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Happy birthday Julia Child! 

90 years old and still going strong

I'm told to keep trying until I get through. After 26 busy signals, the line finally rings and a polite woman answers the phone. "Um, hi," I say, nervous as a novice cook attempting his first souffle, "I'm calling to talk with Julia?" After I give my name, there's a slight pause while I'm put on speakerphone.
Then I hear it: The Voice. "Helloooo!" chimes Child in her unmistakably plummy falsetto. "Is it hot down there in Atlanta?" Her instantly buoyant tone melts away my uneasiness, and I settle in for a quick chat with America's foremost culinary icon.

Child, who turns 90 Aug. 15, is still sharp as a Henckel. She tells me she will be celebrating the much-feted day at a family reunion in Maine. Before that, however, there are a host of national festivities to mark the occasion.

In an age where there are so many celebrity chefs a la Emeril, Bobby Flay, Yan Can Cook that there's a Food Network, Child was the first celebrity chef.

It's hard to believe that Julia has been in our kitchens and on our television sets for 40 years. Her first and most famous book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, published by Knopf in 1961, started a minor revolution in an American culture held captive by the convenience of canned soups, frozen vegetables and TV dinners.

Her break in television came when she was invited to discuss the book Mastering on a staid interview program called "I've Been Reading." Because she couldn't imagine what she'd talk about for half an hour, she brought to the studio a hot plate, a bowl, a whisk and a couple of eggs. The executives had such positive viewer feedback about "the woman who made the omelet on-air" that they decided to test her for a show.

And an unlikely star was born. Her first series, "The French Chef," ran on education television (as public broadcasting was called back then) 1963-1973. She endeared herself to American viewers with her self-effacing charm, enthusiasm and comic timing. Because film was expensive and the show's budget limited, Child kept going no matter how much went wrong. It's still a hoot to watch those old shows (which air on The Food Network) and see how she covers a botched omelet toss or quells unintentional fireballs created from overzealous flambeing.

Scott Peacock, executive chef at Watershed in Decatur, remembers watching Julia's show as a child in Alabama. She came on after Mr. Rogers, and Peacock recalls being transfixed by her television kitchen, which "was full of exotic equipment -- balloon whisks, copper pots and big knives." Peacock's culinary claim to fame as a 9-year-old was his chocolate mousse, made from the recipe out of Mastering the Art of French Cooking: "My family didn't drink, but we kept one bottle of liquor in the house just for making that mousse."

Child refers to herself primarily as a teacher, and she has undoubtedly inspired a generation of Americans to see cooking not as drudgery or duty, but as a gateway to cultural and sensual delights. She makes the kitchen an accessible, empowering place to be, and her appeal crosses class and gender lines.

At a birthday celebration for Child held at Joel Aug. 1, local cookbook author and food scientist Shirley Corriher told me the following story: "Julia and I were driving to a board meeting for the IACP [International Association of Culinary Professionals]. When we realized we wouldn't have time for a proper meal before the meeting, Julia suggested we stop at a McDonald's. We pulled into the parking lot, and there was construction going on around the building, loud jackhammers and such. As we made our way inside, the jackhammers ceased one by one. The group of construction workers had spotted Julia and was coming over to greet her. One even asked her for advice on how to prepare duck!"

And that, in a nutshell, is what Child has done for American cooking. The birthday gala Aug. 1 was one of 20 such celebratory dinners across the country that night. Though Child attended only the San Francisco celebration, she helped direct the menus, and money raised from the events will benefit the scholarship fund of the IACP (which she co-founded). At Joel, guests sipped a potent, bourbon-based cocktail created by Julia's husband, Paul Child, in the late 1940s. Julia requested that menus for the dinners reflect a traditional French viewpoint, and Chef Joel Antunes responded in kind with courses of silky vichyssoise, trout in gently aromatic sorrel sauce, sublimely tender braised beef in red wine sauce, and a homey peach crumble with almond milk sorbet. At the end of the meal, Joel's 75 guests raised champagne glasses in a toast to "Our Lady of the Ladle," as Time magazine christened her in 1966.

In our conversation, Julia says she hopes to continue inspiring young people to become involved with the culinary profession. "You're surrounded by people who love what they do, and it's a vocation where you're always learning. I'm still learning at 90!" Typical of Child's nonstop nature, she's got her sights on a new project: A memoir of her and her husband Paul's life in the diplomatic service, which will include his professional photographs and some of her collected recipes.

For my final question to Julia, I ask on behalf of Georgia if she has a favorite recipe using peaches. She thinks for a moment and then says, "Oh, well, you know, I love peach tarts and peach pie and things of that sort. But I'd have to say my favorite is to eat a perfectly ripe, juicy peach cut into slices in a bowl and eaten with a spoon."

Bon appetit, y'all.

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