SAN FRANCISCO — It's not every day that an American icon turns 90, and, strictly speaking, she hasn't. But when the icon is Julia Child, can there really be a wrong time for a celebratory "bon appetit"?
"Well, I think it's all pretty nice, don't you? What's on the menu?" the grande dame trilled Thursday, as a nationwide blitz of birthday parties was kicked off in this food mecca two weeks before her birthday. Her shoulders were stooped, her curls were thinning and she steered her no-longer-6-foot-2-inch frame into the star-studded dining room with the aid of a bright blue walker. But that fat, throaty voice still had the power to make ordinary syllables sound mouthwatering. "Wild," she murmured, deliciously, as flashbulbs popped and Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse's famed Alice Waters rushed up with a bouquet of roses from her garden. "Just wild, isn't it?"
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
School misspelled--In a story Friday about Julia Child's 90th birthday parties, the name of the La Varenne Cooking School was misspelled.
Child, of course, is known to millions as the unintentionally droll "French Chef" who revolutionized American attitudes about food in the 1960s with her public television series and sophisticated recipes. In a nation of TV dinners and tuna casseroles, she raised the consciousness of a provincial public by demystifying fine dining.
"Have the courage of your convictions," the native Californian once warbled to viewers, scraping a potato pancake back into the pan after she had accidentally flipped half of it onto her studio stove top.
The incident later became the stuff of "Saturday Night Live" spoofs, but Child's confidence was liberating, at the time, for Kennedy era housewives trying to live up to the standards of a White House with a real French chef in the kitchen. Child's classic "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" became, for a while, the kitchen equivalent of Dr. Benjamin Spock's "Baby and Child Care."
Child Remains Active
Though she moved last year from her longtime home in Cambridge, Mass., to a retirement community in Montecito and has spent much of the last year recuperating from a series of back surgeries, she has remained active, especially philanthropically.
She was on hand this year for the grand opening of Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, and, in a departure--for she is famously tight with endorsements--she allowed the museum to use her name for its centerpiece restaurant, Julia's Kitchen. Her own kitchen in Cambridge, with its copper pots and whisks and peg boards, has been dismantled and donated to Copia and the Smithsonian Institution in Washington.
Thursday's extravaganza was also an act of philanthropy on Child's part--or, more accurately, Day 1 of a monthlong barrage of charity. The San Francisco dinner at the stylish Fifth Floor restaurant, benefiting the scholarship fund of the International Assn. of Culinary Professionals Foundation, was the first of three birthday fund-raisers in three nights on Child's packed calendar.
Having dispatched with vichyssoise, nicoise salad, Atlantic halibut, Sonoma duck breast and a six-layer pecan marjolaine with coffee chocolate mousse Thursday night, Child will head north tonight to the Napa Valley for a $500-a-plate gala at Copia. That menu: foie gras, monkfish, more duck, a confection involving ladyfingers called charlotte malakoff au chocolat and a specially created $90-a-bottle sparkling rose.
On Saturday, she's back at the museum again for a $100-a-person French buffet for the media and museum members. (Prawns on ice, oysters, more nicoise salad, roast beef, rack of lamb, chicken on polenta, crepes suzette and a confection called, simply, Julia's Birthday Cake.)
And on Sunday, she's tentatively scheduled for yet another Copia appearance, which may or may not involve more food. Then it's off to Maine, where she will retreat with family members to celebrate her real date of birth on Aug. 15. Three more fetes, with proceeds going to the American Institute of Wine and Food, are scheduled for later this month in Washington, D.C.
"Frankly, when I heard there were all these parties planned, I just couldn't imagine her wanting to do all of this," confided Waters, who has RSVP'd to all the weekend dinners as well.
Copia's director, Peggy Loar, said her staff had made a special effort to stock up on pre-signed bookplates for the weekend's events there, so Child would not be inundated with requests for book signings, as occurred when she showed up for the opening of the museum.
"I've spoken on the phone with her in the last two months, and she was as bright as a tack," Loar said. "And she never says no--she's just a sweetheart--but we don't want to tire her out."
Child, whose persona has always featured a certain brusque vigor, shrugged off the notion that an 89-year-old woman might not be up to quite this much action for her big nine O.
"It's for a good cause, so it's OK with me--just part of doing business," she said. "I don't have to do any of the cooking. I'm just there! Eating! And that doesn't take too much energy, does it now?"