I never knew if she remembered me, but I remember every encounter with her. Let me tell you about the time …
Over the years, I’ve met hundreds of people who were friends—real friends—of Julia Child, and hundreds more who have some story to tell about their encounters with her. Julia Child was probably the most accessible famous person ever. She also spoke to strangers with genuine interest and openness; she cared, and that
Julia Child and the author, 1993, Cambridge, Massachusetts
was not only charming but it also put people at ease and gave them confidence and made them feel important.
I first encountered Julia about 1967, when I cooked from my mom’s copy of “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” Mom made the boeuf bourguignon numerous times. The cooking wasn’t too much of a stretch for her because we lived in France during the same time Julia did in the 1950s.
I first saw Julia at a popular Chinese restaurant in Washington, D.C., about 1978. Our party was only rubberneckers but we were thrilled to see her and the stir her presence created. I next came across Julia in the mid-1980s, when I would run into her frequently because my kid’s day care center, Harvard Yard Child Care Center, was a block behind her big house on Irving Street in Cambridge, Mass. We would run into each other at the famous nearby meat market Savenor’s, where we both shopped regularly. We’d exchange words, although I wasn’t sure if she remembered me each time or whether it was her natural effusiveness at work.
Then in the early ’90s, having left my previous life in foreign policy to become a newly minted food writer, I shopped regularly at the New Deal Fish Market in East Cambridge, where one could be assured that the ethnic clientele would demand the freshest fish and fresh whole fish. One day I was chatting with the owner, Sal Fantasia, who later became a neighbor of mine by coincidence, and in walked Julia with her longtime assistant Stephanie Hersh. It was clear Julia didn’t remember me from our chance encounters. Sal was wrestling a 7-pound sea bass my way and Julia asked me, “What are you going to do with that fish?” (Say it with Julia’s voice; it’s more effective). I was writing my book “A Mediterranean Feast” at the time so I introduced myself as a cookbook author. But Julia was far more interested in the fish, so I told her I would grill it whole, coated with a spicy mixture of chile, garlic, tomato paste, coriander leaves (this was before we called it cilantro) and cumin. She was fascinated so I explained that it was a Syrian recipe called samaka harra, piquant or spicy fish, and that I had had the fish cooked this way at a friend’s house in Jeble on Syria’s coast. She asked, “How do you turn it?” I said, “Carefully.” She laughed.
After that I met Julia quite often at professional conferences and once sat next to her at a book signing at Boston University. It was humiliating because no one, and I mean no one, was interested in my little cookbook while the line for Julia stretched a mile. On the other side of Julia was Jacques Pepin, so it was doubly disastrous for me. Still, she and I chatted amiably and she gave me encouraging words. On Pepin’s other side was Alexandra Leaf, also a new and young cookbook author who later became a good friend. We commiserated about our weird fortune.
Over time, and as Julia got older, I was never sure if she remembered me, but I thought it would be insulting to constantly reintroduce myself. I also thought it presumptuous to assume that she did remember me, so I always said, “Hi, it’s Cliff Wright. Good to see you again.” I felt stupid doing that too. So the best was if she was with Stephanie, who did in fact remember me.
I saw Julia at various events until she died in 2004, but the best time spent with Julia was her 1993 Christmas dinner party that was to be a photo spread in Food & Wine magazine. The photo shoot was held on the hottest day in May in 50 years and we were all asked to wear winter clothing because it was supposed to look like December. The photo crew had air conditioning and fans going, but the heat was brutal. The 10 of us who were to sit at the table arrived at Julia’s house on Irving Street around 11 in the morning but the photo crew kept us standing and circulating until 6 p.m. so that it could take photos until we finally sat down for “Christmas” dinner. We were to chat with one another, look festive and always have a full glass of red wine at all times. Well, you can imagine. The wine was good, and you couldn’t help but drink constantly because the photo crew promptly refilled glasses the moment they became half empty. By 6, everyone was smashed. The photo spread is funny for those of us who were there because all the hilarity was wine-induced, which the reader couldn’t possibly know.
The photo crew kept telling the two young children that not only were they props but the presents under the Christmas tree were props too and didn’t contain real Christmas presents. The kids didn’t believe this for a minute, so when you look at the photo of their surprise upon opening the presents, the surprise is that we were telling the truth. It was a joyous time with Julia and friends, and I retell this story all the time. Years later on a trip to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C., I found Julia’s Cambridge kitchen there, reassembled just as it was that wonderful Christmas day in May.
Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.