Photo: Taste of Home
Hundreds of excited fans wound their way around the bookshelves, blocking the aisles all the way to the back of the bookshop in anticipation of seeing an American icon. Eagerly clutching their copies of Mastering the Art of French Cooking or The French Chef, or her latest book, In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs, the crowd waited patiently inside the Harry W. Schwartz Bookshop in Mequon, Wisconsin for the chance to see and speak to the woman who had inspired them to flip an omelet, roast a chicken or bake their first loaf of bread. It was my job as bookshop manager to keep everyone in line, explaining the rules: Books must be purchased before being signed; only one item will be signed; the line must keep moving. Suddenly, a murmur rose up from the crowd. Then, there she was, framed in the doorway. As Julia Child entered the shop, everyone exploded in a frenzy of clapping the likes of which are normally reserved for rock concerts and political rallies.
The year was 1995. Julia’s once-imposing frame was slightly stooped now with age, but even in her 80s she was a regal figure. Julia was still grieving from the loss of her beloved husband Paul the year before, and there was a hint of sadness in her eyes. Nevertheless, she had agreed to embark on this book tour, traveling with an assistant who carefully guided her to the book-signing table. I shook her hand (and thankfully didn’t faint), welcomed her to the shop and seated her in a comfy wing chair behind the table. She seemed a bit overwhelmed by the number of people, and knew she was in for a long night. But her perennial smile and jolly chuckle were ever present as she picked up a black pen and wrote her name in script in the book of the first star-struck customer in line.
Behind the Scenes with The French Chef
I had hosted celebrities for book signings in the store before, and I can tell you that they didn’t always live up to their billing. Some were cranky, some were aloof, some were clearly wishing they were somewhere else (I won’t mention names), but Julia Child was a gem. For two solid hours, she signed, chatted, signed some more and listened to fans gush about how she was responsible for their love of cooking, how she inspired them to try something new, and how much her recipes, books and television shows meant to them. She took it all in stride, smiling and thanking everyone. But I think even she was taken aback by the man who showed up at the table with her face airbrushed across the front of his white sweatshirt. Plucky as ever, she gamely signed the sweatshirt at his request, which obviously made his year. She was even gracious enough to let a father and his two young daughters come behind the table to take a photo with her (this was way before selfies), something that was usually off limits at these events. And I was fortunate enough to stand next to her and witness it all, sliding book after book along the table. Her patience, grace and class were amazing to behold.
Photo: Taste of Home
As the evening wound down, I couldn’t let her escape without having her sign my own copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1. The only problem is, I’ve rarely used it since because I want to keep it pristine. She would scold me for that, I know. I was just so delighted that this woman who encouraged so many home chefs to try making their own version of beef bourguignon had turned out to be as genuine, down to earth and lovely in person as she was on television. It’s said that cooking brings people together. That times shared around the table are some of the most meaningful, heartfelt moments between family and friends. Perhaps that’s why there was so much love present that night. We all had Julia Child and her passion for good food—and most importantly, her desire to share it—to thank for meaningful moments around our own tables. So thanks for everything, Julia. It was a great night. Bon appetit!