Although the recently released movie Julie & Julia focuses on Julia Child’s mid-century days in Paris and the later attempts of Brooklynite blogger Julie Powell to run through the recipes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in a calendar year, that doesn’t mean the chefs and foodies in Child’s adopted home of Santa Barbara don’t have opinions about the film or relevant memories about the protagonist. They do, and in gallons.
“When I saw the TV trailer for the movie, I decided that [Meryl] Streep was a lousy choice of actress,” admitted Chef John Downey, who first cooked for Child when he was chef at Penelope’s in about 1980. “On my way to the theater, I was still convinced that Meryl couldn’t possibly pull it off. After all, Julia was larger than life-physically and mentally. Boy was I wrong! Great job.”
Michael Hutchings, on the other hand, thought the Streep choice was inspired from the get-go. “When I saw a trailer for the film online, I had chills and waves of nostalgia remembering Julia,” he said. Hutchings should know, as he not only remembers cooking for Child (and Robert Mondavi) at the Olive Mill Bistro in 1981, but he remembers exactly what he served: “a baked local lobster with lobster Bearnaise and a local Casitas Pass squab with a star anise broth and local chanterelles.” He believes that “Streep evoked not only some unique speech, but also the gravitas and determination Child had in learning the craft of cooking.” What’s more, Hutchings feels “the film captured Julia’s passion with cooking. I could identify with that passion as that is how I was ‘captured by the kitchen.’ Both my wife and I knew Julia, we wanted to go home and cook, and we cook professionally.”
Meridith Moore, who now coordinates events at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History but was once a caterer and owner of several restaurants and delis, has memories so rich that she’s yet to face the film. Moore recalled first meeting Child at a dinner in 1996. “I was given the gift of sitting next to her at a banquet as a thank-you for some volunteer work I had done,” said Moore. “I was so scared that I begged off and had to be almost physically forced to sit next to her. She turned to me and said, ‘I had the most awful lunch today at the : it was just dreadful.’” Child wouldn’t confess where she’d eaten, and instead tried to convince Moore to fess up. “I said, ‘I’m not telling you!’ but she teased me into telling her, so I admitted I’d had a hot dog at Costco,” remembered Moore. “Her response was, ‘Oh, I love Costco’s hot dogs!’” Moore got to spend additional time with Child throughout the years, and explained, “No one had ever been so nice to me before or put me at such ease as she did. As a result, her leaving is still too raw and I don’t think I can handle seeing [the film].”
Longtime Santa Barbara chef and food writer Laurence Hauben, who named her daughter after Julia Child, has also yet to see the film. “I love Julia Child,” she said. “I love that she never thought of herself as a chef, just someone who loved to cook, and that her aim was to make cooking accessible to anyone who wanted to try it, not to impress others with her skill.” Hauben particularly recalls one Child meeting when they both attended a strawberry picking and jam-making class at Tom Shepherd’s farm. “She was in a wheelchair by then, but still came out to the field, and we brought her freshly picked berries,” said Hauben. “She had such a true enjoyment of food and of life, from the way she breathed in the aroma of the berries to her delight in the sights and smells of the Farmers Market, where she came as often as she could. She was totally real, without pretense or snobbery.”
Upon further reflection, however, Downey isn’t so sure that all of Julia made it to the screen. “I don’t think they gave Julia a fair shake. There was so much to this woman that is barely portrayed,” he claimed. “Her love of good, honest-to-goodness food comes across well, but what about her insistence on developing the very best and practical recipes? : Ditto her deep desire to teach the entire U.S. population how to cook. That’s what she really wanted: to share her knowledge. She did all the legwork so the rest of us could benefit from it.”
It’s important to note, of course, that the film gives Julie top-billing. “The movie was a great coup for Julie Powell and our Julia was brought along to give credence to the story,” assessed Downey. “Yet another case of a bunch of ‘angers-on [in the true English vernacular] milking their association with Julia Child. I will look forward to a new movie that really is about Julia. And Meryl Streep should play the role.”
Hutchings, meanwhile, is still hungry. “The film leaves me wanting more,” he said. “This was an appetizer and I would love to have the main course.”