- The Washington Times - Wednesday, August 21, 2002

Food doyenne Julia Child's comfort food of choice is a baked potato "with lots of butter," she said Monday, just before untying a pair of apron strings to officially open the exhibit "Bon Appetit! Julia Child's Kitchen at the Smithsonian."
So the last thing the renowned chef and writer prepared in her Santa Barbara, Calif., apartment before embarking on a three-week bicoastal celebration of her 90th birthday was a potato baked in a microwave oven pricked in 12 places so the steam could escape, she noted in an interview amid the photo and print crowds that followed her everywhere in Washington in recent days.
The choice doesn't surprise the millions of fans who have followed her culinary career since she took up cooking seriously at age 50. She is almost as well-known for her common sense and sense of humor on television "I'm a ham," she said with a chuckle as for her astute and legible rendering of recipes learned from firsthand reporting and experience during married years in France.
She began her training almost by accident when her late husband, Paul, was posted in Paris shortly after their marriage. She had worked previously as a clerk in Washington and elsewhere with the Office of Strategic Services, forerunner of the CIA.
Mrs. Child's actual birthday on Aug. 15 had been celebrated with equal fervor in California, where she moved last year from her home in Cambridge, Mass., to live in a retirement community in her native state.
The decision made possible the donation to the National Museum of American History of her famous 14-by-20-foot kitchen with nearly all its contents. There for decades she made television history illustrating vividly in plain talk how Americans could, and should, learn not-so-secret ways of preparing dishes in the French fashion.
Her signature salutation "Bon appetit" delivered in her distinctive, hearty voice, was a beacon in the wilderness for audiences who tuned into the educational television program "The French Chef," which debuted in 1963. Those words, and her lifelong slogan, "Above all, have a good time," are imprinted prominently on the exhibit walls.
The show and her 1961 book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" (with a second volume in 1970) changed forever the way Americans looked at food. It was, in a way, the beginning of a revolution that culminated in today's regard for cultivating and eating fresh ingredients. Just as impressive, too, was her attitude being serious about food but not too serious about herself.
"She taught Americans everything about cooking," said French-born White House pastry chef Roland Mesnier at a reception Sunday evening at the museum, where he joined throngs to pay their respects in person to a national icon.
Frail from three back operations in recent months, Mrs. Child "received" guests while seated in front of a piano played by the musician who accompanied her on all her television shows.
"Without her, we would be 50 years behind. She is a true heroine to me and other chefs today," Mr. Mesnier said, noting proudly that he is an American as well as a French citizen.
The secret of her long life, he suggested, is that "she is truly at peace with herself." Today's TV chefs, by contrast, he added, "are about excitement" rather than education.
Queried at the exhibit's opening on how she managed to stay so slim throughout the years, she shot back quickly that butter and cream are not necessarily bad. Eat small, eat well and don't snack is the mantra she repeated at every opportunity. "I don't eat so much butter and cream," she said. "I eat just enough."
Naturally, a microwave oven isn't to be seen in the museum no such convenience existed when Mrs. Child and her husband moved into their Cambridge home in 1961 but among the 1,200 artifacts in the reassembled kitchen is a six-burner Garland stove they bought in Washington for $429 in 1956. Her copper pots had been donated earlier to Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts in Napa, Calif.
Celebrations locally began Aug. 1 with a dinner, minus Mrs. Child, at Poste restaurant and concluded last evening at the Four Seasons Hotel with others of her favorite comfort foods cheeseburgers, french fries, Caesar salad, and hot-fudge sundaes prepared by chef Patrick O'Connell of the Inn at Little Washington.
The latter was part of a three-day fund-raising fete organized largely under sponsorship of the local chapter of the American Institute of Wine & Food, which she co-founded with vintner Robert Mondavi. (Benefit money goes to the AIWF Food & Wine History Fund, some of which went toward museum exhibit expenses.)
She also squeezed in a book signing and, earlier Sunday, a tour of the Dupont Circle farmers market and a tasting of heirloom melons, followed by a "nuevo Latino" branch prepared by chef Greggory Hill at Gabriel.
Mr. Hill, who was among 24 area chefs preparing tantalizing appetizers for the museum's evening buffet reception, remembers learning to cook at the feet of a grandmother who was watching "The French Chef."
Formal proclamations of praise and salutation were issued on the occasion by Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman as well as District Mayor Anthony A. Williams. An 8-pound white-chocolate ribbon cake decorated with orchids made an appearance, as well.
Monday evening, chef Ris Lacoste of Georgetown's 1789 Restaurant hosted a sumptuous five-course $250 meal for 100 guests that included eight California wines. During the meal, the game lady managed to eat a separate course with enthusiastic fans in each of the dining rooms.
"She taught me about food. Even more, she taught me about how to treat people," said the owner of a Phoenix cooking school who flew in for the three-day celebratory blitz.

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