Happy Birthday, Julia Child!

Anyone with even a passing interest in food and cooking must be living under a rock not to know that yesterday would have been Julia Child’s 100th birthday. So, I was happy to join a bunch of my food media colleagues and chefs for a tasteful little celebration at The Cookbook Store last night.

The evening also saw the launch of a series of podcasts featuring Toronto food writer Marion Kane interviewing people who best knew Julia—her editor Judith Jones; Alex Prud’homme, her great-nephew and co-author, with Julia, of the memoir My Life in France; and biographer Bob Spitz, author of Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. Marion shared her anecdotes of meeting Julia for the first time, when she invited her up to Toronto in 1991, which made me think of my Julia Child Moment.

It happened back in 1995 when I was down in West Virginia attending the Symposium for Professional Food Writers at The Greenbrier, a grand old hotel that had an annoying cute factor: late each evening a sign would mysteriously appear outside the elevator doors on each floor which proclaimed “Shhh, it’s sleepy time down south.”

Julia Child was not one of the speakers but there in an honorary food writer capacity and to say all of us mere mortals were in awe of her is putting it mildly. At dinner on the first night I found a seat at one of the large round tables and watched the room fill up, craning my neck to spot the “top table” as I guessed all the celebs would be seated together. Finally my table had its complement of diners but for one seat, on my left.

Then, I heard That Voice behind me: “May I join you?” Lord knows what I gibbered but “no, Mrs. Child” was the gist of it. “Oh, do call me Julia,” she boomed as she folded her 6-foot-plus frame into the chair. We exchanged pleasantries and chatted about the meal, which was Mexican and not very good.

Lulled into a more confident mode, I heard myself utter that most hackneyed of questions, “What would be your favourite meal?” Julia rolled her eyes and said, “That’s such a corny question and I’m asked it all the time.” A well-deserved put-down.

But, she did own that a perfect pear would feature in it somewhere. That unpleasantness out of the way, the rest of the evening went swimmingly and we ended up talking mostly about our respective cats, a much safer subject.

And, before we tiptoed upstairs to our rooms for “sleepy time,” she signed my menu “Bon Appétit to Julia A. from Julia C.” I treasure it still.

 PEAR AND TARRAGON SALSA

Julia Child meant her “perfect pear” to be served whole and juicy so I hope she’ll forgive me for chopping it up in this easy salsa. Serve with a late-summer grill of chicken or pork.

2 firm, ripe pears, peeled, cored and finely chopped

1/4 cup (60 mL) minced red onion

2 tbsp (30 mL) lemon juice

1 tbsp (15 mL) finely chopped fresh tarragon

1 tsp (5 mL) liquid honey

¼ tsp (1 mL) kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper

Pinch cayenne (optional)

In a 2-cup (500 mL) serving bowl, stir together the pears, onion, lemon juice, tarragon, honey, salt, pepper and cayenne (if using). Let stand at room temperature for about 30 minutes for flavours to blend before serving.

Makes about 1-1/2 cups (375 mL)

© Julia Aitken 2012

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