“You have a ratatouille garden!” Julia Child exclaimed to her Cape Cod hostess, Jane Thompson, “we’ll have ratatouille for dinner.”
Jane Thompson, one half with her husband, Ben, of the famous design team that created Design Research in Cambridge, was one of many friends and family who recalled Julia Child Stories to an adoring crowd in the Radcliffe Gymnasium last Friday, all celebrating what would be Julia Child’s 100th birthday. (Called “Siting Julia,” the day fully subscribed online almost instantly; overflow crowds watched on video from the Loeb Theater.)
Ms. Thompson recalled the late summer day at her Cape Cod home, when she and Julia spent the afternoon peeling and slicing eggplant, zucchini, peppers and onions from that garden, stacking them, sauteeing them separately, laying them in sheets, layering them in a casserole, sprinkling each level with oil and herbs, and then letting the whole cook. Thompson claimed the ratatouille then cooked for four hours, but I think that’s what it felt like in her memory; the recipes says a final 25 minutes.
Thompson paused, seeming to relive the fatigue, and said as far as she remembers they didn’t eat anything else for dinner.
I was smart enough to sign up early for this day of Julia, and what a treat it was: three groups of speakers, the first reminiscing about her years in France, the second group recalling the impact she made on Cambridge society when she moved there, and the third recounting her years in television.
Beaming through his talk, his affection for Julia irrepressible, Alex Prudhomme, Paul Child’s nephew, remembered how difficult it was getting Julia to speak about herself when he first began interviewing her for the biography, “My Life in France.”
“I would say to her, ‘tell me about your apartment in Paris, Julia,’ and she would answer, ‘well, it was an apartment – tell me about your place in Brooklyn.”
Child was 91 when Prudhomme began the project; they worked for eight months together, with him visiting her in Santa Barbara where she was living. Julia, still mischievous, would suggest they get hamburgers for lunch, and “go find a view.” They would drive, and she would direct him down a private driveway to a spot overlooking the sea. Prudhomme would point out the “private” sign, to which Julia would say, “we’ll just tell them we’re looking for Mr. Smith.” They were never caught.
About having children, Prudhomme asked Child once, “we tried; it didn’t work,” but Julia pointed out later, “I wouldn’t have had a career if I had had kids,” implying motherhood would have happily consumed her.
Mark De Voto, the son of Avis De Voto who was Julia Child’s great friend and editor, gave me the quote of the day: De Voto’s father, writer and historian Bernard De Voto, had written, among his professional works, a handbook of cocktails. When he learned that Julia kept a pitcher of martinis in her refrigerator, De Voto scoffed, saying, “you can no sooner keep a martini in the refrigerator as you can store a kiss there.”
Before Julia arrived in Cambridge from Paris, Kitty Galbraith, wife of the famed economist Kenneth Galbraith, and Marion Schlesinger, wife of Arthur, ruled Brattle Street society.
“These were Yankee ladies and food was not their thing,” Dorothy Zinberg, lecturer in public policy and faculty associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School and a longtime neighbor of the Childs in Cambridge, told the crowd. “Julia changed all that.”
In the Cambridge of Julia Child, it was not unusual to spend a week making a dinner, and it might be whispered in Burdick’s that Julia had the nerve to leave a party before Arthur Schlesinger! Julia had become the ranking guest.
Zinberg described a classic dinner from the new Cambridge: invited by three Harvard graduate students who had decided they loved cooking, and were going to prepare a complete meal from “Mastering The Art of French Cooking,” Zinberg, her husband and guests showed up to the men’s humble Harvard Square apartment gorgeously prepared for the best wines and food. The meal began with foie-gras en gelee, and went from there, dishes that required not one but two weeks of preparation. At one point Zinberg slipped into the kitchen on her way to the bathroom, and discovered mountains and mountains of dirty dishes, far more dishes than were required for the meal that evening. The men confessed that while they loved to cook they hated washing up, and simply threw everything out when the piles became too high, and then returned to the Salvation Army for more 5 cent plates when they needed them. Zinberg then posted a photo of these hedonistic young men: Jeffrey Steingarten, Dr. Andrew Weil, and their buddy, Woodward Adams Wickam, who, among many other accomplishments, became vice president of the McArthur Foundation.
This is what Julia did to Cambridge. When asked what the attire should be for her New Year’s Eve Party, Julia said, “Oh, I suppose ‘high casual” would be fine.” Indeed, this is what Julia did for Cambridge.
I had to leave before the television discussion began; the last bit of Julia wisdom I procured was this: “When having your photo taken, don’t say cheese; say souffle!
Being September, and all those ratatouille gardens burgeoning with ingredients, I spent the next day making the infamous ratatouille. We had it for dinner Jane Thomson style, with nothing but a hunk of warm bread and a wedge of Gruyere.
Ratatouille from Mastering The Art of French Cooking
1 lb. eggplant
1 teaspoon salt
6-7 tablespoons olive oil, more if necessary
1/2 lb. (about 1 1/2 cups thinly sliced yellow onions
1 pound firm red tomatoes, or 1 1/2 cups pulp
2 (about 1 cup) sliced green bell peppers
2 cloves mashed garlic
salt and pepper to taste
Peel the eggplant and cut into lengthwise slices 3/8 inch thick, about 3 inches long, and 1 inch wide. Scrub the zucchini, slice off the two ends, and cut the zucchini into slices about the same size as the eggplant slices. Place the vegetables in a bowl and toss with the salt. Let stand for 30 minutes. Drain. Dry each slice in a towel.
One layer at a time, saute the eggplant, and then the zucchini in hot olive oil for about a minute on each side to brown very lightly. Remove to a side dish.
In the same skillet, cook the onions and peppers slowly in olive oil for about 10 minutes, or until tender but not browned. Stir in the garlic and season to tastes.
Slice the tomato pulp into 3/8 inch strips. Lay them over the onions and peppers. Season with salt and pepper. Cover the skillet and cook over low heat for 5 minutes, or until tomatoes have begun to render their juice. Uncover, baste the tomatoes with the juices, raise heat and boil off several minutes, until juice has almost entirely evaporated.
Place a third of the tomato mixture in the bottom of the casserole and sprinkle over it 1 tablespoon of parsley. Arrange half of the eggplant and zucchini on top, then half the remaining tomatoes and parsley. Put in the rest of the eggplant and zucchini, and finish with the remaining tomatoes and parsley.
Cover the casserole and simmer over low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover, tip casserole and baste with the rendered juices. Correct seasoning, if necessary. Raise heat slightly and cook uncovered for about 15 minutes more, basting several times, until juices have evaporated leaving a spoonful or two of flavored olive oil. Be careful of your heat; do not let the vegetables scorch in the bottom of the casserole.
Set aside uncovered. Reheat slowly at serving time or serve cold.