Tuesday, September 1, 2009

Backstage with Julia by Nancy Verde Barr – a delightful behind the scenes look at life with Julia


Photo from Julia Child & Company Cookbook

Backstage with Julia, My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr is a lovely memoir of Barr’s years as Julia’s assistant. Barr worked for Julia for eighteen years on her TV shoes, cookbooks and articles, serving as executive chef for Julia’s live demonstrations and monthly features in Parade magazine and they became great friends. For foodies, this must have been a dream job. Her book is a delightful behind the scenes look at life with Julia and a “must read” for Julia fans such as myself.


Barr tells charming stories such as what it was like to go to dinner at the Childs. To Julia, “come for dinner” meant “we’ll cook dinner together first, then we’ll eat,” says Barr. Julia had a very casual manner of having guests cook with her, including the likes of Jacques Pepin or John Kenneth Galbraith, President Kennedy’s ambassador to India. They were all just cooks in the kitchen. With or without company, Julia’s meals were unpretentious. Unless someone brought an appetizer or the ingredients to make one, the only hors d’oeuvres were Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. Often dessert would be store-bought vanilla ice cream with very good bourbon drizzled on top.

The Childs preferred to eat in the kitchen unless there was a sizeable guest list and then dinner was served around their dining room table, which could seat twenty. Barr says Julia’s kitchen table was in the center of the room and permanently clothed in colorful Marimekko-style padded vinyl tablecloths. Can’t you just hear Julia saying to Barr, “We can just wipe them down. Whoosh!” as she made a quick wiping motion with her arm.


When Julia moved to California from Massachusetts in 2001, she donated her kitchen to the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History and the exhibit is called “Bon Appétit.” Her husband Paul designed it for her in 1961 and for seven years the kitchen was the set for her television series. Millions, including myself, watched the shows. With her distinctive voice, I can remember her telling us to “shoot the wad” when buying the best ingredients and to “go whole hog” in fearlessly cooking them.


Photo from Julia Child & Company Cookbook

Julia didn’t like “crunchly undercooked vegetables,” as she called them. She told Barr, “I like my vegetables raw or cooked, but that in-between ridiculousness is inedible and I won’t eat them.” Way to go Julia – I totally agree.

Over the years Barr and Julia became friends. She simply adored Julia, but who didn’t? Julia had incredible energy and did not allow herself or others around her to use the T-word (tired) and it visibly annoyed her if anyone did. According to Barr, late one night after Julia had had an incredibly long day a woman approached her and said, “Oh, Mrs. Child. You did so much today. You must be exhausted.” The pathetic whine in the woman’s voice sent Julia into a stern, defensive stance. “I don’t exhaust,” Julia brusquely snapped back as she quickly turned away from the startled woman and lead Barr and her colleagues back to the hotel for a nightcap.

Barr says Julia’s total lack of pretention and nonchalance about her fame – how unaware she was of her own celebrity - surprised some journalist, many of which she invited over for lunch at her house. She says she can’t help but smile when she reads the account of how they expected to be served a gourmet lunch and instead got a tuna fish sandwich – albeit a very, very good tuna fish sandwich.

There are many more delightful anecdotes including how enamored Julia was with Charlie Gibson (currently the host of ABC's World News with Charles Gibson) and the magic that occurred between them on stage when she did her live spots on Good Morning American. Charlie once told Julia’s husband Paul, “I hope you don’t mind, but I’m in love with your wife.” “Not at all,” Paul said, “I’m in love with her myself.”


If you were in love with Julia and enjoyed the movie Julie and Julia, I guarantee you will love this wonderful book. I learned to cook from Julia and mastered my knife skills from the black and white drawings in her Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I wrote about a while back. As Julia would say, “Bon Appétit.”

38 comments:

  1. Hi Sam,
    I so enjoyed reading about Julia Child in your post.
    She was not very well known in the UK when I was learning to cook.
    I guess the nearest we had/have was/is Delia Smith. She taught me everything I know about cooking (and continues to do so).
    Thanks for taking the time to visit Normandy this week, please call around anytime.
    a bientot
    Maggie @ Normandy Life

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  2. Here in Belgium, I haven't heard about Julia Child before!

    Now, by reading various foodblogs, I am learning about her!
    So, thank you!

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  3. Lovely review, Sam!! Another one to add to my list! I love Paul's reply...I totally fell in love with his character (hence, him???) in the movie! Off to see if my library has this in :D

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  4. I'm not familiar with Julia C. Good to learn about her :)

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  5. great review but of course your a writer oh I must watch the movie will be DVD for me so Jasmine can watch as well he he he

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  6. What a wonderful way to honor Julia's memory. This was a wonderful post, Sam.

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  7. Terrific Post, Sam! I am fascinated by Ms. Child. I'm wondering how many people might not know about all the other things she did in her life before she began her wonderful career in cooking, including her career in the OSS.

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  8. I have such fond memories of watching her and others on PBS growing up when my siblings would have a fit...great review and I will have to check this out!

    I did a wine and dinner party for 18 on Saturday, and someone said "Oh I bet you are exhausted", and I replied, "Passion is an energizer"; then it was time for my glass of wine...

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  9. You love comes shining through in this review! I can't imagine the book could be any better than this write up. But I'll let you know 'cuz I will be reading the book. Thanks, GREG

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  10. To have been even an aquaintance of Julias and invited to be seated at her table for lunch, dinner or otherwise would have been an honour.Thsi book does sound like a must read.

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  11. For those of who are already cooking with Julia's recipes--or looking to start--take a look at this project from the National Museum of American History (home of Julia's kitchen).

    Over the next few months museum staff (including myself) will be following Julia’s detailed instructions and reminding ourselves of her masterful teaching style and her enthusiasm for the tools and techniques of cooking. True to Julia's philosophy, we'll be sharing our cooking experiences. Along the way we will feature specific tools and gadgets in Julia's home kitchen, which has been on view at the museum since 2002.

    We want you to follow Julia’s recipes with us and share your stories and photos. We want to know the where, what, when, why and how—of serving, eating, and enjoying too.

    You can share your text, photos, and video at the following site and join others in this celebration of Julia Child's life, work, and contributions to American culinary history.

    http://juliachildrecipes.tumblr.com/

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  12. I cannot wait to see this movie!!!

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  13. Great post Sam! She set the bar for so many of today's cooking celebs and us little people that blog. I think her unpretentciousness endeared her to us all.

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  14. Very interesting...since I did not grow up here, the information that you share was very nice :-)

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  15. great review, sounds like an interesting read! We just recently visited Julia Child exhibit at Smithsonian, fascinating.

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  16. What a wonderful post, Sam. I loved the movie and want to know more about Julia's life. I remember watching her shows on TV and being captivated by her enthusiasm and skills.

    Thank you so much for stopping by Wives with Knives. I hope you will come back again soon. -Cathy

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  17. Great review! I'm adding this to my list.

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  18. This has been on my list to purchase. I will definitely be ordering it tomorrow! Thanks for following my blog. I really do enjoy both of yours.

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  19. With the film's release, I've read many stories and anecdotes from people who knew Julia Child. Each and everyone of them confirmed how unpretentious she was. I've developed such a deep admiration for a woman who unapologetically loved, above all, good food - regardless of technique or ingredient, high or low. Thank you for this review - I look forward to reading this, after I read 'My Life in France' (and watch the film!). 8-)

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  20. Loved the movie Sam! Nice post, and I'm impressed that you mastered your knife skills!

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  21. What a nice overview of the book - I am going to look for it. It's clear from the movie and memoirs what a wonderful person Julia was. She really personified what cooking is supposed to be about! In fact, I may have my guests pitch in next time ...

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  22. Great review, Sam. What a woman. I learned to enjoy cooking by watching her shows on tv. She was a natural spirit lifter. The movie was well done and full of laughs as well. I think she would have approved.

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  23. What a wonderful post! I am definitely going to have to pick up a copy of that book now - it sounds delightful. Thanks very much for sharing.

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  24. I will add this book to my collection of books about Julia. Thanks for posting about it. Julia was one of a kind! I think you and I both cut our teeth on her cooking.

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  25. Sam,
    What a wonderful posting on Julia Child. I enjoy reading your postings very much. I always love to watch Julia Child and her cooking when she appears on TV. Have your seen the movie about "Julia"? Thanks for visiting my blog.

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  26. Wonderful post,Sam, and I now feel so much better about myself because I relate totally to Julia. Didn't see the movie, waiting for DVD, never read her cookbooks and never saw her on TV (where was I?), but she is my kind of lady and I so wish I had seen and/or known her when I was younger. Although I don't own many cookbooks, I may give myself a Christmas present this year and buy one or more of hers.

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  27. I've never heard of that book before. Thanks for sharing. I enjoyed the movie and my two kids also.

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  28. I love a great foodie book! It's on my list to read. I just saw the movie Julie and Julia. I thought Meryl Streep did a great job portraying Julia.

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  29. I learned quite a lot in your post. Thank you!

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  30. Sam, I must add this to my collection of 'Julia' books...Have a very happy weekend, xv.

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  31. Your post about Julia has piqued my interest about the movie and book. Thanks!

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  32. I just reserved the book at our local library. Thanks so much for bringing it to my attention.

    Loved the movie Julie & Julia, wish I was old enough to have enjoyed her show!

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  33. Bonjour Sam,
    It is a pleasure to scroll down your blog. I never learned about Julia Child but seems she was an interesting soul.
    Have a nice weekend.

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  34. This made me smile! I want to run to the bookstore and look for this one today!

    I was also thinking that tablecloth was a pretty smart idea!

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  35. What a sweet review. As I finish up (again) MY LIFE IN FRANCE - I know I will look for this book. What a remarkable woman. There's that thing she always - that - always being true to herself. Thanks for the push to get the book!

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  36. I have heard of this book but I love your review. You make it sound so fun! Another must-read! Thanks, Sam.

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  37. Sam, I enjoyed reading your thoughts about Julia Child. I remember buying her cooking with company books. Her Steak Diane is to die for and has become one of our family favorites....and easy too! ~ Roz

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Sam