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One of the reasons Julia Child can inspire an almost religious fervor in those who followed her — that is, anyone who loves food — is that, like another famous J.C., she told us all to “Take, and eat.” Or maybe that should be, “Cook, and eat.”
For in the 1960s, when most food was frozen and pre-prepared, Child made it clear that food could be fun. And, in perhaps the most revolutionary way, she meant that both as a process — nope, that famed chicken dropped on the floor mid-episode never happened — and the product.
That this famous author and television personality chose to spend the end of her life in the Santa Barbara area should come as no surprise. She visited often while growing up in Pasadena in the 1910s and ’20s, so there was that tug of nostalgia. But Child was also a Francophile that made millions feel the same, thanks to her late-life blockbuster Mastering the Art of French Cooking (written with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle). How could she not want to come to the American Riviera, then, especially with its elongated growing seasons and burgeoning wine industry?
While Child passed away 16 years ago at the age of 91, her time spent in Santa Barbara only seems to magnify and reverberate more loudly with each passing year. From March 13 to 15, the inaugural Santa Barbara Culinary Experience will celebrate all things Julia by throwing a gastronomic blowout of workshops, tastings, dinners, and hoopla in her honor. (See the full event schedule here.) [Due to public health concerns, the Santa Barbara Culinary Experience has been postponed to March 2021.]
But beating that weekend to the punch was Casa Dorinda, where she lived from 2001 until her death in 2004. On February 14, her former resident friends threw a wonderful party called A Valentine Evening Remembering Julia Child.
Please don’t think that something at a retirement community will be stodgy. The evening kicked off in the Casa’s Game Room with a choice of wine or Julia’s beloved reverse martini — think 5-1 vermouth over gin, easier on one’s liver and the rest of the evening — plus bowls full of popcorn with real butter (Francophile, remember?) and Pepperidge Farm Goldfish (far from a snob, she loved what she loved, Costco hot dogs and all).
The event moved into the auditorium for a screening of 2004’s Julia Child! America’s Favorite Chef, a PBS American Masters documentary rich with details, archival photos, and footage of the evening’s star. But before the screening, an aproned Bob Yamin, head of the Casa’s Entertainment Committee, paraded through with a trussed-up chicken carcass he unceremoniously dropped to the floor. That left estimable food writer Betty Fussell, a member of the James Beard Foundation Cookbook Hall of Fame (to mention just one of her honors), to pick things up from his, uh, fowl start.
Fussell certainly did, sharing memories of Child from 1963 on, even if Fussell got to Casa Dorinda after Julia’s passing. Stressing that with her TV presence, Child made “canned and bland done,” Fussell also shared some of Julia’s zingers, stressing how she was a born comedienne. Insisting Child’s favorite meal was steak and gin, Fussell shared Child’s enduring quote, “Everything in moderation … including moderation.” So much of cooking, like comedy, is timing.
Other Casa Dorinda-ites shared memories, too. Jane Eagleton, who knew Child first from their days together at Montecito Shores, reminisced about how she cooked for America’s Favorite Chef, who was always appreciative. One time, thinking about all the adulation for Child, Eagleton asked Julia how she put up with it, and Child replied, “I try not to think about it.”
Cissy Hadley, who never met Child but now lives in her former apartment, has done everything she can to keep Child’s garden growing, from the fruit trees to the yellow roses that now bear Julia Child’s name. It remains, said Hadley, “a very happy place to live.”
Judy Warren, who was hired when Child insisted on a female interior designer to help her build out her Casa Dorinda apartment, dug out some historic architectural drawings of her layout for Child’s famous kitchen (a smallish version of her Cambridge, Mass., one that is now at the Smithsonian). A nervous and excited-for-the-invite Warren first met Child at Julia’s Montecito Shores house for lunch; Child said she was on a diet, handed Warren a banana, and said, “Here’s your lunch.”
The Casa Dorinda dinner that followed was much more than bananas. The room was filled with 179 diners, a record for a single sitting. Toi Dennis, the Casa’s executive sous chef, worked the room wearing a Julia Child mask for just one more laugh. Meanwhile, everyone enjoyed Child favorites like French onion soup, coq au vin, bouillabaisse, and chocolate espresso pots de crème.
Child would have loved that this evening in her name was all about delight.
Santa Barbara Culinary Experience
This inaugural weekend of food and drink in honor of Julia Child goes down March 13 to 15. There are more than 50 events, from cooking classes to winemaker panels, but here are the three signature events. Learn more and buy tickets at sbce.events.
Friday’s Opening Night Reception: Toast the weekend with more than two dozen Santa Barbara County wines at the Hotel Californian 5:30-7 p.m., when Chef Travis Watson will show off his small bites. $75
Saturday’s Border Grill on the Beach Lunch: Julia Child Award winners Mary Sue Milliken and Susan Feniger will serve their modern Mexican cuisine 12:30-2 p.m. at the Chase Palm Park Carousel House. $125
Sunday’s Neighborhood Tasting at the S.B. Historical Museum: Food and drink stars from various ’hoods will be serving and pouring 12:30-3 p.m. For $30 more, come at 11 a.m. to learn about and taste with Santa Barbara’s Home Winemakers. $55-$85