Mastering the Art of Living

By Susanna Reich

I’ve admired Julia Child for almost as long as I can remember. She was skillful, confident, funny, full of of joy and energy, a passionate cook and a passionate eater. As a kid, I watched her on television and was transfixed. In my twenties, I was given Mastering the Art of French Cooking and its lucid, detailed explanations convinced me that complicated recipes were within my grasp. Years later, I was thrilled to meet Julia when I created the flowers for her 80th birthday party at the Rainbow Room in New York. How I wish she were here now to enjoy the books, articles and accolades bursting forth on the occasion of her 100th!

Julia’s 80th birthday party in NYC was one of many fundraisers held that year to benefit the American Institute of Wine and Food, which she co-founded. I designed centerpieces of red roses, purple orchids, white lilacs and lilies. In the middle of each arrangement stood an 18″ kitchen whisk with a single red rose tucked inside, surrounded by a halo of silver leaves. The AIWF wanted to give Julia a birthday present, so I decorated a gigantic, 40″ whisk (the perfect sceptre for the Queen of Cuisine) with flowers and pearls. When it was handed to her, she slung it over her shoulder with a broad grin.

By the following year, I had written my first children’s book, and my career as a florist was history. I was producing biographies of artists, and for years Julia kept coming up as a possible subject. But fancy French food just didn’t seem like a good fit for the picture book crowd; I needed a way to make the story fun and interesting for young children. Then I found out that Julia was a cat lover.

It turns out that Julia’s first cat, Minette, lived with her and Paul in Paris in the late 1940′s, when Julia was attending the Cordon Bleu. This lucky cat ate Julia Child’s cooking (!), and in return would occasionally bring Julia and Paul a dead mouse or bird. I wondered which food the cat really preferred—Julia’s leftovers or fresh mouse? Voilá! I’d found a way to introduce kids to one of my heroes. The facts were all there; marvelous quotes and details could be found in Julia’s letters and memoir, My Life in France. And who else but Julia, with her innate sense of humor and creativity, could have invented Minette’s favorite cat toy—a Brussels sprout tied to a string?

The research is done now, the book written, illustrated and published. But I still can’t get enough of Julia. I continue to watch old clips from her TV shows, to devour every new book about her, and of course, to crack open Mastering the Art of French Cooking on a regular basis. The more I learn about Julia, the greater my respect. It’s no accident that Mastering took most of a decade to complete. She wouldn’t hesitate to test a recipe fifteen times to get it right.

Julia was a born performer—a ham, even—who knew how to entertain an audience. She thought of herself as a teacher, and knew that people learn best when they’re enjoying themselves. Yet behind her funny banter and earthy manner lay a dedication to the highest standards, an impressive seriousness of purpose, and a generosity of spirit. She had indeed mastered her art—the art of living—and in doing so, became an inspiration not just as a cookbook author and television host, but as a human being.

About Susanna Reich

Susanna Reich is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction books for children and young adults. Her newest, Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and Her Cat, has been called “charming” (The New York Times), “delightful” (The Atlantic), “a delectable banquet” (Shelf Awareness) and “a feast for the senses” (School Library Journal), while Kirkus simply raves, “Magnifique!” Susanna’s other books include José! Born to Dance: The Story of José Limón; Clara Schumann: Piano Virtuoso; and Painting the Wild Frontier: The Art and Adventures of George Catlin. She is Chair of the Children’s and Young Adult Book Committee of PEN American Center and lives in Ossining, NY, with her husband, children’s book author Gary Golio, and their cat, Chloe. Visit Susanna at her website and on Facebook.