressing if necessary and blend 3 to 4 tablespoons into meat, just enough to coat.
Toss salad greens with remaining dressing (Child always eats a piece to check seasoning.) Arrange greens on individual plates, then top with duck meat and warm cracklings (see note) if desired. Serve immediately.
Note: To make cracklings, add duck skin to hot skillet. Cook until fat is rendered and skin is crispy. Place on paper towel to drain.
Lamb Stew Printaniere
Makes 6 servings
From "The Way to Cook, " by Julia Child (Knopf, 1989). At a dinner for the Symposium for Professional Food Writers, Child was asked to choose the menu. One of her favorite dishes, this classic lamb stew with spring vegetables was the entree.
4 pounds bone-in lamb shoulder
1 1/2 cups sliced onions
Light olive oil or peanut oil
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup or so flour in a dish
1 cup dry white French vermouth
2 large unpeeled cloves garlic, smashed
1/2 teaspoon rosemary
1 to 1-1/2 cups chopped tomatoes (unpeeled fresh, or combination of fresh and drained, canned Italian plum tomatoes) or 1 tablespoon or so tomato paste
2 to 3 cups chicken broth
1 1/2 pounds green beans
1 cup green peas, preferably fresh
6 medium carrots
6 small to medium potatoes
24 pearl onions, peeled and pierced with a cross -1/4-inch deep on root ends
To prepare lamb, cut off excess fat and cut meat into chunks, about 1 by 2 inches. (You can leave bones in; they'll add some flavor and can be discarded after cooking.)
In large skillet, saute onions for 5 minutes in a tablespoon or so of oil, letting them brown very lightly. Scrape into 3-quart ovenproof casserole or baking dish.
Set lamb pieces on sheet of waxed paper and toss with sprinkling of salt and pepper, then toss with flour. Toss them in sieve to shake off excess flour. Brown lamb pieces a few at a time in frying pan. Transfer to casserole.
While pan is hot, pour in vermouth to deglaze pan, scraping up browned bits. Pour wine into casserole. Add garlic, rosemary, tomatoes and enough stock to barely cover lamb.
Simmer on top of stove or in 325-degree oven 1 to 1-1/2 hours, or until lamb is fork tender.
Meanwhile, trim green beans and blanch beans and peas (if fresh; if frozen, just rinse under running water to thaw) quickly in boiling water until almost tender. Refresh in cold water to set color. Peel carrots, turnips and potatoes and cut into wedges. Set aside in cold water.
After stew has simmered 1 hour, pour into large sieve or colander set over bowl. Drain sauce into bowl. Remove and discard bones and return meat to casserole. Let sauce stand until fat rises; skim off fat and discard. Taste to correct seasoning. Pour sauce over lamb and add carrots, turnips, potatoes and onions, pushing down to cover with sauce. Cover and simmer 25 to 30 minutes, until vegetables are tender. Just before serving, add green beans and peas. Simmer several minutes to heat. Serve as soon as possible so vegetables retain their color.
Mocha Chocolate Sour Cream Sherbet
Makes about 2 quarts
From "The Way to Cook." Typically, when asked to provide the menu for a dinner, Child chose two vegetables, a stew - and seven desserts. This rich ice cream was one, although in her book, she notes that it tastes richer than it actually is.
8 ounces sweet baking chocolate
3 cups strong coffee
1/8 teaspoon salt
1 cup sugar
2 cups chilled sour cream
1 tablespoon pure vanilla extract
2 tablespoons dark Jamaican rum
Break up chocolate and add to stainless steel saucepan along with coffee, salt and sugar. Bring to simmer. Simmer slowly, stirring and whisking until chocolate is well melted and liquid is perfectly smooth and lightly thickened - 5 minutes or more. Set saucepan over ice and stir for several minutes to chill. Stir in sour cream, vanilla and rum. Freeze in ice cream maker according to manufacturer's instructions.