In Italy, working on assignment for several magazines, author Bob Spitz got an unusual call from the Italian Trade Commission in 1992.
“Would you like to be an escort for an older woman?”
Spitz was quick to answer, “Lady, I don’t do that kind of work.”
“It’s for Julia Child,” the woman on the phone informed him. Even quicker to answer this time, Spitz said, “I’ll be right over.”
And thus began his month long tour with one of the greatest culinary figures in American history.
Julia Child would have been 100 years old this August 15. Known for her distinct vibrato voice, her height and her role in bringing French food across the Atlantic in the 1960s, Child stood an impressive 6-foot-2 and couldn’t help but be noticed.
The first time Spitz met her, all he could hear was a chorus of lunching Americans chirping, “It’s Julia. It’s Julia.” Seated at a hotel in Taormina, he watched her walk across the piazza. “Every head in the place turned,” he says, everyone referring to her simply as Julia, not Julia Child.
Together the pair ate their way across Sicily, talking about food and reexamining her life. Child had just watched her husband and business partner Paul enter a medical facility as his mental faculties began to fade and she was in a contemplative mood, says Spitz.
Of course, that didn’t diminish her spirit, which Spitz describes as “relentless.” Even though she didn’t particularly care for Italian food (“The sauces were too boring for her”), Child took her tour seriously.
“We went into the restaurants, but then she would head into the kitchen,” often without invitation, says Spitz. “She talked to the chef, she’d shake everybody’s hand in the kitchen, even the busboys and the dishwashers,” Spitz remembers, “And always made sure to count how many women were working in the kitchen.”
If Child received warm receptions from vacationing Americans, the Italian chefs were less than star struck. Many, says Spitz, didn’t even know who she was. “The Italian chefs, most of them men where we went, were not very happy to see a 6-foot-2 woman come into their kitchen and, without asking them, dip her big paw into the stock pot and taste the sauce with her fingers.” Her brash behavior often brought reproachful, murderous stares, says Spitz. Not easily daunted, she found it amusing. “She would say to me, ‘Oh, they don’t speak English. Look at them! They don’t know what I’m made of. They don’t know what to do with me.’ It was great,” Spitz says.
Few people in Child’s life seemed to know what to do with her. She grew up in a conservative family in Pasadena, Calif. playing tennis and basketball. After college and a brief copywriting career in New York, she headed back home and volunteered with the Junior League. Craving adventure, she tried to enlist in the Women’s Army Corps but was too tall. Instead, she wound up in the Office of Strategic Services, beginning her career in Sri Lanka in 1944 before heading to China and eventually France after Paul was assigned there.
The rest is a familiar history. She developed a devoted passion for French food and technique, trained and worked tirelessly to record her findings. The first volume of her Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published in 1961, with a second volume to come in 1970. In between, she began her TV career hosting “The French Chef.”
“She never tried to work on a personality,” Spitz says of the show’s success. “The day she first walked on TV, it was all there–the whole Julia Child persona was intact.”
Her dedication to getting real French food into American homes that were used to TV dinners and Jello desserts energized every episode. But Spitz insists, she didn’t just change the way Americans ate, she changed the way they lived.
Given the opportunity to clear one thing up, Spitz has one misconception on his mind: “Julia never dropped anything. People swear she dropped chickens, roasts–never happened.” Likewise, the mythology around her drinking on the show, which was limited to the close of each show when she sat down to enjoy her meal, also developed its own life. “Julia was by no means a lush,” says Spitz. “Although,” he adds, “when we were in Sicily, she consumed alcohol in quantities that made my eyes bug out.”
“She was a woman who liked adventure,” Spitz says. The pair would sometimes tour the Italian countryside by motorcycle. “Just knowing that this 80-year-old, 6-foot-2 woman, no less Julia Child was on the back of a motorcycle, riding with me–it told me everything I needed to know about her.”
Spitz will read from and discuss his new biography, Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, Wednesday, August 8, at 7 p.m. at the Natural History Museum. He will also attend the 100th anniversary celebration August 15.