Julia "Who"

It was 4:30 in the afternoon when the phone rang. It was Doris Koplin, Chairperson of the local planning committee and  longtime friend. She got right to the point. “Do you have room for two more for dinner?” I hedged. Hmm...I’d have to re-set some tables, re-portion some food. She continued without missing a beat, “Julia loved your menu and wants to come to your dinner.”

 I knew better than to ask "Julia, Who?”...


Cooking for me means many things. It is all the same process though. I hunt, I gather, I take in what is right in front of me and turn it into something else. If I am in the kitchen, I make soup. If I am inspired by the sunset on a beautiful beach, I might reach for some words in my mental pantry and make a poem. If I am teaching meditation, I listen and watch and feel what my students say, and then perhaps turn it all into a teaching that might help us see that moment with new eyes.

But this story starts with soup- Creole Oyster Bisque to be precise. This is how I make it.

I take 1 pint of oysters, with their liquid, one large onion, coarsely chopped and one pint of heavy cream. I place all ingredients above into a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Bring it to a boil, and then reduce together to ½ volume.  Just before serving, I add some cooked cubed potatoes, more fresh oysters, another pint of oysters, with their liquid, half and half, some Creole spice, salt and pepper to taste.

I simmer together until steaming hot and ladle it into warm soup bowls, garnish with a homemade flat crouton and a fresh oyster on top of that.

Let's put that soup on the back burner for a minute and go back to 1990. I have recently sold the business that I had founded and run for almost a dozen years. Proof of the Pudding in Atlanta had grown from a small home kitchen operation into a multi-million dollar operation that included Atlanta’s first gourmet takeout shop, two restaurants and a large catering business. We fed thousands: brownie and croissant junkies, socialites, corporate clients, celebrities, picnickers and even lawyers. 

But I had simply burned out trying to be superwoman, raising a young family, running a business. Someone needed to keep those home fires burning. The company had done well, but somewhere along the way I stopped cooking.  I spent my time reviewing cash flow reports, marketing plans and management issues. But in spite of knowing I was doing the right thing, I had a nagging sense of having failed at something. Giving up a long nurtured public identity left me feeling at loose ends and deflated. Who was I anyway if I was not the owner of Proof of the Pudding?

So I took on a professional volunteer project.  The International Association of Culinary Professionals was coming to town for their conference and I volunteered to host a dinner for up to 26 self-selected attendees.  I designed a seated dinner menu featuring local southern ingredients.And of course, why not have all those cooking teachers, cookbook authors, magazine writers and shop owners sit in a big kitchen where they all would feel at home. My friends Stan Topol, a well known interior designer and long time business collaborator, and his partner, Brooks Martin had just the thing. I borrowed their beautifully appointed house with its humongous kitchen so I could seat most of the guests in there.

Things seemed to roll along as planned. The country ham and  melon canapés were skewered, the  biscuits ready to bake, Margaret Ann Surber’s Rhubarb Pie and cinnamon ice cream all set, and the bourbon soaked duck breasts were swimming in their marinade, ready to hit the grill.

It was 4:30 in the afternoon when the phone rang. It was Doris Koplin, Chairperson of the local planning committee and  longtime friend. She got right to the point. “Do you have room for two more for dinner?” I hedged. Hmm...I’d have to re-set some tables, re-portion some food. She continued without missing a beat, “Julia loved your menu and wants to come to your dinner”

I knew better than to ask "Julia, Who?”.  Having left my body at this point, I heard myself say “Yes,” and watched as I hung up the phone.

I snapped back in a cold sweat. I was about to be cooking dinner for Julia Child, and there was nothing I could do about it. I finally understood why some people were intimidated to invite me to dinner. But this moment was about more than that. Julia Child had been my hero, teacher and imaginary mentor for nearly 20 years.  Mastering the Art of French Cooking had been one of my first cookbooks. I, like so many others had jumped into her recipes like Ile Flottante and Soufflé au Chocolat and Beouf Bourguignon and our cooking was never the same after that.

So here I was with my crew of volunteer cooking buddies, and feeling a bit like I had abandoned the ship of my career and along comes Julia Child, probably the most successful food personality of our time. Had I really given up too soon? Why was this happening at this moment?

A conference bus parked at the bottom of the steep driveway and a steady stream of guests hiked upward in the evening heat. And there she was, always head and shoulders above the others, in a pair of sensible shoes, stopping to mop her brow as her eighty-something-year-old body pushed up the hill. My husband Buck, Stan and Brooks and I stood at the front door greeting the guests. Buck, always the enthusiast, whispered loudly “She looks like Dan Ackroyd.” I elbowed him and continued holding my frozen,caught-in-the-headlights smile.

Julia greeted each of us with her now familiar high pitched trill. She was exactly the same as she was on TV- relaxed, gracious and down to earth. Next she was on to talking to the resident golden retrievers and then the housekeeper whom she promptly engaged in a long conversation about southern fried chicken.

The evening was off to a good start. Hors d’oeuvres were passed, wine poured and the guests were finally seated. We escorted Julia to the place of honor at the round antique table directly in front of the eight burner stove in the center of the kitchen.

It is now time for that soup. Bowls of were served and passed and the sounds of conversation was reduced to a simmer. I went on to prepare for the next course in a corner of the kitchen…after helping to quell a raging grill fire right outside the kitchen as the bourbon soaked duck fueled the flames.  I was just beginning to breathe again, working my way into the rhythm of the meal, doing what I had always done: cooking, serving, feeding. I was anchored in the alchemy of that sacred moment when what you have cooked makes it way to someone else. It is a moment of both seduction and satisfaction, a holy communion.

And it was at that moment I turned and saw her. There she was, out of her seat and leaning over the stove. Julia had picked up the ladle next to the pot holding the remainders of the soup. She dipped into the pot and I watched her pour some of that soup right into her mouth. She closed her eyes briefly.  And then she did it again.

It was a moment of grace. A ladle full of soup, the distillation of years of cooking, of feeding and even the leaving of the company that I had given life to, all somehow validated.  It became clear: Julia likes cook, to feed and be fed and so do I. There would be many more ways I would find to cook in my life. creole Oyster SoupAnd doing it for money or career or celebrity didn’t really matter to me. In fact those things always seemed to get in the way.

What mattered was doing what I loved….and bringing love to what I was doing. Julia was so dear to all of us and so successful because that was how she had lived her life. Nothing could have been more inspiring or reassuring.  Julia, the Master Chef, just dropped into my life from my personal pantheon of heroes and taught me so much more than how to make a soufflé.

A few weeks later I received a letter from Julia thanking me for the dinner. It hangs in my kitchen.  One line stands out for me. She said,
“I shall never forget your oyster bisque.”

And Julia, I shall never forget watching you eat it.

Comments

  1.  nancy aronie's avatar
    nancy aronie
    | Permalink
    o kay this work is really fine!! i laughed i loved i salivated. the letter from Julia is a piece of art . how come we never had oyster bisque in chilmark?just joshing.
    bucks comment was classic. I am so happy you are getting to combine all your gifts and share them with the world.
    enormous love and awe
    nancy
  2. nancy aronie 's avatar
    nancy aronie
    | Permalink
    o kay this work is really fine!! i laughed i loved i salivated. the letter from Julia is a piece of art . how come we never had oyster bisque in chilmark?just joshing.
    bucks comment was classic. I am so happy you are getting to combine all your gifts and share them with the world.
    enormous love and awe
    nancy
  3. Kay Goldstein's avatar
    Kay Goldstein
    | Permalink
    Thanks Nancy,
    It seems I owe a lot of folks oyster bisque....but I owe you more than that. Your Chilmark writing workshops made all the difference!
    I just added your link!
    xo K

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