Julia Child figured out about five seconds into our conversation that it would be an unhappy exercise in futility to try to talk about cooking. So we didn't. This was a very big relief for us both. She was spared my recipe for Twinkies Flambe. And I was spared the humiliation of trying to act as though I would voluntarily eat the pancreas of a calf.
Her voice, in case you are wondering, sounds exactly as it does on television, a cultured yodel. Flawlessly groomed, she has lovely blue eyes, undimmed by her 86 years. When she went to her 60th class reunion at Smith College, she had a terrible time.
"Everybody was old and let their hair go gray and didn't wear any makeup. I hated it. I'm never going back to another one."
She may cook like the French, but she is a genuine American treasure. Unself-conscious, curious, intellectually quick. We were seated together Saturday night when she was honored guest at the Mercantile Library's 12th Annual Niehoff Lecture. She was curious about our politics, our commerce, our attitudes. She asked me what the climate is like here for women.
Let them eat margarine
That reminded me that in 1990, she came to Cincinnati to raise money for Planned Parenthood after its original building was bombed. Barbara Rinto, executive director at the time, says Ms. Child was "unblinking in her support."
While here, she visited the controversial Mapplethorpe exhibit at the Contemporary Art Center, making her way into the building through a group of protesters who so annoyed her that she reserved for them her ultimate curse. She wished them a life filled with margarine.
She has a continuing feud with what she calls the "nutrition police" and once said, "Anything that says 'healthy' I stay away from. Giving up butter, for instance, means that in about two years, you will be covered in dandruff."
Not wishing to be covered in dandruff and also wishing to please her, I slathered butter on everything that came my way during the elegant dinner at the Mercantile. Her advice is to simply eat less of better stuff.
"I think parents should be teaching their children self-discipline," she once said. "Don't take big pieces of cake. Exercise. It is really horrible to look at these great big bubble butts. I think: How are you going to get rid of that now?"
"Julia is never trying to be funny," says John Van Kirk, a wine expert who also dined at our table. "She is just being herself."
The tyranny of meatloaf
Herself is the distinctive voice that taught America to cook. As Mercantile Director Albert Pyle says, she is "the woman who rescued her homeland from the tyranny of meatloaf and molded salads."
Maybe you spent time with her in front of a black-and-white television in the 1960s when she was starting her PBS series, The French Chef. Or maybe you conquered your fear of souffles with her cookbooks.
Maybe you saw her on Letterman's show, where she was not only more likable than Dave but considerably funnier. Maybe you remember the wickedly hilarious impersonation by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. Someone asked her whether she had given Mr. Aykroyd acting lessons.
Without hesitation, she leaned forward and did a perfect imitation of Dan Aykroyd imitating Julia Child.
Under the relentless eye of the television camera for more than 35 years, she has been revealed to us as an extraordinary and substantial woman. One of a kind. A gifted teacher. A Technicolor personality.
The food, if I may say so, is incidental.
Laura Pulfer's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at email@example.com, call 768-8393, or fax 768-8340. She can be heard Mondays on WVXU-FM (91.7) and on National Public Radio's Morning Edition. Her new book, I Beg to Differ, is available at (800) 852-9332.