This past week(at least it was when I started writing this post) was the late Julia Child's birthday, August 15, which just so happens to be Ferragosto also, Italians most important holiday and oldest feast day, according to some. Yet another, Italian holiday that started out as a religious holiday (the Assumption of Mary into Heaven), but has now become the signal of the height or to some the end of the Italian summer holiday season, allegedly. We usually tend to continue to have Italian guests for the rest of August, with the villas around us still full of people. And, if you want to try and get anything done officially, you might as well forget it till the second week in September when everyone starts to come back to the reality of the work week schedule. But I digress, as usual.I came across a food blogger fest, via one of my favorite bloggers site, "Cream Puffs in Venice", who was joining in Lisa's "ChampaignTaste" celebrating Julia's birthday and felt compelled to add my two cents. Having grown up in Southern Illinois where there weren't any major hotels or tradition of famous chefs, watching Julia Child on PBS on a few occasions as a child, I was transported to a strange and wonderful world that conjured up exotic far away places that I never dreamed I would explore. Be forewarned, this a story to indulge myself and a bit of a long one. Fast forward quite a few years. I never realized that you could actually go to culinary school until I was almost finished with my University days, studying horticulture and thinking I was going to do a bit of intensive vegetable production for a living whilst I supplemented my income with a bit of vegetarian natural foods catering and supplying baked goods for a friend's coffee shop. Fast forward a bit more and I find myself in Colorado and the world of hungry skiers making the need for many cooks to feed them and I found myself in a lovely historical European style Inn, "Ski Tip Ranch", working as their pastry and pantry cook. What an exciting experience baking every day and pushing myself far beyond where I gone before. My chef mentor, Clyde Nelson, had us making everything from scratch and I embarked on an European pastry crash course over the next two years. Enter Clyde's dogeared copy of Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. I spent a lot of time with the pastry volume religiously following her very detailed instructions, with sometimes mixed results, as baking at 9,600 ft has some inherent challenges to add to my inexperience with classic French pastries. Julia kept me company on many brioche and puff pastry adventures. We had weddings almost every weekend in the summer, so I got lots of practice with fresh puff pastry bouchees and mini vol au vents for the masses, brioche for brunch or pate au choux "pac mans" for the buffet or butler styled horsd'oeuvres. Then there was the Italian meringue white chocolate butter cream frosting challenge for the wedding cakes and caramel decorations to finish me off after pulling my hair out and wondering if I would survive another high anxiety wedding. Julia was there for many sessions and points of reference and referring,.." but Julia said that if you did this, that and a whole bunch of the other, it would work out beautifully.. but had she tried any of it at high altitude????
Anyway, I survived and even thrived. I went on to work at Copper Mountain ski resort and worked my way up to being their pasty chef for many years where the hair pulling continued with yet more French miniatures and every classic European styled sweet and savory torte, gateaux, bread and on and on that you can imagine. That was before the "fulfill your every fantasy" birthday and wedding cakes. I was grateful for those early Julia days with Chef Clyde, when the volume and the small inn atmosphere was where I cut my French Pastry teeth. It certainly came in handy later. A real culinary education would have been helpful too, but the "earn as you learn" was the culinary school I attended and I learned a lot. There were a lot of culinary grads who came along much later that I benefited from their paying the big bucks for a diploma and then they got massive volume and multi tasking experience in our high altitude bakery.
Then one May, it must have been about 1990, all the staff had buggered off to fun and exotic places and it was slow season and sunny and warm and I was feeling restless. I saw in the Denver paper that Julia Child would be in one of the malls, giving a demonstration and signing copies of her new cook book, "The Way to Cook". It didn't take me long to square away what little I had to do that day as it all could be easily put off till tomorrow since the ski season over, and off over the pass and down to Denver I dashed. I arrived with moments to spare and found a seat in the chic gadgety mall kitchen shop and waited for Julia Child to arrive. I found myself mulling over all the things I knew and admired about Julia Child on my drive out of the mountains. This was a woman, who didn't even start cooking till she was in her thirties, took a professional course in France and had to fight to even receive her diploma as the school's director didn't believe she had what it took, but she proved herself again and again. This was a woman that went on to write her exhaustive 2 volume tome on French cooking, hosted several PBS television series and was a celebrity in a field almost exclusive to men at that time. She was a large, somewhat ungainly woman, and not your typical stereotype for a TV star, but she had style, a good sense of humor and could take a joke about herself, quite the gracious woman.
As I sat waiting the place was full of people with their copies of all her books, telling stories about their experiences over the years with her recipes and TV shows. I was the youngest person in the room by a long shot and it was all very exciting waiting for this American icon to arrive. When she did , she was in her late 70's by this time and she tottered by me on her sensibly thick, 2 inch high heeled shoes on the arm of an her assistant as they guided her to the demo kitchen. I was struck at what a tall grand woman she was, an imposing figure, every bit the iconic woman I expected. She was disarmingly charming, witty and her demonstration and time was over all too quickly. The next thing I knew I found myself picking up her huge book which I had previously had no intention of purchasing, as I had quite a collection of cook books at the time and was trying to quit, purchasing and collecting them, that is. I can't say that Julia is even one of my favorite cook book writers as I found her complicated and a bit too exacting for my taste, but I admire her style, her stubborn resolve and her warm charm. I also found that her information was helpful when I had needed it starting out. I also found that her way to cook book much more relaxed and easy going. I think she had hit her stride later on and took to using a food processor and other modern tools even.
So I got in line and waited for for my turn, and when it finally arrived, I had stuck my business card in the front of the book when I handed it to her to sign. She looked at it and surprised me as she slowly rose out of her chair and reached across to shake my hand. I hadn't observed her do this to anyone else. She was acknowledging me as a contemporary in the field. I was touched and slightly awed by this woman. She asked me where I had gone to school and I replied, "Why, the Julia Child mastering the art of French cooking, earn as you learn program" She chuckled and said how very kind it was of me to say so in classic Julia Child deferring, gentle way and asked a few other polite questions about working in then mountains and so on. It was really a memorable moment for me, this kind act of respect from such a notable woman who had done so much, honoring me with a small but meaningful gesture such as standing and shaking my hand. I treasure that memory to this day. And so I say a belated but heartfelt "Happy Birthday Julia", may you live on in our hearts.