In the chill drizzle of a late autumn morning in Cambridge, Julia Child’s three-story gray frame house looks anything but welcoming. Like its 6’2″ owner, it is handsome and vaguely imposing. It also looks to be locked down tight. In the manicured yard is a sign declaring: No Trespassing: Police Take Notice.
The sober aura evaporates, though, when a jaunty Child appears at the kitchen door. Reassuringly familiar, she is wearing a heavy gold necklace and a smart sweater and skirt that only a professional would dare wear in front of a stove. “Come and see our lobsters,” she says in her breathless trill, leading the way into the kitchen.
At 81, Child is a woman who has little time for complaining. Never mind that others her age operate at half speed, or that, over the years, she has coped with crises including a radical mastectomy, or that she is living without Paul Child, the husband who was her soul male (now 91, he is confined to a nursing home). Like anyone who is fiercely dedicated to savoring life, she is rooted in the present. If she’d rather be upstairs packing for an imminent month-long tour to promote her 16-part PBS series and companion book, Cooking with Master Chefs, her guests (including photographer Christopher Little and assistant D.K. Doyle) will never know it. Cheerful and engaging, she will throw herself into the task of amusing us.
Slightly stooped, wearing wide sandals, she walks a bit stiffly into a kitchen that looks to have changed little since she and Paul bought the house in 1956. Painted a mossy blue-green, it is lined with peg-boards that hold a daunting array of pots, molds, shears and assorted implements of destruction. Near the sink are the crustaceans destined to become Lobster Sautéed in Its Shell, Chinese-Style. “They’re nice and lively,” she says. “We’re going to stun them by plunging them into boiling water. If you were in a restaurant, you would chop them up live, but that always terrifies people.”
After snipping the bands on two pairs of claws, she heads for her Garland stove with the lobsters in hand. Before she can toss them into the steaming pot, however, one clamps its pincers around a pair of shears; the other grasps a dish towel. “Open up, please,” she says, as the first lobster drops the shears and snares the towel. Relishing the absurdity, she laughs. “Let go, hey!” The captives hang on. Mugging for Little, she heaves them into the boiling bath, towel and all.
Child allows that she doesn’t usually dine on lobster when she’s alone. Breakfast is cereal or fruit and tea. Lunch is “something simple, because I’ve got an awful lot of work to do.” Quality, however, is important: “I get very depressed if I don’t eat well,” she says. Last night’s dinner was “some lovely swordfish, green beans and a salad” with nephew David Mc Williams, 44, who is boarding with her while he finishes an MBA at Harvard.
Plucking the limp lobsters from the pot, Julia dismembers them with gusto. Forcing a mass of innards through a sieve, she says heartily, “This is one of those nice, messy dishes that you get all over you. I like the process of cooking—I’m not interested in dishes that take three minutes and have no cholesterol.”
For Child, holding an audience while dissecting complex creatures is a God-given talent; somehow, she manages to chatter about restaurants in France (“They’re ridiculously expensive nowadays”), juvenile delinquency (“It’s high time for another war on poverty”) and QVC (“I was on on Sunday, and guess how many books we sold: ten thousand!”) while giving a lesson in lobster anatomy. “There’s your intestinal vein,” she says, using her knife to point out a slippery gray-green vessel.
Paul, whom she visits daily when she’s not traveling, is mentioned only briefly, and she speaks of him in the past tense. “He was an art factory,” she says when asked about an abstract painting in the music room. “He painted, he made stained glass—he even carved that beautiful chest in the hall.” Although she undoubtedly feels his absence, she has immersed herself in work and friends: During our visit, the phone will ring constantly.
Most of Child’s friends are “in the cooking business,” as she puts it. “Everybody cooks in here,” she adds. “When [French-born chef] Jacques Pépin comes for dinner, he takes over. He doesn’t think women belong in the kitchen.” To avoid confusion, contents arc listed on every cabinet, spices are alphabetized, and instructions are posted on every appliance. Polaroids are posted on each peg-board, lest any item be hung on the wrong hook.
In her new series (which debuted last month), Child turns the tables by visiting 16 chefs in their own kitchens. “I had always wanted to do a commentary on other people cooking,” she says. “But producing the show was difficult; with chefs, every time they do something, they change it.” For all of that, observing virtuosos like Lidia Bastianich of Manhattan’s Felidia taught even Child new tricks. Now, she exults, she “finally understands” risotto. Says Child: “All good cooks learn something new every day.”
Not that she appreciates novelty for its own sake. As the lobsters sizzle and the smells of ginger and garlic rise from the stove, she declares, “I’m heartily tired of creative cooking—you can’t even go to a restaurant and get a lamb chop anymore. These crunchily undercooked vegetables are ridiculous. Escoffier said a green bean should have crunch, but it was not to be exaggerated. Americans have to learn how to eat—if you think that undercooked vegetables are the right thing to eat, you’re wrong.”
Perfumed with soy sauce and sesame oil peppery with ginger, the lobster goes onto blue-and-white plates beside mounds of arborio rice. “Will someone pour the wine?” asks Child, plunking a bottle of chardonnay onto the table and putting out paper napkins. Sitting down heavily, she waits for her guests and then deftly attacks a scarlet claw.
The talk turns to the business of cooking. “In this line of work, you never have to retire. You keep right on until you’re through,” she says. “Which is fortunate. I’ve had lunch with people who’ve retired. All they talk about is their illnesses—they’re so boring.”
Weight gain, of course, is an occupational hazard. When she must, Child puts herself on the Scarsdale diet—”the one invented by the doctor shot by the schoolmistress,” in her words. “It’s very pleasant,” she says, adding a shard of shell to the neat pile on her plate. “It’s the zero-fat Pritikin diet [devised by the late Dr. Nathan Pritikin] that’s so terrible. His wife wrote me a nasty letter: ‘You cook with all this butler, blah, blah, blah.’ I wrote her a very nice little note saying that maybe if her husband had had a good meal now and then, he’d still be alive.”
Leaning back, Child asks someone to pour more chardonnay. She looks content, and one gets the feeling that, if she were running things, neither crunchily undercooked vegetables nor juvenile delinquents would be around for long. Butter would make a comeback, no one would be afraid of crème fraîche, and still the entire population would make it well past 80 with hearts—and spirits—intact.