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An Encounter with Julia Child

by Diane Worden

Key Words, Vol. 5/Nos. 3 & 4 (May/June & July/August 1997), p. 6. Reprinted with permission 

This article originally appeared in "Indexing in the Heartland" 2/1 (July 1997), 4-5.

Julia Child's involvement in ASI's Winston-Salem annual meeting gave me more to share excitedly with friends at home and elsewhere than any of the professional gatherings I've attended over the past 35 years. Oh, I remember being wowed by Linus Pauling in the 1960s (National Science Teachers Association), and by Rosabeth Moss Kanter (Special Libraries Association), Kenneth Blanchard, Jean Houston (Association for Quality and Participation), and F. Scott Peck (Greenleaf Center for Servant-Leadership) in the 1980s. But I don't remember telling the folks back home very much about them. My encounters with Julia Child were different. They seem very personal, and I have avoided using e-mail to relate them.

Long before arriving in Winston-Salem, actually in mid-winter, I thought I had arranged with the conference program coordinator and fellow Heartlander, Alexandra Nickerson, to have Alexandra present a gold ASI logo pin to Mrs. Child as a gift from our chapter. When the time came, however, Alexandra planted her directly in front of me at our vendor table, slipped me the gift box I had previously given her, and disappeared into the crowd. So I did what needed to be done: came up with an extemporaneous intro, presented Julia Child with a memento from Heartland, and pinned it to her sweater collar when she asked me to help.

Before dinner that evening, I was among the many who had brought from home or bought during the day cookbooks by Julia Child for autographing. My borrowed copy of The French Chef Cookbook (1968) was part of a friend's collection that we had used to prepare the last church dinner held in our nineteenth-century, red sandstone building then scheduled for demolition. The dust jacket showed it had been a bargain, marked 10 percent off the hardcover list price of $6.49. We chose her "Ragout from Leftovers," using lamb raised by my three children. Julia Child not only autographed the page on which that recipe was printed, but dedicated the book's half-title page to my friend Pat and me before also autographing it. Pat's now-grown children are reportedly jockying for rights to it in their mom's will.

Dinner Friday evening at the Sawtooth Building near the convention hotel was memorable, too. Even before the waitstaff poured the white wine, the hall filled with the wafted scent of salmon that announced the most heavenly mousse served with a smidgen of flaky pastry. Then came a red wine and the entrée, a mystery to almost everyone not at the head table. At my table for ten, all of us recognized the currant sauce (two points for us), but none of us could name the oval-shaped, firm, dark meat that tasted somewhat like turkey until someone quacked. Roasted vegetables with a mound of saffron rice accompanied it. For dessert was a half-peeled poached pear, artistically decorated with a mint leaf, stuffed with a replacement core of Gorgonzola cheese, and bathed in a pool of grenadine. Yes, the chefs all came into the hall for a bow to much applause.

After dinner, Julia Child entertained written questions that diners had submitted about miscellaneous subjects. Bob Richardson, an indexer from Rhode Island, had folded an origami dove from the slip he'd written on for her first response. Only by pulling the dove's tail could Mrs. Child read his question on its spread wings—a silly question that received a hilarious short answer.

Someone else asked, "Is Martha Stewart real?" Mrs. Child's answer was truly gracious and, to emphasize its seriousness, three times as lengthy as any other response. The abridged version I remember was, "There are those who cannot say 'Martha Stewart' without a curled lip, but then the world is filled with jealous people who aren't millionaires. I have worked with her on my baking show. She was responsible for a three-tiered wedding cake [J.C. gestured to show impressive dimensions]. Not only did she know what she was doing, she did it herself and worked hard to do things right."

Gestures also came with her response to animal lovers’ picketing the TV studio when a show featured the most humane way to cook lobster. They mirrored the photograph of a young, fiftyish Julia Child on The French Chef dust jacket, mallet poised high above her right shoulder, brandishing a "whacker."

The next morning Mrs. Child was a general session panelist with two other cookbook indexers. She had also actively participated in a pre-conference workshop, "Cookbook Indexing," the previous day. One thing led to another and she remarked that an index of cookbook indexes was a good idea. Kathryn Torgson, the principal indexer for Garland Recipe Index (1984), then emerged from the audience and proudly presented her with the last out-of-print copy of her work. Later, someone else in the audience asked how Mrs. Child and her husband came to index their first cookbook themselves. "Well," she responded, "we thought that's what authors did. We didn't have any idea some people did it for a living. Authors have much more power than they think. Be sure to prompt them to negotiate for an indexer in their publisher's contract!"

To fulfill her patriotic duty during World War II, Julia Child went to D.C. and became a file clerk in the bowels of an unnamed bureaucracy. There she developed an appreciation for what could be found or hidden by manipulating the alphabet, an experience that also convinced her that indexers possess great power.

Besides a press conference ASI arranged with her in Old Salem Village, Julia Child also volunteered to autograph more books poolside after Saturday's lunch. She then participated in the "Editing Your Index" workshop in the afternoon. Sitting in the back row of the hotel's tiered, semicircular learning center, she reportedly said to the person sitting next to her, "Now, dear, if I fall asleep, just give me a poke."

What a wonderful woman! Certainly she is as charming and full of life now as when we were younger, devouring her books and feasting vicariously along with her on TV. Could we have a better role model for when we, too, are in our eighties? Alexandra cannot be thanked enough for planning ASI's 29th conference around Julia Child. It was a meeting to remember for a very long time.

A toast is in order!