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The One and Only Julia

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Written by Carolyn Jung   
Thursday, 13 August 2009

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Menu from Julia's 90th Birthday
As a newspaper journalist for more than two decades, I've had the pleasure of interviewing high-powered government officials, community leaders, high-tech moguls, big-time restaurateurs, celebrity chefs, and even a San Francisco 49er.

Only one person, though, made me so nervous that my voice trembled and my stomach churned in knots.

That was Julia Child.

It wasn't at all because she was intimidating or frightening or a diva. Far from it.

It was simply because she was Julia Child.

She was the icon I grew up watching on TV, the first person to have a regular cooking show on television. She was the woman I worshiped who could do no wrong, for whenever she flubbed something, she rolled with it, patching the problem with ease, humor and utter charm. She was cool under pressure before anyone else was. The fact that she found her calling late in life, achieving fame at age 50, only added to her allure and realness.

Our paths crossed maybe a dozen times. Whether it was just a far-off sighting of her, or an actual conversation, each interaction left me - and those around me - in awe. Such was the power of this towering 6-foot-2-inch woman with the lilting, bird-like voice, hearty laugh, and total exuberance for life.

The first time I saw Julia in person, I was a shy college junior from California who was interviewing at the venerable Boston Globe for a summer internship as a news reporter. Talk about pressure.

To celebrate that I'd gotten even that far in the process, friends in Cambridge took me out for dinner at Legal Sea Foods restaurant. While I was calming my nerves with a bowl of clam chowder, I saw her. There was Julia a few tables away, dining with her husband, Paul. Of course, I was too scared to walk up to her table, so I just stared from afar.

But somehow, just seeing her there, made me feel better about everything. Through her cooking shows, Julia had made us believe we could do anything. Her mere presence that night reinforced that feeling in me. It's one I carried inside all summer long, too, through that internship I ended up garnering.

There were times as a food writer at the San Jose Mercury News that I ended up interviewing Julia by phone. At that point in her life, she was a little hard of hearing, so I had to speak up in order for her to hear me clearly.

Invariably, after I hung up the phone, my nearby colleagues would all come racing over to my desk, drawn by my loud voice during the interview.

"Oh my God! Were you just talking to Julia Child??!'' was what they would all exclaim. Then, they would pepper me with questions about her. Such was the power of Julia.

Nine years ago, I was invited to a lunch in San Francisco in honor of Julia's cookbook with Jacques Pepin, "Julia and Jacques Cooking at Home.'' I still have the menu from that lunch, as well as a copy of the cookbook that bears her autograph, as well as Jacques'.

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Julia Child and Jacques Pepin's autographs
The lunch was lovely, and the company stupendous, of course. But what I remember most fondly was catching sight of all the cooks, quietly peering behind the kitchen door to get a glimpse of Julia.

That happened wherever she went. At swank, star-studded culinary soirees, she was always the star attraction just by virtue of being there and being herself. At some of these events, you might have the likes of Daniel Boulud, Eric Ripert, Thomas Keller, Jacques Torres, and Wolfgang Puck in one kitchen. But when Julia walked in, everything would stop, and each chef would respectfully come up to say hello to her. Such was the power of Julia.

For her 90th birthday in 2002, parties were held across the country to honor her. In San Francisco, the Fifth Floor restaurant was the venue for it. A throng of food writers, renowned chefs, and members of the public assembled there for the event, awaiting Julia's presence.

It wasn't hard to figure out the moment she arrived. Dozens of flashbulbs went off simultaneously as she stepped off the elevator and into the dining room. It was a blinding explosion of lights, the likes I had never witnessed before or ever again. Such was the power of Julia.

On Aug. 13, 2004, I heard the sad news on TV just before I was leaving for work: Julia has passed away in her sleep at her home in Montecito, as she was surrounded by family, friends, and her kitten, Minou. She died just two days before her 92nd birthday.

After writing her obituary for the Mercury News. I received many emails from readers, expressing their sorrow that this inspiring woman had died.

None touched me the way one letter did from an elderly lady. She wrote that she started reading the obituary only because it was so prominent on the front page, not because she had any interest necessarily in the person who had died.

As she continued to read, though, about this larger-than-life, yet so down-to-earth woman, who had transformed cooking into something we all wanted to do instead of something we all had to do, her feelings changed. Tears started streaming down her face, she wrote, as she got to know this strong, passionate, spirited woman.

She closed her letter by saying, "I ended up reading every word of that story. When the time comes, I hope that where Julia went, I will go, too.''

Such was the power of Julia.

Read more from Carolyn as she remembers Julia on her blog FoodGal.

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