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.

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Mary Brown Malouf