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Julia -- THE Julia -- celebrates 90 years of dining

Thursday, August 15, 2002

By Suzanne Martinson, Post-Gazette Food Editor

Happy birthday, Julia. You are an inspiration to us all.

We refer to the Julia -- Julia Child, the longtime star of the culinary scene.

Julia is 90 today, a testament to good eating. Asked what she thought of all the hoopla surrounding her birthday, she said she hoped everybody would get a good meal out of it.

My most memorable moments encircling Julia were a telephone interview I did with her on "Fear of Food" for The Pittsburgh Press. A nouveau food writer, heart pounding, I dialed the number. Her assistant answered. And then she was on the line and said, in that signature husky voice of hers, "This is Julia Child. May I put you on the speaker phone? I'm in the kitchen."

So, as questions were asked and answered, I could hear the clanking of pots and pans in her Cambridge, Mass., kitchen -- the one the Smithsonian Institution wants to preserve after Julia announced she would live full time in California.

That interview was in 1991 and she was leading the charge against the Food Police. "With all the nutritional information available, I don't know why people read scary things and watch scary things," she said that day.

Julia imbibes butter, but she uses her recommended amount to the best effect: "I'll put some on my spinach, some in sauce, some in a nice, rich chocolate cake with butter frosting. I wouldn't think of buying diet beef. I would eat a small 3- or 4-ounce bite of marvelous steak. Eat the real thing, but a little of it."

Of course, Julia was the first to say that her longevity -- she was a mere 78 at the time -- was due to good genes, "luckily inherited" from her paternal grandfather, who lived to be 95.

"Anybody who looks at things in a moderate way, an adult way, is going to be able to enjoy good food," she said that day.

So I wasn't surprised when Julia said McDonald's had made a mistake by switching to vegetable fat, rather than the animal fat that had once made its fries so good. "They're so much crisper and nicer. You don't have to eat that much."

A woman who's not afraid to cook and not afraid to eat. My hero.

I would like to say I've became an intimate of "The French Chef" but in truth I have only admired her from afar. On three occasions, I was in the same room with her. She casts an aura wherever she goes, and it's difficult not to fawn over her, an imposing 6-footer with that melodious voice. Other so-called food celebrities, once they've made the big time, slough off their admirers, but not Julia.

She has the confidence to laugh at herself. In fact, I'll bet she got a great kick out of Dan Aykroyd's famous personification of her and the errant chicken on "Saturday Night Live."

In the often cutthroat world of food -- who's in, who's out, who's the best -- Julia seems to remain above the fray. While others in the food business jealously guard their recipes, Julia has said, "I wouldn't pay too much attention if someone stole a recipe of mine. I guess it would be a compliment."

So we're not surprised to find one of her recipes in the "Kids Cook With Stuffee" book once sold by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. It was a

recipe she made on "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood." Mister Rogers and Julia, two symbols of sharing.

Julia is gracious. I first approached her at a Nestle's Nutrition Conference in San Francisco, where I bumbled up to introduce myself as the woman who had talked with her by phone. In 1997 we sat back to back to back at a banquet sponsored by the International Association of Culinary Professionals, and again she greeted me warmly, though she wouldn't have known me from a stump in a pine forest.

When Julia celebrated her 85th birthday at that IACP meeting in Chicago, Linda Wernikoff of Crate, a cooking school and store in Scott, and I were in the crowd of 1,500 who gave her a standing ovation. Julia couldn't imagine what the fuss was about. "I'm going to have another one next year," she said.

Julia has taught us that poorly prepared food made with poor ingredients isn't satisfying. Better to eat a single slice of a fabulous brownie than a whole bag of processed "diet" cookies. She's right when she says some of the nonfat food has "so little flavor that people binge."

Julie, we owe you. In honor of the occasion, Linda and I and some other fans of fine food will mark her Big Nine-Oh at lunch today at Christine Dauber's Le Pommier, South Side. Feel free to celebrate, too. At Julia Child's table, there's always room for one more.

Spaghetti Marco Polo

    This is a recipe that Julia Child made with "Chef Brockett" (the late Don Brockett) for Fred Rogers on one of the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" episodes. It was first printed with permission from Family Communications Inc., Pittsburgh. (Unfortunately, the cookbook is out of print.)

  • 2/3 cup chopped walnuts or peanuts
  • 1/2 cup chopped black olives
  • 1/2 cup chopped red pimento
  • 1/3 cup chopped fresh parsley
  • 1 tablespoon chopped fresh chives
  • 8 ounces semolina spaghetti
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 3/4 cup Parmesan cheese or shredded Swiss cheese

Mix walnuts, olives, pimento, parsley and chives in bowl; set aside. Cook spaghetti according to package directions; drain well. Place olive oil in serving bowl. Add spaghetti; toss to coat well. Season to taste. Spoon walnut mixture over spaghetti. Toss lightly at the table. Serve immediately with cheese.

Julia Child in "Kids Cook with Stuffee" by the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, 1988.

Suzanne Martinson can be reached at smartinson@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1760.

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