Moments with Julia Child

We stood in front of Julia Child’s kitchen at the Smithsonian as if it were a shrine. It is, really. Child’s transformation of American eating and cooking. Her iconic presence. Her legacy that has only grown in depth and breadth as how many among us watch countless cooking shows, re-create recipes from online videos, and seek meals that are fancy yet not too difficult, or at least clear to follow.

In my house that legacy is apparent in our focus on cooking and baking shows and the ongoing critique of my children who live their own version of irony. They don’t bake from a mix — thank goodness my mom and I have taught them this — yet they are pretty darned pleased to eat boxed albeit organic mac ‘n cheese. And, at the same time, they toss around foodie vocabulary as if it is a second language gained in utero (which it is not).

Our trip to the Smithsonian was fortuitous. Snow canceled our flight home. An extra day in DC! What got my children to the museum? Two things. Julia Child’s kitchen and the Greensboro lunch counter. Makes sense if you know the kids: cooking and justice. Some eight years ago we’d made these same two stops in the Smithsonian’s Museum of American History, and brought home a children’s book, Freedom on the Menu, which became a family favorite. The then four-year-old boy demanded the book be read to his preschool class. Not sure who else grasped the story, but he was thrilled. The power of civil disobedience in Greensboro moved him and his sisters. At the time, Julia’s kitchen was not so impactful.

A few years ago the film Julie & Julia entered their viewing space and became a go-to flick, watched I don’t know how many times. Nancy Meyers opened the door to Julia Child’s life, cooking and cookbooks, and a curiosity about cooking and learning to cook. Of late, the fifteen-year-old excitedly pointed out the house Julia and Paul Child lived in Paris, as her reading of Child’s My Life in France coincided with spring break travels.

And then, three months earlier another well-timed, utterly unplanned moment. It was New Year’s Eve. We bustled in my mother’s kitchen making dinner, a now notable tradition. Perhaps we were focused on filling the cream puffs. I don’t recall. Mom sat in her seat at her kitchen table. She was actually in the room with us as we cooked, awake and alert, fighting her Parkinson’s’-impacting exhaustion. Were I transparent like one of those childhood toy skeletal models, you could have seen the knot in my stomach. Dinner was the least of it. The knot? Worry about Mom, my children’s emotions as she struggles, my endeavors to capture “good” times together for all, deep sadness.

Then Mom turned to fifteen-year-old granddaughter and invited her to look at the cookbooks in the kitchen closet. I didn’t hear the exchange, but then, out of the corner of my eye saw the now browned covers of Mastering the Art of French Cooking on the white tabletop as they spoke quietly — the only way Mom does these days — amidst the kitchen chaos. Granddaughter gently thumbed through the pages of the book curiously. Mom offered the book.

Fortuituous? Yes. Classic Mom, too.