Culinary History Collection


Current Editor: Cynthia D. Bertelsen

Issue 7 Winter 2005

Julia Child, a Bright Shining American Star

by Cynthia D. Bertelsen*

Permission to reprint this article which originally appeared in the Roanoke Times on Sunday, Aug. 22, page 3 of the Horizon section, was granted by the Roanoke Times.

"Julia Child dies at 91."

Stunned at the breaking news, I again read the flickering words on my computer screen, tears slowly welling up in my eyes. Why should I be crying for Julia Child? I only met her once, spending a half an hour with her alone in an art gallery in Winston-Salem, North Carolina in 1997. She was there to present a key note address at a national conference of the American Society of Indexers. Basically, I was there as a fan, considering that food and cooking are like breathing to me. When the president of the Society asked me to squire Julia around before the keynote address, I almost refused for fear of messing up. What on earth would we talk about?

As it turned out, I shouldn't have worried. We had a lot to talk about, and Julia put me, a complete stranger, at ease right away.

At the elaborate banquet prepared for the conference attendees, Julia insisted on calling out the entire kitchen staff for a standing ovation and a hug for the young nervous chef. Who wouldn't be sweating with fright at the idea of cooking for the great Julia Child?

Later, after Julia's excellent keynote address, I opened copies of her books for the book signing that followed. You see, she would only sign the books on a certain page and in a certain place. Having read and cooked from most of her cookbooks, I wasn't surprised at this unwavering attention to detail. Over 250 people lined up with copies of her books. Julia signed every one of those books, smiling, laughing, asking people about themselves. Her glowing face, so full of energy from interacting with the scores of people in the room, is something I have never forgotten. That was Julia, a real person, giving, caring, and meticulous. The Julia we will read about as her long-term and close friends and colleagues pay tribute to her.

But I am not mourning her death just because I just happened to meet her once and have a picture of us together in my kitchen to prove it. Rather, my sorrow comes from knowing that America has lost a shining star of hope and optimism. Her wise comments in her book, The Way to Cook, sum up her feelings about food and human community: "Dining with one's friends and beloved family is certainly one of life's primal and most innocent delights, one that is both soul-satisfying and eternal."

For Julia, true hospitality meant welcoming the stranger. Julia's way is a way to remember our shared humanity with all human beings. Eating, cooking, and sharing food together are all things that we all need very much these days when even families, much less strangers, do not eat meals together very often.

In memory of Julia, invite a new acquaintance to a meal this week. Cook the food yourself. And remember that once people have eaten together, there are no longer strangers.

Goodbye, Julia. Thank you.

* Cynthia Bertelsen lives in Blacksburg and is a former indexer of cookbooks and academic books.

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