This is an updated blog entry from 2011 but as today is Julia Child’s Birthday, I’d like to share it with you once again. (Aug 15, 2014)
I am so lucky at this time of my life to be able to travel teaching pie workshops. When I am teaching on the South and Central California coast, I base myself out of my beloved hometown of Santa Barbara. It really feels like going home.
For many years, home-life and work-life kept me so busy on the Olympic Peninsula and later in Seattle that I had little time to travel much of anywhere. In May of 2001, I took a few days and went home after many years. There was a two-fold reason for going. One was to revisit my history. And the other? I was going to meet Julia Child.
I was married at the time and my husband had been a friend of hers. I thought it would be fun to bring him to my hometown to see where I had grown up and as a surprise to have lunch with, his friend, Julia. After making arrangements with Stephanie Hersch, Julia’s assistant, the appointed day and hour arrived. Julia had recently moved to Casa Dorinda, which when I was growing up was known as the Bliss Estate. As I recall, she opened the door and said “Welcome, dears. Come see my new digs!” A little tour and then we left for lunch.
Julia suggested that we have lunch at an informal spot out on Stearns Wharf called Moby Dick. She had no idea just how much history I had with her choice. I’ve got a very long Santa Barbara history and what I found out was that so did Julia. She seemed genuinely interested that I knew some little known Santa Barbara history that she didn’t and vice versa. Moby Dick used to be the coffee hangout for the local fishermen long before it became a tourist attraction and before the wharf burned down not once but twice; once in 1973 and again in 1998.
The lease for Stearns Wharf was held by my god-father, George V. Castagnola who also owned a number of restuarants in Santa Barbara including Moby Dick and The Harbor on the wharf. “Uncle Georgie” gave me my first job at The Lobster House waiting tables on the lunch shift when I was 16. Moby Dick was a place where I spent countless hours drinking coffee, sharing big ideas, deep thoughts and feelings with friends as we watched brown pelicans dive into the water in search of tasty tidbits. Over the course of lunch, Julia and I shared stories of our memories of the town. Many places we listed off as mutually important to us, Butterfly Beach being one of them. During her childhood, she came to that beach from Pasadena with her family each summer to stay in the family beach house. It remained one of her favorite places to visit and one of mine, too. There is no better place to watch the sun set over the water and the Channel Islands in the west.
We chatted. We laughed. We lunched. She spread incredible amounts of butter on her oyster crackers! And, then she asked if she might be driven to some of her favorite places “one last time”. Absolutely!
At the age of 89 in 2001, she was stooped over quite a bit and using a walker. I remember her looking at us as we walked out of Moby Dick and saying, “Getting old is hell.” We brought the car around, helped her into the front seat, tucked the walker in the trunk, and off we went.
There were two spots that we spent the most time. The first was the Morton Bay Fig Tree just near the train station, a few blocks from the beach and up from the wharf. We took the time to get out and read the plaque that is placed under it’s branches. Legend has it that a sailor gave the seed to a Spanish girl that he loved and…well, it must have been some love because it is still growing and providing shade hundreds of years later. It is the largest tree of it’s kind in North America.
The second was Montecito Shores, part of the old Hammond Estate if you know Santa Barbara history. This was the last place that Julia had lived with Paul, her beloved husband, before his death in 1994. The guard at the gatehouse recognized Julia immediately and she him. After some pleasantries, the gate was opened and we drove in, Julia navigating us through the winding lanes to a spot where we could best view her West Coast home. She said they had spent a lot of money to live here but were “very happy” being so close to the sea so it was worth it.
When we left, we drove back to her “digs” and helped her inside. An invitation to join her on her little patio followed and we sat and chatted some more. I felt so honored to be sitting with her in her home none the less!
As the afternoon was passing by quickly now, she took my hands and said, “Please, YOU come back to see me, dear.” I assured her that indeed I would. We said our farewells and after hugs and kisses, off we went. Every month that would go by, I would feel her words tugging at me and trying to figure out a way to return to Santa Barbara to see her…to see home.
In August of 2004, I was at home in Port Angeles coincidentally with a friend of Julia’s, Toni Allegra, who had come to visit her son who lived in the little town on the north coast where I raised my family. He, too, was raising his family here. As Toni and I were picking up a salmon for that night’s dinner from a local fish wholesaler, the woman at the desk said, “Did you hear that Julia Child passed away?”
We were both speechless. Toni and her children had been very dear friends of Julia’s in Cambridge and although I had only met the grand dame of French cooking in America on one occasion, I felt I had shared some precious moments with her.
“When?”, was all we could manage to get out of our mouths in unison.
“I just heard it on the news”, was the reply.The radio was playing in the background and we stopped and listened to see if we too would hear those words.
We got our fish and headed the few blocks up the hill to my little cottage in somewhat stunned silence. No words would come close to relaying what we were feeling at that moment.
As the afternoon went on, we prepared the meal for the evening. Toni helped me make my first lattice crust on top of a my pie. We poached the salmon, gathered greens from the garden for a salad, and chilled the wine. With Toni’s help, we managed to get my dinning table out to the little deck off the back of my house that looks up to Hurricane Ridge. With the table set we added one more place for Julia. We all felt her with us as the sun went down. And, so we gathered with family and friends on that last evening of her life, August 13, 2004, and toasted Julia’s life, her love, her passion and the legacy that she left to us all.
I only met her this once time and I am grateful for that opportunity. It grieves me still that I didn’t return, but each time I go, I know that a part of her heart, just like mine, remains in our beloved city by the sea.