It was early days in the “Baking With Julia” project. Julia was the beloved cookbook author and television pioneer Julia Child, and the project was a television series and cookbook. Writing the book was my job, and I was headed to Julia’s house in Cambridge, Mass., to sort out recipes and chapters. I walked in through the side door — in the months I worked at her home, I don’t think anyone ever came through the front entrance — and up the steps to the kitchen. I’d been inside a few times, but walking into the big, cheery room and knowing that I’d soon see Julia was still a happy moment for me. A couple of the walls were covered in pegboard with hooks and outlines of the pots and pans Julia hung on them. The cupboards were pale green, the color of the milky glass dishes my grandmother used. The counters were topped with well-worn butcher block. And the stove was her treasured Garland, which she bought in 1956 and said she would take to her grave. (It’s in the Smithsonian now.) It was black and rough and had six burners, and on the day I’m thinking of, half of them were fired up and tended by Stephanie Hersh, Julia’s assistant from 1989 until 2004, when Julia died.
That day, now 25 years ago, Stephanie looked as though she were coaching a track team — she had a notepad, a pencil and three timers ticking away; all she was missing was a whistle around her neck. Three pots of boiling water were burbling on the stove, and Stephanie was making batches of hard-boiled eggs in a quest to see which variables, time being one of them, produced perfection. Exercises like this were commonplace in Julia’s house.
We were working around the kitchen table when Julia declared, “Dorie, let’s make lunch.” I saw Stephanie smile — clearly, she knew what was coming — and then I was at the counter with Julia, doing as I was told, which was cutting celery. While it might not seem like much of a job, I was cutting celery for Julia Child, and I was going to do it right: I trimmed the celery, I peeled it (because I learned to do that in Paris, I thought it was important to do it for the woman who wrote “Mastering the Art of French Cooking”) and I cut the celery into minuscule cubes that were all the same size. I’m only exaggerating a smidge when I say it took me so long that when I put down my knife, Julia had finished everything else, and we were ready to sit down to one of her favorite lunches: tuna salad on an English muffin.
A few weeks ago, when I talked to Stephanie, who has since moved to New Zealand and become a culinary instructor for Oceania Cruise Lines, we had a good giggle over the sandwich. Tuna-salad sandwiches were, indeed, among Julia’s favorites, but it turns out that she served them to guests for reasons that went beyond her liking them. For decades, Julia would be on the road almost as much as she was at home, and on tour, everyone wanted to show her their best — and often their richest and most complicated — dishes. The woman who famously said, “If you don’t have butter, use cream,” loved good food and was always touched that someone wanted to cook for her, but when she got home, she craved simple food and seized what opportunities she had to enjoy it. Although she knew that visitors often expected something posh, even she, a gracious and energetic host, wasn’t likely to make a fancy lunch, so she cleverly turned the tuna sandwich into her midday signature. As Stephanie said, “It set just the relaxed tone she liked.”