Cooking Dinner for Julia Child

What do you make when one of the country's most famous chefs comes over for a meal?

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In the late 1960s and 1970s I was living in Boston, a young art dealer with a collection of current and historical cookbooks. My friends Dorothy and Norman Zinberg had introduced us to Julia and Paul Child on several occasions, and through my art dealings, I had met and become friendly with John McKendry, then curator of prints and photographs at the Metropolitan Museum, and his wife, Maxime de la Falaise, who was cookbook editor for Vogue magazine. Maxime, who was English, had previously married a French aristocrat, had also lived in France, and was extremely knowledgeable about historical dining and ancient recipes.

Another connection to the Childs was Michael Rice, my good friend and neighbor on Beacon Hill, who was appointed General Manager of WGBH-TV at age 24. It was Michael who planned and arranged for Julia to create the series of TV shows broadcast by WGBH, which would bring her national renown and also change the way America felt and thought about cuisine. Michael also came up with the original ideas for Crockett's Victory Garden and Upstairs, Downstairs and oversaw their production, as well.

Julia walked into the kitchen even before taking off her coat, saying: "Everything smells delicious" and lifting lids off all the pots on the stovetop to sniff the contents.

Paul Child telephoned me one day in Boston, requesting that I help him find an appropriate print or drawing to offer Julia in honor of their 25th wedding anniversary. I asked him for a few days to do some research. I came up with a splendid Daumier lithograph, on white paper, portraying two French chefs in a kitchen holding large knives, gazing down at a small animal on a cutting board. In the caption, the older of the two is explaining to the younger that (roughly translated): " skin an old alley cat, simmer it in a nice rich sauce, and serve it up as rabbit..." Needless to say, Julia was charmed with the gift, and both Paul and I were delighted.

Shortly after that, John McKendry telephoned me from downtown Boston. He explained that he and Maxime had just arrived in town to promote her new book, The Seven Centuries Cookbook: From Richard II to Elizabeth II and, because of several simultaneous large conventions, there were no hotel rooms available anywhere. What could they do?

I told him to bring their bags, stay in our guest room, and that we'd plan a party for the following night. John said they didn't know anyone in Boston, and I replied that surely Maxime had to know Julia Child. It turned out they had never met, so I telephoned Julia and Paul, apologizing for a last-minute invitation, and asked them if they could come the following night to meet Maxime and John. They happened to be free and were pleased to accept.

Then I got off the phone and realized the enormity of what I'd just done. When Eddie came home from work that day, I asked: "Can you guess who's coming to dinner tomorrow?" He looked at me quizzically and said: "I can't ... Who's coming?" When I told him, he sighed, resignedly, with: "You're not kidding, are you?" knowing perfectly well I wasn't kidding. Eddie said: "You know I have to work tomorrow, but I'll help serve and clean up--and what are you going to make?"

I told him I'd been thinking about it and had some pretty good ideas because I knew that Maxime was fond of historical recipes and that Julia preferred classical French cooking. I decided that a combination would be the best thing, and here's the menu I came up with and prepared:

Hors d'oeuvres
Mousse de foies de volailles
(a classic chicken liver mousse from Julia's first book, with Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, given to me in 1966 by Claude Lévy.

First course
Avocado stuffed with fresh Dungeness crab meat, sauce rémoulade
(a nod to my California background)

Boned roasted capon stuffed with lamb and mystical herbs
(I'd seen Julia's TV show where she demonstrated boning a fowl)

(a combination of fresh cooked spinach and peas in an onion cream sauce flavored with almond oil; a recipe included, from an earlier French source, in Giles Rose's A Perfect School of Instructions for Officers of the Mouth, which Charles II's chef immodestly claimed to be "a Work of singular Use for Ladies and Gentlewomen..." which I found in the Horizon Cookbook.)

Fresh local (Boston) lettuce with a mustard vinaigrette

Torta di ricotta
(a light, 17th century cheesecake baked with lemon and orange rind, toasted pinenuts, and dusted with cinnamon sugar; the recipe also from the Horizon Cookbook, originally published by Bartolomeo Stefani in L'Arte di ben cucinare circa 1662.)

Julia and Paul were the first to arrive, and Julia walked into the kitchen even before taking off her coat, saying, "Everything smells delicious," and startling me by lifting lids off all the pots on the stovetop to sniff the contents.

Dinner and the entire evening were completely successful, the company was splendidly congenial, and after dinner we retired to the music room for coffee and cognac. My friend Larry Delorier came over with his flute, and he and I played the Shostakovitch Sonata in D Minor to top off the evening.

A few days later I received in the mail a copy of Maxime's new book with an inscription which made me (and my mother) very proud: "For Angus, one of the best cooks I know."