AS THE WORKING MOM of twin 3-year-olds, I find food is often a source of anxiety. Mealtimes are stressful, but I most dread the grocery store, where I can’t help but compare my cart with those around me. Everyone else’s seems to be full of fresh fruits and vegetables, uncooked grains, and beautiful cuts of raw meat, while mine is filled to the brim with convenience foods and screaming children. I am not a woman who Has It All. Sometimes I catch my fellow shoppers’ disapproving glances and start to panic. Can they see the Lunchables, I wonder. Or are they hidden by the frozen lasagna?
More than a decade ago, long before kids, I had the ultimate opportunity to do some shopping-cart spying. While picking up supplies for what we hoped would be a retro-hip fondue party, my friend Maggie and I met Julia Child in the Star Market on Comm. Ave. near BU.
Once more than 6 feet tall, Julia was stooped over a walker. Her companion was pushing a cart slowly past the yogurts. There was no mistaking her, but she looked much older than the woman I was used to seeing on television, blissfully making a mess of her Cambridge kitchen. I didn’t know it then, but she was only a few months away from retiring to her native California, where she would pass away in 2004.
I was too timid to talk to her. Maggie had no such reservations. Walking over, she took a deep breath before her words tumbled out: “We’re having a fondue party and we’ve never had a fondue party and we’re nervous and I can’t believe we’re meeting you and I watched you when I was growing up and can you bless our fondue party?”
Bless our fondue party? Julia didn’t appear surprised by the request — I think she was tickled. She slowly uncurled her fingers from her walker. Holding her hands up in front of her, hands that had grated mountains of cheese over her 40-year television career, she straightened herself with effort. “I bless your fondue party,” she said, waving those hands over our heads, her trilling voice floating out over the crowded aisles.
What fun Julia brought to cooking, and too bad that feeling is in short supply these days. Food is medicinal (now with MORE antioxidants!) or political (locally grown!) or, worst of all, a status symbol (artisanal marshmallows!). Julia, though, inspired generations to relax in the kitchen. Try new things. Play with your food. She was The French Chef, but she never forgot the best part of cooking: sharing a meal with those you love.
She once appeared on Martha Stewart’s show to make croquembouche, one of those towers of cream-filled profiteroles. “The one Martha made looked like she’d collaborated with Euclid. Julia’s looked like the leaning tower of croquembouche,” Julia’s former producer Geoffrey Drummond once told a reporter. “Julia could make a perfect croquembouche. But she wanted to show that it didn’t have to be.”
So what was in her shopping cart at Star? I was surprised, though I shouldn’t have been. She had several large pieces of cheese. She had three or four yogurts. Some produce. And Klondike bars. A package of original Klondike bars, their foil wrappers proudly shining in the fluorescent light.
Julia autographed my shopping list and patted my hand. But as Maggie and I walked away, I realized with horror that she must have seen the family-sized block of Velveeta in our cart, a Plan B in case of gruyere failure. How humiliating. I can’t believe she saw that.
And then a thought occurred to me, one that’s returned as the 100th anniversary of Julia’s birth approaches, and one I’ll remember the next time I’m unloading premade PB&Js from my cart while my daughters cover themselves in orange PAID stickers: Julia Child saw my processed cheese food and blessed me anyway.
Stephanie Tyburski is the website managing editor at Massachusetts General Hospital. Send comments to magazine.com.