Remembering Julia Child: Reflections from Jacques Pépin

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August 15 would have been Julia Child’s 106th birthday. The famed chef, author and television personality died in 2004, so it may seem odd to note the anniversary of her birth in an “off” year and without some particular memorial dedication. After all, culinary celebrities are everywhere these days. There are entire television channels dedicated to the glorious (and sometimes grotesque) ways in which we create and consume food. So why is Julia Child still worth celebrating even 14 years after her death?

Well, to start, few culinary celebrities rise to the level of Julia Child. In the pantheon of American cookery, she sits at a small and revered table with only a few others – James Beard and Craig Claiborne, in particular.

How many other culinary superstars have inspired a famous cooking blog later made into a movie (Julie & Julia), had parodies of them performed on comedy sketch shows, including Saturday Night Live, and on children’s programming like The Electric Company (remember Julia Grownup?), had Broadway musicals produced about them (Bon Appétit! with the inimitable Jean Stapleton), had a rap song written about them (Julia’s Too Tall by The Bobs), won multiple Emmy awards, a National Book Award, a Peabody Award and even had a rose named after them?

No one but Julia.

Her impact on not only the way Americans cook, but how other American chefs cook – and how we celebrate them in today’s culture – is frankly, immeasurable. For example, in my home, celebrating her birthday is an annual event and a reason to prepare foods that are a bit more involved (and frequently contain far more fat and calories than our everyday fare), even in an off year, such as her 106th birthday.

Julia & Jacques

This year, though, I wanted to do something a bit more. I wanted to learn more about the woman from someone who knew her, so I reached out to superstar chef Jacques Pepin who is a dean at my alma mater, The International Culinary Center (check out some of his cooking tips).

Speaking from his home in Connecticut, Jacques shared how he first met Julia in 1960, humorous memories of working with her over the years, and his take on why she was a legend in her own time and still is today, years after her death.

Jacques first met Julia when he had only been in the United States a few months at that time. They became fast friends and later starred with her on their award-winning PBS program, Julia & Jacques Cooking at Home. And while Jacques, who will be 83 in December, has written extensively over the years about his friendship with Julia – both on screen and off – I was hoping to get a little snippet of their time together that had never been shared publicly. Surely, a friendship and working relationship of more than 40 years would yield some little tidbit that hadn’t somehow been shared publicly.

Alas, a life on camera and documented in books and countless interviews leaves few stones unturned. So I asked him to at least share with me one of his favorite memories of Julia. Something that truly captured her spirit. So he took me back to a taping of their program together.

I can’t believe it’s not butter!

“The show was not like the shows today,” he said. “There was no script and we didn’t stick to set times.”

In fact, there were no recipes shared with the crew in advance. The producers literally didn’t know what they were going to make until that day.

And because the show was on PBS, they had sponsors instead of advertisers, so frequently, representatives from the sponsor companies would come to tapings. On this particular day, it was Land O’ Lakes, the butter producer.

“So the representative is there and we’re making doughs,” Jacques continued. “And Julia says she wants to make one more and she wants me to do it. She says she wants to use the food processor.

“I say, OK, that’s a good idea. So I get the flour, the salt and when I’m ready to add the butter I tell her I’m ready for the butter and she says ‘Oh, no. I want to use Crisco.’

“So, I say, ‘but Julia, we don’t have any Crisco.’ To that, she pulls some out from under the counter and hands it to me. Crisco. With the Land O’ Lakes sponsor sitting right there. After the show I say to her, ‘Julia, you don’t have to pander to the sponsors, but you don’t have to antagonize them, either.’ ”

Julia’s true legacy

That was Julia. And that was Jacques. And while their differences of opinion often led to plenty of good-natured sparring on air and in the kitchen, their respect for each others’ abilities, coupled with their great fondness of each other, led to a friendship that lasted until Julia’s death in 2004. But it’s their combined impact on how we cook today that made them and their relationship really noteworthy. It wasn’t the technique, though that was solid. And it wasn’t the food, though I’m sure it was delicious.

The reason so many of us still love Julia, and especially Julia and Jacques together, is because they made cooking, which to many had seemed like nothing but drudgery and work, a true pleasure.

That is Julia’s legacy, and Jacque’s along with her.

“I think it was just plain joy in the kitchen, you know? To be happy to cook and to be happy to eat,” he said. “You have to cook with abandon, you have to cook with joy and you have to eat with joy and be happy in what you’re doing. She had no taboo in that sense. She was a very humble girl – she ate French fries from McDonald’s as well as anything else. I think we demystified cooking to a certain point and showed the fun of cooking together and sharing food together.”

Indeed. Bon Appétit!

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Featured Image Credit: International Culinary Center.


Constance Brinkley-Badgett

Constance Brinkley-Badgett is MediaFeed’s executive editor. She has more than 20 years of experience in digital, broadcast and print journalism, as well as several years of agency experience in content marketing. She has served as a digital producer at NBC Nightly News, Senior Producer at CNBC, Managing Editor at ICF Next, and as a tax reporter at Bloomberg BNA.