It was the best salade Nicoise I have ever eaten and I say this having eaten it daily for almost two weeks in the south of France just to see if it varied (a lot, as it happened). The most remarkable Nicoise was prepared by the late Julia Child on the eve of her 80th birthday in 1992. She had just returned from the house near Nice where she and her husband, Paul, went every summer. I had phoned her early one morning after she returned to ask if I could visit, reporter notebook in hand.
“Come for lunch, dearie!” she chirped. (Everyone on the other end of her line was “dearie.”) And so I watched the towering French Chef in her blue apron put the salad together, talking as she worked. At one point, after dusting our plates with salt, she flung what remained in her hand into the sink 3 feet away. It was a private show starring the most famous cook in the country, no camera, and an audience of one. By then, I had been to the big Victorian on Irving Street in Cambridge many times. But every time I heard that distinctive, melodic voice and a hello that seemed like she was imitating Dan Aykroyd imitating her, I was star-struck.
Aug. 15 is Julia’s 100th birthday. She died two days before her 92d in Santa Barbara, Calif., where she lived for several years after four decades in Cambridge. The kitchen where she worked, entertained, and eventually filmed TV shows for months at a time, is now reassembled in the Smithsonian. Julia was interested in the careers of many young cooks and I was fortunate to be among them. Lucky too that with her interest came many invitations.
Though not one to show her emotions, Julia seemed sad that day in her kitchen. We ate her salad, which contained hard-cooked eggs draped with anchovies, and sardines instead of tuna (she poured the delicious olive oil from the sardine can all over the tomatoes, cucumbers, and lettuce), and sipped big glasses of California chardonnay. Her “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” coauthor and dear friend, Simone “Simca” Beck, had died. The vacation house in France was built on Beck’s property. Paul was in a nursing home. There seemed to be no reason to return.
But all that didn’t slow her travels in this country, nor discourage her from launching “Cooking With Master Chefs,” and later, “In Julia’s Kitchen With Master Chefs,” which she told me at the time, “is not for fluffies.” It was shot in Cambridge with more than two dozen chefs, 12 staff members running in circles around her house, some prepping food from dawn on.
I had first met Julia many years before at a dinner party in Washington, D.C. I was a young aspiring food writer working for Anne Willan, the British cook and writer who later opened the bilingual cooking school La Varenne in Paris. Julia was one of a number of famous people in the room: James Beard (truly larger than life), US Senator Mark Hatfield (from Oregon, Beard’s home state), David Brinkley, the television news anchor (to talk TV with Julia), and others. Julia and Jim Beard were doing a presentation at the Smithsonian and Anne knew them both.
I had just returned from a year at the Cordon Bleu cooking schools in London and Paris. I was curious to meet Julia, but a little cheeky. After having my knuckles rapped in teaching kitchens for a year, I wondered if Julia really knew her stuff.
Anne and I had made lobster souffles, rosy legs of lamb, and flourless chocolate cakes she learned during her own time at the Cordon Bleu. Someone brought a white root puree to go with the lamb. We sat down at Anne’s very elegant, very British table. My place was beside Julia. When the main course came out, we both puzzled over the puree. I had no idea what it was. Julia tasted hers and announced, “Celeriac and parsnip.” She had me at celeriac.
In Cambridge, you entered through the side door of the old clapboard house (past her dented VW with a spoon on the antenna; the spoon was so she could find her car in a parking lot). The kitchen was a few steps up, and once inside, it was bustling. Paul, whose moods were unpredictable, poured wine. Julia, ever cheerful, would often enlist someone to whisk a sauce or make dressing. You were asked to cook for Julia Child while she was beside you! It was a thrill (though not everyone thought so). Guests nibbled on Pepperidge Farm Goldfish — her favorite (McDonald’s fries were another).
Her food was very good and beautifully cooked, but it was generally not memorable. She didn’t spend the day in the kitchen working out of “Mastering,” the way her followers did, and you often got recipe tests that didn’t quite work. She presented simple three-course meals: smoked salmon, brought by a guest; roast lamb or veal stew or sauteed fish; always a cheese course; and at every dinner, chocolates. Desserts were often whatever she was working on. Once I dined on “Strawberry Souffle XXIII.” It rose into a pretty pink puff, but was watery, the problem she was trying to fix.
The kitchen was big and old-fashioned. It had an old Garland range at one end and a wall of pegboard at the other, where pots hung. Paul, whose artwork adorned every wall in the house, had outlined the pots on the pegboard with marking pen so that each had its place.
One night, I saw the kitchen table set for 10 (more than the table held). We had assigned places and I found myself mashed in beside Cuisinart founder Carl Sontheimer, who was not a small man. Julia brought out a roast chicken with Uncle Ben’s rice, which she had been testing. As I told her biographer, Bob Spitz, author of “Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child,” I thought she was serving the first chicken and at least one other would follow. But there was only one. Portions were minuscule that evening, but there was plenty of good French wine, and we had a ball, no doubt due to interesting guests and tight quarters.
Though Julia was a national star, Bostonians considered her their own. They ran into her at the supermarket and she greeted everyone who approached her. Because her phone number was listed, anyone could call and ask cooking advice. At a Thanksgiving dinner I attended one year, she spent the afternoon and evening talking to local cooks worried about their turkeys, as if she were some sort of Butterball hot line. “Take your turkey out of the oven, put it on the counter, and let it sit there,” she would reassure callers in that familiar voice. “It will be fine for a couple hours.”
The simple house in Chateauneuf de Grasse, in the south of France, was eventually bought by Kathie Alex, a protegee of Simca’s, who gives cooking lessons and hosts students there. When I visited in 2000, she served piperade, also a favorite of Julia’s, the dish of eggs, bell peppers, tomatoes, and ham. We drank rosé and ate on the sunny patio under a mulberry tree, dining on Julia’s traditional French pottery, in pretty olive and yellow hues. The plates chip easily. Thrifty Julia had used marker pens to color in where the plates had white cracks; the colors didn’t quite match.
Before Julia moved from Cambridge to California, she hosted a dinner party, but many guests brought the food. She genuinely appreciated everyone else’s cooking efforts. There was much scurrying in her kitchen, while she sat in the garden sipping wine. She had lost her love of the limelight, and told me that she often said when someone stopped her that she was “not Julia Child, but many people say I look just like her.”
That night, she asked a guest sitting with her what was in his glass, which looked more appealing than what was in hers. When he showed her the bottle, she took her full glass and tipped it upside down into a potted plant. “I’ll have some of that,” she said.