For two decades Julia Child has reigned as queen of a culinary cult that began in 1963 when she made her television debut as The French Chef, an honorific she considers misleading. "I'm not French and I'm not a chef," says Julia in her fluty lilt. "A chef is the general of an army. I'm a home cook." When that show ended in 1972, Child concentrated on writing cookbooks and newspaper features and appeared in two brief subsequent television series. "If you're off the boob tube for a few months, you lose recognition," she says. "People forget. They probably say, 'Gosh, she must be dead by now.' "
Child, 71, plans to dispel that gloomy assumption when her 13-week series debuts this week. Underwritten with a grant of about $1 million from Polaroid, it will be slicker and more adventurous than her earlier series, each show featuring a stylishly clad Julia preparing a full dinner with the aid of a guest chef and a wine expert. In another departure, Child will venture from the kitchen to forage. Viewers will glimpse her picking artichokes, trawling for shrimp, milking goats and prowling for mushrooms. "There hasn't been anything like this before," bubbles Julia. "We wanted to celebrate our own country. We are showing off the bounty of America without being beholden to the Europeans."
Though Child first made her mark by adapting classical French cooking to American kitchens, she says she is fed up with pretentious nouvelle cuisine. "One of the troubles with French cooking now is that the French think it's so good, but their standards are way down," she explains. "Meanwhile, food habits have changed enormously in the U.S. Food is being taken seriously. Americans are more critical. This will infuriate the French because they think they know everything." Her own preferences, she adds, are no mystery. "My kind of food is good home cooking with fresh, pure ingredients. If you make a salad with cheap oil and garlic powder or you use 'the other spread' or imitation vanilla, it tastes different. When you cut corners, it's noticeable."
Typically, Child begins each workday with fresh fruit and herb tea. At 8 a.m. she and her husband, Paul, 81, arrive on the set—a sprawling house that once belonged to Fess Parker. The renovated kitchen is adorned with copper pots, garlands of dried peppers and garlic, glass canisters of sugar and flour, Cuisinart knives and Teflon-coated pans. The show's executive chef, Marian Morash, the director's wife and author of The Victory Garden Cookbook, is brewing coffee and soaking chicory for the taping. Julia's designated shopper, Ken Davis, arrives juggling grocery bags crammed with carefully chosen photogenic comestibles. One morning's shopping list: five pounds of mushrooms, two crates of asparagus (no stalk to be wider than Julia's index finger), 24 flawlessly gourd-shaped eggplants, four pounds of turnips, six bunches of watercress, eight baskets of strawberries and six pounds of boiling potatoes.
By 9 a.m. Julia is preparing to crack open a crab, and Russ Morash is setting the mood. "Crisp! Fun!" he cries. "This crab is FUN!" Child couldn't agree more. Hammering at a succession of fresh Dungeness crabs, she nearly bursts into song while rhapsodizing about their plump white flesh. Between takes, an assistant rushes in to mop up her spills, while Julia sneaks a nibble and sips salt-free soda water with a slice of lemon. "Julia does not age," says Russ Morash, who has directed all of her four TV series. "She has more imagination and is up for more feats of daring than any three football players I know." At the beginning of each segment Morash gives Child her first line, but everything else is unscripted, allowing for the unbridled eruptions of Julia. "Don't be afraid of your meat," she burbles. "Leap in! Slash it to pieces!" Such spontaneity, of course, can be risky. During one taping, Julia turns to the camera to introduce the week's vintner, suddenly can't recall the man's name and exits spluttering, "Oh well, I'll be back."
Not everyone believes all this is charming. "Take Julia Child off the air," commanded one dyspeptic viewer some years ago. "She makes a perfect fool of herself. Dear Julia must be on a never-ending bender. No more of her expensive recipes from Mars with a gallon of booze." "Some of our mail is so nutty," says Child, "we just have our secretary write back, 'Thank you sooo much for your letter. You were kind to write and I will bring it to Mrs. Child's attention.' "
In fact, Julia has often been criticized for preparing an abundance of dishes that are too rich for both palate and pocketbook. "This show is not meant to be economical," she explains. "We want it to be inspirational. We want to reach anybody who likes to cook. You may never do a saddle of veal, which costs a lot, but at least you should know what it is." More implacable in their antagonism have been the hardy fanatics Child calls "the bunny people." Once her preparation of a delectable leek-and-rabbit pie prompted a flurry of near-hysterical letters. Irritated, Julia struck back. "I have been cooking animals for 15 years," she wrote in aroused self-defense. "Chirping baby chicks, dear fuzzy lambs, innocent calves, noble lobsters and suckling piglets...and not a word of protest from you. Why all this to-do about RABBITS?"
No bunny man himself, her husband of 38 years finds Julia delicious. "She is a very rounded, fascinating, bright, funny woman," says Paul. The Childs, who have no children, met in Ceylon, where both were in the foreign service. They later lived in France, Norway and Germany. "I thought he was the cat's whiskers," recalls Julia. "He was wonderfully sophisticated, cozy, nice—and we got along." They still do. Despite Julia's rigorous schedule, the Childs are rarely apart. While she performs, Paul, an accomplished artist and photographer, snaps her picture. Driving to a dairy farm to shoot a segment on goats, she squeezes his hand; he takes hers and kisses it. The Childs divide their year among a rambling house in Cambridge, Mass., a pastel condominium in Santa Barbara and a country house in the south of France. "Our philosophy for the healthy life is moderation in all things," says Julia, "but always a variety of things."
Following a full day of filming, Julia, Paul and friend and fellow gastronome Rosemary Manell return to the Childs' apartment for cocktails, the evening news and what is billed as a casual dinner. "Just something simple," says Julia, who then produces a pink roast baby lamb speckled with garlic cloves cooked in their skins, plump braised brussels sprouts and creamy scalloped potatoes, while Paul plucks the cork from a full-bodied Bordeaux. "To be a good cook, you have to enjoy eating," trills Julia. "Besides, it's a much better hobby than solitaire."
It is high noon in Santa Barbara, Calif. and Julia Child, sublime in her size-10½ running shoes, rises like a garrulous oak in the fantasy kitchen that is the setting of her new PBS series, Dinner at Julia's. A canopy of lights hangs above her, rubbery cables snake about the set, a technical crew has her encircled. Spectacles perched at the tip of her nose, Julia peers into a fleshy blob of veal sweetbreads—the thymus glands of calves about 3 months old. Her ticklish dilemma: how to introduce the delicacy to viewers discreetly. "Okay, Julie," asks Emmy-winning producer-director Russell Morash, "how can you describe them and not sound disgusting? Slimy is out. We don't use the word." Unabashed, Child bursts into a perky description of "plump pink innards." CUT! Maybe Julia will describe how sweetbreads taste instead. "Like liver," she says, smacking her lips. "No, like foie gras."