Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Julia Child and the Purple Coat

Many of us mere mortals have a story to tell about meeting Julia Child. No doubt the much-anticipated August release of the film Julie & Julia is prompting even more reminiscences. The memory of my Julia moment, however, was sparked last month when I unearthed a purple coat. Here's why.

After graduating from college in the 1970s, I lived and worked in Harvard Square. It was urban enough, hip, and had sufficient international flair to placate a French major like me with no foreign place to go (Paris was out of the question, financially).

One wintry day at lunch break I was combing the aisles of Sage's, the local gourmet store. In the corner of my eye I spotted an apparition -- a 3/4 length grape-purple mohair coat with elbow-length sleeves, seeming to float in midair. I squinted and looked again. There She was. Familiar and unmistakable. A tall, imposing woman tilting her head over the Camemberts and Saint Andrés. I was in awe. It was ... Julia.

Rapt (and shy), I simply stared, mouth agape. I knew Julia lived in Cambridge, and even knew people who knew her. But here stood the real Julia, larger than life, ogling the Tome de Savoie.

Julia Child! Her name to me was like the name of a goddess who represented everything a francophile like me could love about France and the French: joie de vivre, good cuisine and happiness at table, a hearty "Bon appétit!" She understood the French from the inside out.

I wanted to say something, utter a sliver of a phrase to express my ardent admiration and shared francophile life. But no. I remained mute, slyly trailing her sideways as she maneuvered among the leeks and shallots and filet mignons. I kept enough of a distance to not be too obvious -- but close enough, I hoped, for osmosis.

I savored that moment, and rued it too, wishing I'd had the courage to spout a clever bon mot. In retrospect I justified my silence by convincing myself that surely the hallowed Julia needed to be able to venture on home turf without being approached by French Chef groupies every day. Ah, I felt noble in protecting her from intrusion of fans like me. And if she noticed my semi-stalking, she never let on.

Besides, how cool was she? A purple coat? I absorbed her brilliant inspiration: if you're a nationally famous 6'2" redheaded woman, there's no point trying to disguise yourself in a somber brown cloak when in public. So why not do it with purple panache? Ah, a Julia moment.

A few years later I was working in the public affairs office of the Quebec Government's New England office. One spring, our project was to promote lobsters from the Magdalen Islands, purported to be the tastiest crustaceans in North America because of the extreme cold of the water where they grew. "Why not take some to Julia Child?" I ventured at a brainstorming session. "Who better to appreciate the quality of excellent lobster than America's favorite French Chef?"

Pourqoui pas? With a few phone calls, I had arranged to deliver two dozen lobsters to Julia and her staff, who were taping a video at her home in Cambridge. At 10 a.m. on the appointed day I pulled up to her rambling house in my dilapidated Mercedes.

Toting two large cases of wriggling lobsters, I crossed the wide porch and elbowed the doorbell. I was greeted by one of multiple public TV assistants buzzing around the ground floor. Cables snaked all over the floors, taped in place. Lights beamed in the kitchen and big black control boxes hid in the shadows. I was ushered in the foyer to meet Julia, to hold up my cold blue live offerings to the high priestess of Food and France. She approached with a smile and a hearty greeting, and I felt as though I'd just stopped by to visit Aunt Ruthie, not a celebrity. Not a hint of diva-persona: just genuine warmth and charm. Hundred percent grande dame with zero percent attitude. And that lilting voice. "Thank you so much. Isn't this super? We'll cook them for lunch! I'm sure we'll eat them with gusto."

I would have lingered forever, but I backed discreetly out the door with an I'll-never-wash that-hand-again glow. A few days later her assistant called to pronounce the lobsters indeed tasty and to thank us for the gift. Lesson from Julia moment number 2: always be yourself while being generous with kindness, no matter what your VIP status.

After these Julia moments, I often wondered how I might pattern my life after hers. From watching her on The French Chef and glimpsing her twice, I knew this much. She recognized her life's passion and pursued it with unbridled enthusiasm. And she won the hearts of millions by just being herself. I never dreamed of winning the hearts of millions, but I knew that her approach to life was one I hoped to mirror.

A decade later, woe was me: I had hit the big Four-Oh. As I pondered about Life on that miserable January birthday I still wasn't sure what I wanted to be when I grew up. Agony & angst, ready for a pity-party. Shopping therapy was definitely in order. At the dreaded mall, I stumbled into a store that catered to the WASPy mother's crowd. "Finest ladies' togs," was their motto. I was doomed anyway; at 40, my now-matronly fate was sealed, I figured, so I might as well start dressing the part, right? I cringed and entered. There on the sale rack was a floating apparition. A periwinkle-purple full-length mohair coat. I knew at once this was a harbinger, a sign. What Would Julia Do?

I bought it. Haven't looked back.


Evelyn said...

Your story makes me want to run out and find a vintage purple mohair coat to buy! Have you seen the movie??

Going Like Sixty said...

Very cool. Can't wait to see the movie.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

I can't wait to see the movie, too, and perhaps to see if Meryl Streep sports a purple coat in any scenes. Opens August 7.

Libby said...

What a great story. So well written, I felt I was there. "Ah, I felt noble in protecting her from intrusion of fans like me." I've done it, myself.

Anonymous said...

can't place where Sage's is... is it next to the CoOp and the luncheonette?
I remember seeing her in the late 70's at Savenors pretty regularly.
SHe was one of the reasons I chose to go to Smith COllege

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Sage's was across Brattle Street from Design Research (now Crate & Barrel, I guess), where I was slaving away at the time. Corner of Story Street.

Alas, there were lots of wonderful Harvard Sq. luncheonettes at the time -- Sage's was more or less next to Buddy's Sirloin Pit, a fave, which still had sawdust on the floor! All disappeared now, replaced with upscale international chains etc.

Anonymous said...

What a wonderful story! I loved how you tied everything in - the coat, your feelings, your 2nd meeting and back to the coat again. I am looking forward to seeing the movie and hope to see "your" coat. ;O)

Kristi said...

What a great tale and told so well. Thanks for sharing ... I loved it.

Kay and CJ said...

What a wonderful story, and beautifully written. Thanks for sharing it!

Joan said...

Loved the story too, and I hope you are still wearing that coat. I would!

Starman said...

Another fantastic Polly-Vous Francais story. Really, when will the book be on the shelves?

Zippy said...

I remember Sage very well, but unfortunately never ran into Julia there. She was such an icon and in my mind's eye I can see her standing over the counter, knife in hand.

Polly-Vous Francais said...

Merci to all for the kind comments! I re-discovered my purple coat, which had been in storage for 3 years while I was in Paris, as I went through the tedious unpacking process. Sigh. Anyway, that's my coat in the photo.

Henceforth I'll wear it as my 'Julia' mantle... weather permitting.

Anonymous said...

Great story. I graduated from Smith College, Julia's alma mater and lived in Hubbard House, her old dorm there. I was a student there in the late 60s/early 70's, a time of protests and rebellion. She was coming back to visit and I was told that I would be sitting at her table for the dinner. I was annoyed at having to be a part of such a frivilous event. Now I would kill to re-live that evening and realize (hopefully not too late!) that following one's passion, no matter what, is really what matters in this life.

samovar said...

great story!
i really enjoyed reading it!

DW Quilt Art said...

Wonderful story! Beautifully told! I don't cook one bit but find myself currently getting caught up in the Julia-mania...just started reading My Life in France and am looking forward to the movie :-) Merci! Diane

Libby said...

Great story: have you been to see her kitchen at the Smithsonian Museum? I had been there when they were assembling it, piece by small piece....the pegboards all had pot outlines drawn so no pot would be misplaced!
My Mother, in the 60's, in Philadelphia's stodgy Main Line, was one of the first "Julia" followers: oh the meals we had!

Harriet said...

Oh Polly, what a lovely story!

I, too, love Boston from my 3 years there in the mid-80's, but I don't have any Julia sightings to report.

Jake Dear said...

Polly, Indeed, great story! (I'll copy this to my wife, Mo -- a great cook -- and try to encourage her to add a comment with her own Julia story.)

Karen said...

What a delightful story. It brought tears to my eyes. I am currently reading "My Live in France", planning to see the movie, and heading back for a month in Paris in October.
I watched her show on PBS for years and my children watched her as much as they did Sesame Street. She was so much fun to see and I learned so much.
Thanks for the post.

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