The Fearless

Julia Child

My Rouses Everyday, July/August 2017

There’s an opaque curtain between us and our futures.

Plan though we may, what happens on any given day in any given life is unpredictable.

On March 9, 2000, I woke up with my husband, Ned, in a hotel room in Providence, Rhode Island. We were attending the annual conference of the International Association of Culinary Professionals (IACP), where I’d teach an all-day workshop called Fearless Writing. I’ve taught it (and still do) in many iterations; this one was subtitled “Finding Your Voice, Vitality, and Vibrancy in Culinary Writing.”

At 8:20 a.m. or so, as I was walking across the hotel lobby towards the venue where I’d be teaching, someone — I’m embarrassed to say I can’t remember which of my “pan pals” it was — stopped me. She said, “Crescent, do you have room for one more person in your class?”

I said, “Sure.” She replied, “Then we’ll go over with you.” I turned, and standing next to her was Julia Child. Thus began my day as writing coach/mentor to Julia, along with another 30 or so other culinary writers.

You probably know Child as the charming, iconic, delightfully goofy woman who brought cooking well, with passion and exuberance, to television. Or, you know her via her foundational tour de force bestseller, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Written specifically for Americans with two French coauthors, in this book Child’s was the distinctive American voice, approachable yet authoritative. Volume 1 of Mastering appeared in 1961, Volume 2 in 1970; with this guide, thousands of people taught themselves to cook. In 2002, Julie Powell began the Julie/Julia Project, in which she cooked all the recipes in the book within one year, blogging about it as she went; Mastering became a bestseller for a second time. Later, the blog, combined with Child’s own last book, My Life in France, became a film. Meryl Streep played Child.

I’d met Julia a few times at previous IACPs. Tall, warm, unpretentious, endearing, she possessed an irresistibly agile, curious mind; she embodied the term “lifelong learner.” She seemed to me eager to meet others as colleagues. While not unaware that she was a star, she chafed against being revered instead of related to. Several times we went on the same IACP culinary tours at various conference cities; we participated in one called “Kosher Philadelphia,” during which she and sausage-maker Bruce Aidells peppered a kosher butcher with questions.

When Julia attended Fearless, she was over 85. Though widowed six years earlier and walking with a cane, she was as vibrantly curious as ever. I was over 45, happily married, comfortable in my twin careers as a writer and teacher of writing.

Over the years, other famous writers (not just culinary ones) had taken my course, side by side with beginning or aspirational writers. As a teacher, I know it is essential not to be overawed by any individual’s star power (nor to dismiss someone who has not yet published), but to try and simply see each person’s needs and where they are in the writing process.

One way I do this is by, at the start of a session, asking students what they’d like to leave class with. Julia was one who chose to speak up. “I’d like to leave,” she said, “knowing how to write funnier, to get across humor on the page.”

When I recall that day, I remember this, and that, during the catered lunch, she asked that Ned and I sit on either side of her. Somehow, the story of my recently having made barbecued tofu at a small-town community fundraiser came up. “How,” she asked me, with genuine curiosity, “do you make it?”

So. Not only do I have the distinction of teaching writing to Julia Child; I actually gave her, verbally, a recipe for barbecued tofu.

After lunch, class continued. One of the key points in Fearless is that fear and uncertainty are part of the process, that one must learn to tolerate their discomfort to grow creatively. Late in the day, a young woman in the back of the class raised her hand. “Does that ever change?” she asked, wearily. “Don’t you ever get over being unsure and afraid?”

“You know,” I said, “I never single out people who are well-known, but because we have someone in class today who I think most of us would agree has certainly reached the apex in our field, I’m going to defer to her.” I took a breath. “Julia,” I said, “Do you ever get over it?”

Julia, one row back from the front, gave what I remember as a delighted cackle. She picked up her cane, and, whacking it on the floor for emphasis, said, in that famous fluting voice, “Absolutely not!”

That day, I did one other thing I never do in class. In most Fearlesses, we do a lot of writing in session. Most people take their work with them; some throw it out as they exit, but occasionally, someone will leave their writing on the table. I always throw it out, unread; after all, it is personal and private.

But Julia left her pages on the table. Three or four pages, handwritten. She’d torn them in half, once.

The room had emptied. Ned and I were gathering our stuff to go. I looked at Julia’s pages, lying on the table. I looked at Ned. He looked back, giving me a look which I read as Seriously? How can you not? I took them. And I read them. They described Julia’s arrival in France for the first time, by ship, on a foggy morning in 1948, with her husband, Paul. Those torn pieces are still in my office somewhere.

Years later, I read Julia’s last book, My Life in France, which was published posthumously in 2006. I recognized the scene set in the first paragraph. “At 5:45 in the morning, Paul and I rousted ourselves from our warm bunk and peered out the small porthole in our cabin aboard the SS America …” With this opening, my heart opened too.

Nine months after that day in Providence, Ned went out bicycling and was hit by a car. Among hundreds of letters and emails of condolence was one from Julia, which is also somewhere in my office. Her famously good marriage to her husband Paul had lasted 48 years; she knew a happy marriage when she saw one, and she’d seen one between Ned and me. She had liked him, and she knew grief. She also told me I would get through it, though I would always miss him. She was right on both counts. Julia herself died, two days before her 92nd birthday, in 2004.

I still cook, and write, and teach writing. That Ned is not here amazes me still. That Julia Child once took a workshop with me — and that to this day occasionally people wash up in Fearless who tell me, “Julia told me I should take your class” — also amazes me.

That opaque curtain: I’m glad for it, hiding as it does all future surprises, terrible and marvelous, from our present eyes. And as for fear and uncertainty, do I still think they are always part of the process (of writing, of living), and that one must learn to tolerate them? “Absolutely!”