Julia & Me
Food writer John Mariani examines Julia Child's impact on American cooking—and reminisces about her role in his life.
The success of the summer movie Julie & Julia and a leap to the bestseller lists for the 48-year-old Mastering the Art of French Cooking indicate that, once again, a beloved world figure can be more famous after her demise than during her lifetime. Which you more or less expect if a Hollywood diva or rock star dies young, but is hardly the case when it comes to TV cooking teachers who live to be 91.
Changing the Face of American Cooking
Yet that is very definitely the case when it comes to Julia Child, the California-born, French-trained New Englander who, with colleagues Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, published Mastering in 1961 at a time when most American cooks (ahem, housewives) were still trying to master tuna casserole and salmon loaf. Child floated like cream to the top after her quirky, very low-budget PBS TV show The French Chef showed that fine cooking, even haute cuisine, was not beyond the powers of the home cook, and through the next several decades she garnered international renown as a woman who changed the way Americans cooked, ate and regarded food.
I suspect this new idolatry is both an extension of the affection at least two generations of people had for Julia Child over so many years and a new fascination with this very tall, gawky, high-pitched school marm as portrayed by the incomparable Meryl Streep in the film. Indeed, I suspect that just about everyone who cooks has her own personal Julia Child story of how her book and show saved a dinner party from disaster or turned an amateur cook into a professional.
I certainly have my own fond memories of Julia, whom I met several times, interviewed at her home in Cambridge, and dined with once or twice. Once, while she was being fêted at yet another grand dinner, I sat next to her and she regaled the table with her stories. So I asked the host of the evening if I could tell my own personal Julia Child story.
For Love and Chocolate
It was back in the 1970s when I was a graduate student at Columbia University and had a date with an undergraduate named Nancy at Manhattanville College in Purchase, New York. Not wanting to spend much of my meagre resources on taking her to dinner, I suggested—for no reason I can think of—that I’d make a chocolate soufflé in the kitchen in her dorm. Nancy thought that would be fun, and then I realised it could be a disaster. I’d certainly never made a chocolate soufflé before and had barely mastered fettuccine Alfredo as a staple of my culinary repertoire. I had therefore promised something I had no idea if I could deliver.
So I borrowed my mother’s copy of Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, bought the ingredients, stole some bowls and utensils from my mother and headed off to the campus, having chosen a dish whose timing in the oven was crucial to its success or failure. What’d I know?
Yet the guidance of the book’s instructions was so easy to follow, so Child-proof, really. Thus, after whipping egg whites to soft peaks and melting chocolate and flouring the sides of the dish and not peeking while the thing cooked, I emerged from the kitchen with a towering, quivering, steaming soufflé that filled the dorm’s hallways with the aroma of dark chocolate and sugar.
This curiosity drew several girls to Nancy’s room, where I was about to destroy the puffed-up soufflé with a tablespoon. At that moment the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen walked into the room, wearing shorts and a French T-shirt. who reminded me of Jean Seberg in Breathless and Bonjour Tristesse. In fact, the girl was half-French and half-Russian, which immediately made her an exotic creature in my mind, and her name was princess-like—Galina Stepanoff-Dargery. I offered her some soufflé, she ate the hot pudding carefully, then smiled at me and nodded that she approved.
The next day, having already forgotten Nancy, I called Galina Stepanoff-Dargery, and, with what now sounds like the dopiest of all opening lines, said, “Well, I just thought if you liked my chocolate soufflé, you’d like my company over dinner.”
A Culinary Journey
Despite that embarrassing query, Galina accepted the date, and we started dating and found mutual interest in this new hobby of cooking, which, believe me, was in those days not something most men indulged outside of the patio grill. Cooking together from Julia Child’s book became a shared adventure, learning little by little in close touch with one another over wonderful dishes and complete flops. It was love compounded with spice and heat and flavour and laughter.
Some years later, after that book was dog-eared and stained with sauces, we were married. (Galina’s mother, a great cook in her own right, made the wedding cake.) My own fascination with food grew into a career as a food and travel writer, and Galina co-authored a cookbook with me.
So that’s how I met my wife, now of 32 years, and had it not been for Julia Child, I would never have done so. Betty Crocker’s brownies might have had some small effect on a French-Russian girl back then, but I’m pretty sure it was Julia’s soufflé au chocolat that brought her straight into my life. Merci, Julia!