The Enduring Legacy of Julia Child

Famous Food Writer Remembers Famous Chef, Author, TV Personality, and Friend

Julia Child made it clear that food could be fun | Credit: Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

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So many cultural revolutions flipped Americans upside down in the ’60s, but the most enduring flip-flop was perhaps the least likely. While symbols of peace-love-dove have since faded, the Queen of the American Kitchen beams on like a Statue of Liberty with a chicken as her torch.

Everybody knows Julia Child. Sixty years after her first impact on America and 16 years after her death in Santa Barbara, we smile when we see her face. Even in our visual age jammed with icons, Julia still shines as the Gal of the Golden West, radiating generosity, geniality, and fun. To see her was to know her, and everybody saw her one way or another — TV, film, national magazines, her own books, her own person.

I first met her in person in 1963 in the Boston TV studios of WGBH when she started The French Chef. She announced, with cleaver aloft, “I’m neither French nor a chef.” Nor was she, with her height, voice, and presence, the typical American home cook she sought to reach.

When she invited me to visit her real kitchen in Cambridge, I yelled, “Yahoo!” I was a struggling housewife/mother/journalist living in Princeton, assigned to write a profile of this woman who had changed our lives the year before with Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

As her husband, Paul, liked to say, “Julia is a natural-born comedian.” She was also a born explainer, and the combo of skill and slapstick changed our perception of food. Cooking didn’t have to suggest female drudgery or home-ec diet and nutrition any more than eating had to suggest male gastronomic elitism and Cordon-Bleu chic. Julia made food fun for everybody.

Food became my focus as a writer because Julia taught us how to use this practical Esperanto to explore the globe and to make the most of every single day wherever we were, including home.

I trailed in Julia’s food-steps without knowing it, since I too was born in Southern California, though 15 years later than Julia. I too left the West to live in the East as well as abroad, and I finally returned West in old age to end in the very same Casa Dorinda in Montecito. But Julia had gone by the time I arrived in 2012.

Author and Casa Dorinda resident Betty Fussell regales the crowd with her Julia Child stories.

Over five decades, however, I met with her often through the many national and international food organizations she helped found, shape, and insisted I join. Like the International Association of Cooking Professionals (IACP), the American Institute of Wine & Food (AIWF), and the James Beard Foundation.

She was propelled by the energy and desire to mentor, motivate, and befriend everybody she met. And she wanted to meet and greet everybody, from the dishwashers at kitchen sinks to the chefs she helped make famous on the Food Network.

She had known and loved since childhood the landscapes of Hope Ranch, the Biltmore, the whole of Santa Barbara, “where the mountains meet the sea.” It’s no wonder she chose Santa Barbara in 1995 as the place to set up her very own Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts.

How she would love to know that, this year, her foundation is hosting an annual celebration of food and wine called the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience from March 13 to 15. [Due to public health concerns, the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience has been postponed to March 2021.] What’s more, the City of Santa Barbara has declared that Julia’s birthdate of August 15 will now officially be Julia Child Day. 

While 2020 may, for China, signify the Year of the Rat, here in Santa Barbara, this is the Year of Julia Child. 

On Valentine’s Day, Casa Dorinda celebrated the last place Saint Julia lived in the years 2001-2004. Here, she installed her kind of kitchen, planted her kind of garden with the butter-yellow roses that bear her name next to a mini orchard of Meyer lemon and other citrus trees. And here, she continues to advocate the joys of Costco hotdogs and upside-down martinis (more vermouth than gin), not to mention goldfish and Champagne. 

I hear her voice every day.

A resident of Casa Dorinda in Montecito, Betty Fussell is the author of 12 books.

Santa Barbara Culinary Experience

The Julia Child Foundation for Gastronomy and the Culinary Arts is hosting the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience throughout Santa Barbara County from March 13 to 15. There are more than 50 events to enjoy, from extravagant meals and cooking classes to winemaker panels, cocktail demos, and, on Sunday, a neighborhood festival of sorts. 

See sbce.events for information and tickets. 

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