Tuesday, August 28, 2012
Leo Racicot Remembers Julia Child
A FRIEND INDEED!!
by Leo Racicot
I had become good friends with the well-loved American
writer, M.F.K. Fisher (Mary Frances) when, on one of my
many, cherished visits to her bungalow home in Glen Ellen,
her friend, Julia Child, phoned her for a chat. After she hung
up, I saw a bulb light up above Mary Frances' pretty head.
She said, "Julia lives in Cambridge. You live in Lowell. I'd
love for the two of you to meet. You'll get along swimmingly!"
I jumped at the chance to meet the famous French Chef.
MF made all the arrangements and in March of that year,
after Julia gave a talk at the Boston Public Library followed
by a book-signing at nearby Newbury Street's Harvard Bookstore
Cafe (now gone), I stepped meekly forward, calling out my name
to "Mrs Child". "Oh!", she burbled to the long line of admirers
waiting for her autograph, "Leee-ohh's here!! Leee-ohh Rass-
ee-coe is a friend of M.F.K. Fishah!!" Everyone clapped as I
ascended into Seventh Heaven.
Every Saturday afternoon, when I was a boy, lying belly-
down on my living room couch, watching Julia Child, "The
French Chef", chop, dice, bake, parboil and joke her way
into everyone's heart, including mine, never in my wildest
dreams did I imagine I would one day be standing in front
of her (or rather, I should say, cowering under her for at
an imposing 6' 2" tall, she towered over my quivering smallness
like Juno halloo-ing down from Mount Olympus. To say I was a
tad nervous is to say that flames are hot).
But she put me at ease immediately in that goose-y, Warner
Bros. cartoon of a voice, "Call me Jooo-leeah!!". I had wondered
to myself whether some of her t.v. personality might be a put-on
for entertainment's sake. I was wrong; Julia was as
engaging, eccentric, generous, smart and daffy as she was
when she cast her magic spell every week over PBS viewers
here in Boston and all over the world.
With a wave of her hand, Julia shooed her entourage away
proclaiming, "Leo and I shall be dining alone". We were ushered
to a corner table by the head chef himself, a dark, jolly Buddha
from Tunisia called Moncef. We ate and drank lustily, and
spoke about many subjects (at least Julia did; I was happy
just listening to her hold forth on a constellation of topics
the scope and breadth of which was infinite, for Julia, I
would come to learn in the years ahead, did not care to talk
shop. Local politics, world affairs, space exploration, the
literary and arts scene, libraries, her days as a spy for the
O.S.S., the Cambridge community and neighborhood she
lived in -- these were the subjects she was more apt to
pile onto her conversational plate. She was one of the
most intelligent people I have ever met, as well as one of
the funniest; her comedic skills and timing could, at times,
rival Lucille Ball's; And she was possessed
of an Olympic energy. "I never tire!" was her motto, and I
saw her outlast, outdo, outshine people 20, 30, 40 years
her junior, including me.
Our evening was a total delight.
So it was with some regret when it ended that I hailed
her a cab and watched it whisk her away into the night.
My time with her was so once-in-a-lifetime and surreal,
it was as if it had taken place in a dream. "Well, I probably
won't be doing that again anytime soon, if ever", I thought
as I made my happy/sad way home...
* * * *
Years later, I took a job as caregiver to the son of
former members of The Roosevelt Administration, Hilda
and Francis Shea. My responsibilities were solely to instill
living and language skills in their son, Richard. I was told
to report to an address on Francis Avenue. And though
I knew the street was only a stone's throw away from
Harvard Yard (having trained at Harvard Divinity School
years before), I had no real idea where Francis Avenue
was in relation to its neighboring streets.
Imagine my surprise, then, when, about a month after
taking up my duties there, the house manager, Bob Stone,
took me over to the kitchen window, pointed to a grey house
in the near distance and said, "I bet you don't know who lives
there". I said I did not and Bob exclaimed, "Julia Child!!"
I was so beside myself, I made the mistake of telling Bob I
had actually had dinner with Julia and the story of our evening
together, and about M.F.K. Fisher. I say "mistake" because the
very next day, Ms. Shea, my employer, came down to the kitchen
asking if I knew how to make a sauce soubise. I said I did not
and told her the on-going joke among my friends that "Leo could
burn boiling water if you give him the chance". "Oh, come, come
now", tittered Ms. Shea, "I know you're friends with M.F.K. Fisher
and Julia Child. You're being much too modest." No amount of
protest could convince Ms. Shea that knowing M.F.K. Fisher
and having dinner with Julia Child once did not mean I could
cook. She led me over to a wall spilling over with cookbooks
galore and declared, "You are my son's companion and now
you will be my chef as well." I swallowed hard. Was I ever in
the stew. Because Hilda Drosnicop Shea never took "no"
for an answer. From anyone. Ever. She handed me a cook's
apron, showed me where all the pots and pans were kept
and said, "Let's see what you can whip up for this evening's
* * * *
Only God knows what came out of the oven those first,
few months because I certainly didn't. Somehow, my concoc-
tions didn't look a thing like the pictures in the cookbooks.
Let's just say it was not uncommon for staff to call out for
pizza delivery as soon as they saw what I had plunked down
for them on the table.
One particular fright that was supposed to be Hungarian
goulash but looked like a volcano had erupted in the Dutch
oven and tasted even worse, became the final straw. It was
time to call in the cavalry (a.k.a. Julia Child, or as we all in
the house came to intone whenever something inexplicable
sat bubbling on top of the frightened stove, "What Would
It is little known about Julia, I think, that she was one
of the most accommodating celebrities on the planet. Her
home phone number was listed in the book; not only did
she not mind people calling her for culinary rescue; she
also welcomed them, for she loved all things food-related
and saw herself as a teacher and felt it her duty to school
her students or at least listen when they needed kitchen
assistance. Perhaps because fame had come to her later
in life, she had not let it go to her head. Down-to-earth,
practical, and having herself made many mistakes on her
way to "Mastering the Art of French Cooking", she more
than understood (the reader will please forgive my use of
the obvious idiom here) that "You have to break a lot of eggs
before you can make an omelette".
And so, Julia and I became better friends this second time
around. We went to the movies together, took fine walks
around The Writers' Block, shopped at Farmer's Markets
and local grocerias, went for rides to see the New England
Mostly, we spent happy hours in her kitchen, her patience
and good nature explaining why my souffle had taken a nose
dive, why eating my Apple Brown Betty was like sticking your
tongue into a giant sugar bowl or why the catfish casserole
"should never have been put into a recipe book in the first
place; some recipes simply don't work!!" She helped me
become, over time, if not her or M.F.K. Fisher, then certainly
a reasonable facsimile thereof. I can whip up a mean jam-
balaya, can tease the most succulent juices from the driest
meats, and my Beef Bourgignon has been known to draw
near-orgasmic sounds from those lucky enough to find it
on their plates. Ahem.
For this is the basis of what Julia Child did. Her gift
to America. That she was able, through talent, but also
through hard work and perserverance, belief in herself
and a soupcon of "funny" thrown in for taste, to turn a
country of unculinary dolts like me into cooks who won't
flinch when handed a pot, a pan or a brand new recipe
to grapple with. Julia Child changed the way we think
about food, about eating, about ourselves in our kitchens.
She liberated the American palate, mired for generations
in a diet of meat, potatoes and gravy. She introduced new
foods to the American table, opening our minds to ex-
perimentation and international cuisines. We eat better
because she explored better foods for us to eat. Julia
was a true pioneer and like all pioneers, found the courage
to step out onto an unknown road and bid us follow...
I miss her. I imagine we all do. With a spirit as
brave and nonesuch as hers, how can we not?
********** Leo Racicot's work has been featured in "Co-Evolution Quarterly","Utne Reader", "Spiritual Life", "Gay Sunshine Journal", "First Hand","The Poet", "Ibbetson Street Press", "Poetry", "Shakespeare's Monkey"and "Yankee". Two of his award-winning essay-memoirs appear in "Best of..."anthologies, and he is the recipient of the Antonio Machado PoetryForum Award (1992). His holiday story, "The Little Man" is beingpublished by Snug Harbor and will be available in audio and animatedform on fablevision.comHe has been a schoolteacher/librarian/cook/counselor/poet/actor/clown