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Bread and Circuses

If you think--and we do--that the State Fair of Texas is actually a gastronomic event, then the image of Julia Child meeting Big Tex is irresistible--a star-crossed conjunction as inevitable as that of King Kong and Godzilla; two giant legends linked by food, the clash of the cholesterol titans, the corny dog meets the cordon bleu. Howdy, folks, and bon appetit.

The thought of it may be distasteful to the average food snob, but Julia Child's presence at one of the world's greatest huckstering events isn't all that inappropriate. After all, she, like the funeral vault salesman and the Miller Lite boys, was there to sell and self-promote. And that she did. Julia Child's VIP tour of the great state fair was the centerpiece event in a weeklong Juliafest during which she sold hundreds of copies of her massive new cookbook, Baking with Julia, raised thousands of dollars for her pet organizations, and stumped for her upcoming TV show like a whistlestop politician. During her visit, she downed Mongolian barbecued duck, veal prime rib, creme-bruleed chocolate bundt cake (her own recipe), seared tuna, chili in corn cups, herbed focaccia, Southwest ceviche on tostados, oysters in spoons, mango salsa, foie gras tamales, Texas snails, Dallas goat cheese, and, of course, a corny dog.

Julia's days in Dallas were as full as her plate, and her schedule was a snapshot of the complicated intertwining of the kitchen with Dallas society--a strange, symbiotic system that makes chefs into stars, inspires fundraising with food, and demonstrates the price (in dollars) people will pay to bask in others' celebrity. Julia's visit was a social study in Dallas' desperate need for bread and circuses.

It was already 7:20 p.m., and the invitation had been for 7 sharp, but anyone could tell that the event had not yet begun. The high-heeled, black-clad crowd gathered in the Dallas Museum of Art's elegant new Seventeen-Seventeen restaurant was milling around restlessly. The cocktail chatter had a nervous rhythm, and no one was making eye contact, because everyone kept glancing toward the entrance over the shoulders of their ostensible dinner companions.

Even the usually genial Kent Rathbun (executive chef of dani catering, which operates the Seventeen-Seventeen), who has cooked for such celebrities as the queen of England, former President George Bush, and Kevin Costner, was darting--unsmilingly--in and out of the kitchen. A party for Saddam Hussein or Johnny Rotten would have this kind of tense, festivity-free feeling. We were not having fun yet.

At last, the crowd stiffened, there was a syncopated fanfare of flashbulbs, and the crowd parted to let Julia Child through; surely even the Lady Formerly Known As Princess Diana couldn't be welcomed by a throng as thrilled and respectful. She was trailed by the entourage that would never leave her side during her Dallas visit--her publicist from William Morrow and the producer of her television show and his wife.

And though her face and form are as recognizable as Abe Lincoln's or Big Tex's, it was still a shock to see how Julia has aged. Her image was engraved in most of our minds 30 years ago, and somehow we expect it to remain unaltered, for her to appear in person just as she does in the reruns of The French Chef. But her hair is a paler brown than it used to be, a pretty little faded fluff like an elderly dandelion puff. Her face is carefully made up, and her clothes are chic, but she's shorter than when she had her TV kitchen custom-built to accommodate her 6 feet.

Julia--everyone calls her Julia, with that familiarity bred of television--is 84 now and not in the best of health; no spring chicken, to use culinary vocabulary. But her visit to Dallas was not merely a queenly, glad-handing tour among her fans. Julia is still a working girl, and she would be working hard during this trip, simultaneously fulfilling fundraising obligations for her pet nonprofits and making profits for her publisher.

The party at Seventeen-Seventeen was a fund raiser for KERA billed as "Dinner With Julia," and the plan had been for the guests--who had each eagerly forked over $100--to "mingle" with Julia until dinner was served at 7:30 p.m. But since Julia didn't arrive until nearly 7:45, there wasn't much time for mingling; the obedient guests were shooed off to their rose-decorated tables shortly after her arrival.

Seventeen-Seventeen has three dining rooms; if you were seated in the main one (where the KERA staffers were), you were going to dine while you watched Julia dine at an adjacent table, an arrangement that didn't dawn on many guests until they were seated. Then it became clear that all the guests seated in the other dining rooms (some of whom had come in from out of town for the occasion) were going to watch Julia on TV for the same $100 a pop.  

Sure enough, as the waiters delivered the first plates, everyone hushed and, in the back rooms anyway, looked around for a remote to crank up the sound. The big cheese from KERA was on the little screen, welcoming Julia Child to Dallas. When he asked us to give Julia a big ol' Texas welcome, we idiotically heard ourselves applaud, on TV. And as the drone of thanks began for the event's sponsors, it became clear that the event was designed as a marathon live-action KERA pledge break. Famous celebrity chefs of Dallas presented TV tributes to Julia between courses (but not the two biggest celebrities--Stephan Pyles, chef-owner of Star Canyon, and Dean Fearing, chef at The Mansion on Turtle Creek--who had their own Julia events to produce and weren't adding their luster to someone else's star).

Each chef recounted his--and, notably, there was only one woman--heartwarming tale of Julia's influence on his life and kitchen. The lineup included some of the top toques in town: Marc Cassell, chef at the Green Room; Jack Chaplin, chef-owner of Daddy Jack's; David Holben, chef-owner of The Riviera; Kent Rathbun; Katie Brown, pastry chef at Seventeen-Seventeen; and George Brown, executive chef of Seventeen-Seventeen. They're all very good cooks, but they made very bad television. In fact, they exhibited the real reason why Julia has always been a treasure: She can cook and entertain. Despite the Food Channel, and the entire industry of TV cooking shows that Julia spawned with The French Chef in 1963, most chefs are better off sticking to the pots and pans. Many of the new generation TV cooking shows are dry, dull affairs, like doing the TV extension course of Accounting 201.

In his testimonial, Jack Chaplin recalled Julia the way most of us do; watching The French Chef and eating popcorn, wondering where the onion peels and eggshells went when Julia tossed 'em so casually behind the counter. Jack was the only one who correctly assessed Julia's achievements: breaking into the French food scene as an American woman and communicating her fascination with food to the Middle American kitchen and the (mostly) women who cooked in them.

KERA had been plugging the event for weeks on radio and TV, advertising Julia as a "master chef." But she isn't a "chef" in any way. She's a cooking teacher--a cooking preacher, really--and for more than 40 years, by book and by cooking, she has proselytized the civilized art of eating. Julia started the food revolution in this country; if not for her influence, we would not have been eating, in her honor, that fabulous piece of puce-colored tuna, spread with green pesto, polka-dotted with crunchy yellow lentils, served with couscous, raisins, and black garbanzos--a dish that exhibited the best that American cooking can be.

David Holben, one of Dallas' most talented chefs, came on the monitors to sum up what all the chefs were feeling: "It's like she's your mom and you want to do your best." In terms of food and eating in this country, Julia is everyone's mom. She taught us--at least those who tuned in--how to eat.

Julia came to the podium to receive her obligatory gift, a KERA apron, and knocked over the mike in that endearingly unrehearsed style we all know from years of watching her swing cleavers and drop cakes, a style so familiar that it was parodied by Saturday Night Live's Dan Aykroyd. A TV pro, trained to leave no dead air, she murmured comments of appreciation as she unwrapped her present. Then everyone gave her a standing ovation so that, absurdly, the diners in the back rooms found themselves applauding a screen filled with dark-suited backs.

Of course, Julia owes everything to public TV. If WGBH in Boston hadn't given her a shot at a show all those years ago, we now wouldn't have been sitting there applauding a television set. And that's what Julia said in her familiar, slightly gasping voice: "If it weren't for public TV, I wouldn't have any career at all. Because public TV means you can do what you like"; and, coming back to her priority, "On commercial TV, you couldn't cook tripe or kidneys."

Julia's dizzying five days of book promotion, as grueling a publicity schedule as for the greenest of self-help gurus, included the dinner at Seventeen-Seventeen, appearances on Good Morning Texas, a visit to The Dallas Morning News and one to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, lunch at the Zodiac Room in the downtown Neiman Marcus store, a private dinner hosted by Land O' Lakes at Star Canyon, visits to the state fair and the Dallas Farmer's Market, a public cocktail party, and a chat with Dean Fearing.  

"Well, we're here to work, aren't we?" she said tartly when asked about the heavy schedule. "We're not here for fun." She was originally booked by The Mansion on Turtle Creek as part of its exclusive and ultraexpensive culinary arts series, but Kim Yorio, Julia's publicist at William Morrow, saturated the market with other appearances--inexplicably, Julia even signed books at a culinary store in Coppell--so that in the end, Julia was worked so hard that only one event made its maximum number of dollars.

As always, Julia has her raison de cuire, so to speak. She still approaches her mission as passionately as a preacher and with all the zeal of the recently converted. Her first professional goal was to bring the French technique and appreciation of food into American kitchens--to demystify French cooking. Her present project aims in the same direction, but now she's not merely translating French cuisine into American food, she's transforming restaurant food into home cooking. Professional bakers specialize in yeast breads or pastrymaking, she points out in her book. (She doesn't add that most restaurant chefs don't bake at all.) But the home cook, according to Julia, must do a little of everything.

The Mansion's 1996 schedule of culinary events, an elegant brochure printed on the hotel's signature hue of peachy pink, offers everything from a $125-per-person dinner with Caribbean chef Douglas Rodriguez to a weeklong gastronomic barge trip through the south of France with chef Fearing in the galley for $2,490 per person. When Deborah Orrill, instructor at prestigious La Varenne cooking school in France and chair of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Wine and Food, received her Mansion schedule last spring, she noticed right away that "An Evening with Julia Child" was on the calendar and decided to see if she could book Julia for some AIWF events as long as she was here.

The AIWF was founded by Julia Child and winemakers Robert Mondavi and Richard Graff in 1981 to bring together amateurs and chefs, restaurateurs and connoisseurs, the only "requirement" for membership--beyond the $60 dues--being a passion for food and wine. It is one of the few organizations that Julia will throw her considerable weight behind. But these days she only makes five appearances a year on the AIWF's behalf, and the national AIWF office only approves a visit by her if certain fundraising goals can be met. Orrill was told that Julia could come to Dallas--only if the chapter would promise to raise $25,000 for the national AIWF from a day of appearances. (It came close.)

The Dallas chapter of AIWF was founded in 1984 by wealthy food and wine connoisseur and renowned hostess Nancy Lemmon. It was functionally a fine wine and dining club until Paula Lambert, owner of the Mozzarella Company, became chair. Lambert started presenting lower-priced events with more emphasis on information and education, appealing to a wider audience. That's the group Orrill inherited when she became chair two years ago. The big-bucks social set was generally less active now that the organization was less elite; but now was the time Orrill needed to rally dollars.

Deborah Orrill had lived in Texas long enough that October meant one thing: the state fair. Julia's book about baking seemed the perfect "hook" for setting up an event in the Creative Arts Building, where the jams, cakes, and pies are judged. So Orrill, with a $25,000 goal to meet, set to work bringing about the historic meeting between Big Tex and Big Julie. Orrill had one problem, though. As big as the fair is, she couldn't see a way to make it into a big fund raiser. So she and co-chair Nancy Wilbur approached Neiman's and asked for $15,000 in underwriting, in return for which they would "let" Julia attend an InCircle lunch at the Zodiac Room for a book-signing.

Neiman's countered the proposal, bidding an insulting $7,500 for the woman who taught Americans how to eat. A compromise was reached, and Julia went for $10,000.

Orrill still had to sell the state fair idea to Julia Child. A perfect fit for the book promotion seemed to be the cake competition. But here Orrill ran into another problem: Julia does not do endorsements, so she couldn't actually judge the cakes, because the contest is sponsored by Soft As Silk flour.

Undaunted, Orrill got creative. Julia would taste the six top entries in the chocolate cake contest, announce the best of the show, and sell her books there.

Again, Orrill hit a snag. At first, Barbara Jones, the state fair's director of creative arts and special events, took a by-the-book stance, saying thank you very much, it would be delightful to have Julia at the fair, but the state fair sells its own cookbooks, and on no account would it allow anyone else to sell his cookbooks there. It never had broken that rule in the past, and it was not going to change that policy for anyone.  

Orrill patiently argued the obvious celebrity of Julia Child, promising that this chocolate cake competition would have higher attendance and more press coverage than any cake competition in state fair history. Again, a dollars-and-cents compromise was reached. Julia could sell and sign her books, but for one hour only.

No problem; Yorio had told Orrill that Julia can sign 400 books an hour. That's straight signature, of course--no personalizations, not so much as a "bon appetit." Just "Julia Child" on the flyleaf of Baking with Julia, at $43 apiece plus tax.

The math looked good.
So the morning after the KERA benefit, history was made. Julia embarked on a VIP tour of the great State Fair of Texas before her date at the Best Chocolate Cake competition in the Creative Arts Building. And despite the bargaining that got her there, she seemed to appreciate its lowbrow charm, as she so readily engaged in friendly conversation with every vendor she met that she was late for the cakes.

For their part, Dallasites hung onto every word she uttered about their most beloved and tackiest institution. What Julia thought of the Midway's menu was closer to their hearts than what she thought of Kent Rathbun's veal chops. Julia ate a turkey leg. (She later admitted she was not impressed, though she liked the T-shirt that said "Best Legs in Texas.") She ate a corny dog. ("The oil seemed very fresh.") She ate some "very good" french fries from Jack's.

Finally, to everyone's great relief, she pronounced her opinion. "I love to be in a place where there's plenty of good things to eat," she said, justifying our opinion that the Midway and the rides are mere window dressing for the Belgian waffles and Tornado Taters.

In the Creative Arts Building, the red-checked vinyl tablecloths were lined with cakes as decked out as debutantes--garnished with strawberries, chocolate-dipped banana slices, chocolate-iced toffee, toasted coconut, raspberries, and almond slices laid out in geometric precision; and decorated with marigolds, roses, and purple ribbon.

One Dr. Seusslike creation had a tiny cake on top. There were milk chocolate cakes, dark chocolate, white chocolate, chocolate cheesecake, chocolate pound cake, chocolate layer cake, chocolate cakes a foot tall, chocolate cakes a layer thick.

This wasn't the World Master Chef's Competition. To qualify, all you had to do was show up that morning with your chocolate cake and a proof of purchase from a box of Soft As Silk flour. There are lots of regular entrants in the cooking competitions at the fair; you see the same names year after year in the state fair cookbook. "Best chocolate cake" is one of the simpler categories. There are 19 different classes in the regular cake competition, which had 259 cakes this year; the chocolate cake division had 57 cakes this year, up from 55 last year. Evidently the idea of Julia Child eating your cake didn't inspire many more cooks than did the modest $100 cash reward.

Six panels of judges were charged to come up with a first and second place cake in their flight of cakes, and award up to 40 possible points for taste, 30 for originality, and 15 apiece for texture and appearance. Then Julia, sitting with the judges who chose the winning cake, would taste the top six. The state fair staff members, who all looked like hardcore home ec majors, bustled around in their sequined state flag vests and broad denim skirts. One tense baker was sitting behind us nervously chatting with her two work buddies from U.S. Bankruptcy Court. Nearby sat entrant Patrick Rayes with his wife--her neck still wrapped from her free state fair shiatsu massage.

The judges took tiny bites with their flimsy plastic forks, carefully pacing themselves (pacing is crucial for a food judge; palatal exhaustion is an ever-present peril), studying the recipes, smooshing the chocolate cake around in their mouths and breathing heavily to get the full bouquet, then staring into space while trying to maintain a neutral expression. An hour later, the sequined ladies separated the sheep from the goats, putting the top six cakes on one table, the runners-up on another.

Finally, a half-hour behind schedule, there was an expectant rustle, and the fanny-packed crowd parted and applauded. Bright-eyed, straw-hatted, trailing her publicist and producer behind her, Julia walked slowly to the judges' table. Without a word she accepted her official judge's ribbon and began to eat cake--loose-lipped, concentrating, intent on the plate. When she was served Pat's cake, Pat and his supporters watched as Julia took one bite, two bites...At three, they started clapping. And when Julia reached out to the cake itself to take a piece of the toffee and sank her dentures into it, they broke into cheers. This was no one-bite taste test. Julia had had her turkey leg, and this was dessert.  

Pat came in second. The winner was Garland's Sue Rainey, a state fair cooking competition regular who has taken home 300 ribbons.

Then Barbara Jones shrewdly attempted to close things with another presentation: "Julia, we at the state fair have our own cookbook we'd like to give you..."

Unfortunately, the great lady was still intent on her slice of toffee-topped cake. She couldn't hear anything, anyway, over the ambient fair buzz, the background rumble of subway-quality loudspeakers, and the in-her-ear chatter of the judges and her entourage.

Finally, several false starts and throat-clearings later, Jones gave up, saying, with the mike unfortunately still on, "Well, we'll just keep the little sucker then!"

Julia's publicist suddenly took note, and Julia graciously accepted her homage, commenting that baking seemed to be improving, that more home cooks seemed to be baking with butter. (Land O' Lakes sponsored her new endeavors with 573 pounds of butter used in the seven weeks of filming the baking show's 39 episodes. Clearly, it was a match made in heaven.)

Fair day for Julia was over, then, and it was back to business. A long line of fans who'd plunked down cash for the cookbook waited all around the tasting area, and Julia moved to a table and began to sign...and sign...and sign.

"How is Saddam Hussein like Little Miss Muffet? They both have curds in their way."

A big laugh for the cheese lady, Paula Lambert, who was entertaining the crowd because, yes, Julia was late again. She gets stopped by so many people, her handlers explained, and she likes to talk to the public, but a glass of Gallo can only hold your attention for so long, and the crowd that had gathered at the Farmer's Market Resource Center for her cooking class (following the fair) was getting restless.

The chefs' cooking classes held there every Saturday are the AIWF's favorite project; it brings together the chefs, the food producers, and the public in a wannabe facsimile of New York green markets and West Coast produce malls. Orrill and Wilbur, AIWF chairs, wanted Julia, the grand-mere of all cooking teachers, to teach in their market. She planned to more or less recreate an episode from her new Baking with Julia TV show, in which Julia collaborated with 27 professional bakers.

Michel Richard of the Citrus restaurant in Los Angeles was the pastry chef originally scheduled and advertised, but at the last minute, because of a double-booking error by publicist Yorio, the bread baker at Ecce Panis! was substituted.

Julia arrived at 4 p.m., her usual half-hour late. It had been a long day, but when Craig Kominiak started making focaccia with Julia perched on a nearby stool, the pro in her clicked on. This is what she does. Never forget that Julia's a teacher, and in this situation she was the master teacher.

"Is that bleached or unbleached flour or do we care?" she asked Kominiak. "What kind of oil?" "Don't forget to repeat the questions," she admonished him.

Always an advocate of good equipment, she recommended that anyone who's going to cook a lot lay out $250 for a KitchenAid mixer. Never a snob, she says she had 17 bread machines throbbing in the basement when she did the episode on machine baking. Always the salesperson, when someone asked a complicated question, she advised, "Buy the book." She coached Craig like the pro she is, only beginning to nod a little toward the end of the session, two hours after it had begun. The audience was encouraged to ask Julia lots of questions, presumably to keep her awake. No wonder. She still wasn't done with her long day's work.

There's a developmental stage 2-year-olds reach that's called "parallel play." That is, a group of toddlers all sit together; each is building with blocks, say, but Tommy never reaches out and touches Timmy's blocks. They just build, separately, but together. The moneymaker for AIWF and the only sold-out Julia event all week was the cocktail party Sunday night. It's just so cool to be able to say you were at a cocktail party with Robin Leach, or Vanna White, or Julia Child. You don't have to do anything; the celebrity doesn't have to do anything but show up for parallel play. For 100 bucks, people could say they partied with Julia at Nancy Lemmon's gorgeous home. That's cachet worth any price.  

In honor of the new book, the Light Crust Doughboys played in the atrium. If you peeked through the swinging door into the kitchen you saw Stephan Pyles, chef-owner of Star Canyon, polishing a silver tray, and his partner, Michael Cox, washing vegetables at the sink. No prima donnas here. But Julia, chaperoned by her publicist and producer, granted a few brief audiences to members of the press, then circulated and signed before leaving for dinner at The Mansion and a short night's rest for the next round.

By 10 a.m. on Monday, the ladies were lining up outside Neiman's Zodiac. These were the champion shoppers who have spent enough at Neiman's to win the privilege of lunching with Julia for free. Impeccably suited, quilted Chanel bags slung on their shoulders, the ladies pressed together like it was a last-call sale at Loehmann's, and when the velvet barricade was lowered, in they pushed, elbows ever so slightly out, to snag the places closest to the podium where Julia would speak. Two, maybe three men attended; this was ladies' land, and the talk was all about InCircle points accrued until Julia entered. Then the chatter veered to the riveting observation that Julia's publicist was wearing what appeared to be a white seersucker jacket. In October, my dear. Please. This is Dallas, where "you can never be too overdressed."

After the low-fat lunch plate of pork slices over neotabouli (that, Julia later complained, "didn't even have sauce on it"), Neiman's president, Jerry Sampson, introduced the "legendary" Julia: She was happy to be back in Dallas, which she regards as a good "book and food" town; she diplomatically noted the number of women chefs in the book; made a polite allusion to Helen Corbitt, who ran the Zodiac and the Dallas food scene for years; and concluded with her signature salute, "Bon appetit. Or (who wrote this line for her?) as you might say here, bone appa-tit." And the ladies who lunched lined up for Julia's lightning signature on the books they'd charged on their Neiman's cards. Proof of purchase.

After two long days of media meetings and book-signings, to much applause, Julia and Dean Fearing came out and seated themselves on the little stage in The Mansion's ballroom. Finally, Julia had reached the event that had started the Texas tour ball rolling: Following the example of the "Conversations With a Legend" series presented annually at the Food And Wine Classic in Aspen, Dean and Julia would "host a lively conversation on culinary trends in the '90s and share secrets from their famous kitchens." This, followed by a cocktail reception (read: not dinner) for $145 per person, benefiting, well, The Mansion, turned out to be a tough sell, and members of the media were herded in to fill the room.

Texas Monthly's Skip Hollandsworth presented a carefully crafted roast, comparing Dean's hayseed origins with Julia's sophistication, an insider's introduction to an insider's event. Neither Dean nor Julia is known as a raconteur; if either had had to rely on their wit to blaze a trail to fame, they'd still be walking. They're cooks. Julia is a teacher and a TV pro, but the idea that a conversation alone between her and a chef would be illuminating was ill-conceived. The closest thing to an amusing story was Dean's opener, when he recalled how he "almost killed Julia Child with Tabasco sauce" on the first cooking show they taped together. Julia provided the punch line by saying she'd assumed he'd done it on purpose. Anecdotally, it was downhill from there.

After that, Hollandsworth fielded questions from the audience. Asked about the food she'd eaten, Julia revealed her never-ending French taste for fat by recalling fondly the tamale filled with foie gras she'd been served at Star Canyon. She didn't "quite know what Pacific Rim is," and she dismissed the term "fusion" as something chefs have been doing since the days of Escoffier. "Anything new that came to France, they'd 'fuse' it in," she declared, and she waxed downright chauvinistic about the issue of French vs. American food. "I'm not so enamored of the French as I was," she said flatly. In her opinion, everything American, from wine to groceries, is as good or better than in gastronomy's heartland.

She has backed off from the health platform, saying, "If you don't like the menu a doctor's given you to follow, change doctors"--a remark that drew a huge laugh, but whose essential wisdom was probably lost on the trendy, figure-conscious, surgically enhanced crowd. It was typical that, when talking about favorite kitchen utensils, Dean, the restaurant chef, talked fondly about good knives, while Julia, speaking for the home chef with little time and no domestic help, is always interested in the newest machines. Her book carefully translates professional terms into lay (sheet pans are jelly roll pans) and recommends hardware stores as sources for equipment (small propane torches, for instance, and paintbrushes).  

But then, she also dismisses the whole notion of the star chefs her proselytizing helped to form. Is cooking an art? Can anyone cook? asked an audience member. Or is it a gift? And here Julia echoes those who have come before. Michel Escoffier, great-grandson of the first star chef, Auguste Escoffier, recounts that his ancestor, who had wanted to become a sculptor, was sent to culinary school to learn a useful trade instead of an art. Julia says cooking merely takes practice. It's not a gift at all; it's a craft. Anyone, says Julia, can learn to cook. Whether or not they can pronounce "bon appetit.


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