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A Day in the Life, at 90

Keeping up with Julia Child, who has a new home, a new book deal and a balky oven


MONTECITO, Calif. — We knock on the door of Julia Child's condominium half an hour early. She appears after a minute. "Hello, dearie," she says and apologizes for being busy. She points us toward the living room. "Here's the paper. I'll be out when I'm done with these radio interviews."

Like the rest of her apartment, the living room is small but comfortable. There's a dining table just big enough for four tucked in one corner, a couch against one wall and a couple of upholstered chairs. The kitchen is the size of a boat's galley and the bedroom doubles as her office with a computer and fax machine.

From the bedroom come whispers of the interviews, her famous voice, high-pitched and reedy. Despite the endless attempts, it seems impossible to parody accurately. Imitations invariably only hit the one public note of enthusiastic instruction; in private there is a whole range of moods.

After 45 minutes or so, Child comes trundling out with her walker and plops heavily into a chair. "Those kinds of interviews are so tiresome, don't you think?" she asks, as if everyone spends their mornings being questioned for national audiences.

" 'What's your favorite restaurant?' " she imitates the hapless radio interviewers. " 'What's your funniest kitchen disaster?' 'What's your favorite comfort food?' 'What do you want for your last meal on Earth?' " At this last, she shakes her head in wonder, both at the gall of someone asking such a question and the intellectual laziness that would prompt it.

"That's just not very interesting, is it?" she says. Child turns 90 next week, and that is probably the worst thing she can say about anything. The occasion is something of a national celebration. Her actual birthday, Aug. 15, will be spent as part of her treasured annual summer vacation in a big house by the sea in Maine with assorted nieces and nephews and their children.

But first there will have been fund-raising parties in 20 restaurants around the country and parties at Copia in Napa, the Mondavi-backed wine and food museum she is so enthusiastic about. Then after Maine, she'll head down to Washington, D.C., where an exact replica of her old kitchen will be enshrined in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.

In many ways, Julia Child is American food's Elvis. She not only played a prominent part in popularizing fine cooking in this country, she came to represent it. This is not a role she sought (no one plans to become an icon), but it is one she wears easily. Spend some time with her and you quickly understand that there is little or no separation between the public and private Julias. Wherever she goes, she's the center of attention--and after 40 years, she's used to it.

After a dim sum lunch one day in a Los Angeles restaurant, the entire Chinese staff lines up to have pictures taken with her. Tirelessly, leaning on her walker, she takes first a group shot, then individual ones one after another. Her one proviso: "Only if they're not used for any kind of publicity." She has never allowed her name to be used to endorse a product of any kind.

Another time at a small informal beach-side restaurant in Santa Barbara, she's dining with friends when a distinguished looking gentleman of about her vintage sidles up to the table and, awkwardly passes her a note. She opens it up and reads: "My wife and I have been making your cucumber soup for 40 years. Thank you for all the wonderful meals." She carefully folds it back up without visible reaction. You get the feeling this happens a lot.

Even in the notoriously catty food world, almost no one has a bad thing to say about Child. That some of her recipes may be a bit dated is about the worst. But that's probably inevitable given that "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published 40 years ago and that almost everyone in food today either learned to cook from it or learned to cook from someone who had.

"The thing that is so wonderful about this culinary profession of ours is that it is like a big family," she says repeatedly. "People love what they're doing, and they love to share it with other people."

But don't mistake her for a goody-two-shoes. She's fond of a good dirty joke. She loves to gossip. And she occasionally displays a wicked sense of humor.

During World War II she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (doing paperwork mainly; she laughs at the repeated reports that she was a spy). One of her office's projects was to develop a shark repellent to help airmen downed at sea. But they could get no support from the Navy, she says, because "we couldn't get the Navy to admit that sharks ate Navy men. They didn't like to say, 'Dear Mrs. So-and-So, your son was eaten by a shark. They'd much rather say: 'Your gallant son was lost at sea.'

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