The Hired Belly fondly remembers the first cookbook he ever bought: Julia Child's Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Lent once too often, it's long vanished, now replaced by its two voluminous paperback successors. Even today they're my go-to references for classic dishes. But I still miss the smart red hardcover and greasestained pages.
The woman still hailed as the chef who transformed the way Americans, and others around the world, thought about food would have turned 100 next week (Aug. 15). Even in this era of celebrity cooks, no other chef past or present has had a greater influence than the one-time OSS (U.S. espionage agency) worker turned culinary icon. In fact, Child's legendary "Bon Appétit" was likely the first (and perhaps only) French expression to come out of many an American mouth.
Aside from her undeniable prowess as a chef, Child excelled as a communicator-not only because she de-mystified French cuisine for the masses (like me) but also refused to pander to the inherent snobbery that defined it at the time.
Using the powerful, and at the time novel, medium of television, she brought fundamental change to the way that Americans cooked and kickstarted a revolution that transformed a generation weaned on processed foods and packaged recipes. In doing so she also helped lay the foundation for the California-styled bistro that still defines West Coast restaurant dining today.
Some even suggest that were it not for Child, PBS would never have gotten off the ground.
For a fascinating glimpse of her early life and discovery of her love for French cuisine, track down a copy of My Life in France (Alfred A. Knopf), the remarkable and entertaining biography written with Alex Prud'homme (her husband's grand-nephew), who finished the book after she died in 2004.
Child's gusto, humour and no nonsense approach to food lives on. This month sees no shortage of "Julia" celebrations, the most prolific around these parts being Les Dames d'Escoffier's Julia Child Dine Around, where restaurants donate $69 set menu proceeds to "Les Dames" from at least one table, at no less than 40 restaurants and cooking schools across the province. Tickets (juliachild100.eventbrite.com) are going fast. But you can still find seats at several worthy spots, ranging from La Terrazza to Wild Rice and share in the tribute to this remarkable woman.
Authentically French, West Side Bistro Pastis offers a summer-long series of "Joyful Julia" farm-to-table $39 set menus, citing Child's mantra: "You don't have to cook fancy or complicated masterpieces-just good food from fresh ingredients." Making the most of the season, chef Tobias Grignon's dishes, such as pissaladière Niçoise and bouillbaisse, are all drawn from the pages of Mastering the Art. Pastis marks the centenary with a special tasting menu, Aug. 16.
You can also sign up for Les Dames Julia Child 100th Birthday Gala Dinner at the Four Seasons, Sept. 8, a no-holds-barred salute to the grandest dame of them all.