Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Food Matters & Julia

Landing in Santa Barbara in 1979 felt a lot like coming home and though food was not on my mind in those days I was surrounded by it. It started with me waitressing at a couple of the popular tourist places, as I honed in those skills. Lucky enough to move on, in a few short months, to a new place opening downtown called The Brasserie, I started to reap the rewards of a shorter workday, as it was only open for lunch. The restaurant was attached and opened to an upscale kitchen and cookware store that was probably an earlier reincarnation of William Sonoma. The owner, which the store was named after, was far ahead of his time in creative and cooking endeavors and it soon attracted the clientele to match it. His abilities stretched to every little detail, of which I had no idea so many small matters mattered. Like the half hour lesson I remember on the “French Press.” Did you know the water has to boil for just long enough, then sit till just so, before pouring only the smallest amount on top of the grinds? Why? It’s very important not to pour too much water right away as the coffee grinds (ground to a coarse perfection) need room to expand and release their essence while you wait patiently before the rest of the water can be gently added. As I said, 'very specific' matters, but he did this with everything. Which fit right in with my boyfriend of the time, who had taken over as chef, and who had the same inclinations that the owner had perfected and now was the eager student. Mind you I had none of those inclinations and saw no value in them as I kept mum, at least most of the time. But I did obey, as I liked the job and loved my boyfriend.

This was just one of the things I remember along with my first taste of Chocolate Mouse Cake, a new and popular item back then with me and the patrons. The passion of the owner and my boyfriend led them to join in with an elite group that formed with the intent of educating the public on food matters. This would become the base of my boyfriend’s life long work and leadership in the field. But at that time it got the attention of Julia Child who had recently been in the process of moving her set up to Santa Barbara. Eventually my boyfriend got to work on some of her shows, consulting. I, being fairly ignorant of the food world and thinking it was basically as interesting as fuel, which in my mind did the same thing for your body as fuel did for the car, had a few interactions with her. I’d come to pick him up at the end of an afternoon shoot but as usual they were running late. I would learn and never like that everything to do with preparing food, and my boyfriend, usually ran late. I came in, dressed in my typical Santa Barbara beach town shorts, tee and flip-flops. As I was introduced to Julia she commented “Darling, if only you’d have dressed I’d sat you at the table tonight. I could have used a pretty face.” I slinked back into a not too well lit corner to watch quietly till my boyfriend’s role was done. “How embarrassing” was the feeling but I also knew I never pretended to be anything but ignorant and uninterested in food.

Another interaction came much later in her life. I was attending a very large birthday celebration for an eighty-year-old friend. It turned out she shared the same exclusive retirement community as Julia and they had become acquainted. Most of the folks living there were part timers. My friend kept a home a couple of miles away and only visited for lunch and events for the longest time before actually needing to retire there on a full time basis. I guess this was common as the waiting time to get in was extensive and so you had to get in before you needed to. It was said the Julia had her kitchen redone to be exactly like the one she’d designed and loved and lived with for a long time. I’m sitting at one of the dozen, or more, tables when Julia walks up with lots of attention being slathered on her and sits down across from me. She was as regal and as noticeable a presence as ever. Being a fairly tall, large women and known for her humor I thought “Great! She’ll be entertaining.” But her humor and TV spark had faded with the years. She would pass away just two years later at the ripe old age of ninety-one. Yet, that evening, her interest in the food was as lively as I’d always remembered and heard. She commented on each thing, seeming to know every fine nuance about it. A life long love of food served her well.

Luckily my interest in food grew with age and the passing years. I now appreciate it in ways I never would have imagined. I finally get the excitement on the set all those decades ago, the rushing around to make sure it looked just so, the passion and the particulars that made it all so perfect. I see the beauty of the art behind my once shallow thought of ‘food for fuel’ concept. I was slow to come to this and so many other things. But now it is fresh for me, food matters, and I enjoy it all the more with the wisdom of time and memories of earlier moments.


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