Passersby, seduced by the aroma of sweet cream and licorice, wander into my yard, noses aquiver, and make a beeline to the golden roses that honor the icon who introduced this country to French cooking. In the same countless ways that Julia Child stood head and shoulders above the crowd, so do her namesake roses, which bloom in glorious vigor outside my kitchen window.
Julia, who was both a friend and mentor to me, personally selected this yellow English-style floribunda rose to bear her name. Shortly after she died, to honor her memory, I ordered two of these shrubs from White Flower Farm. I’d never had much luck with roses; I suppose in part because of my exceedingly good luck with black spot and aphids. So when spring arrived, I was amazed and delighted to see an extravagance of buds that, from a distance, looked very much like pats of farmhouse butter.
By midsummer the stalks, heavy with blossoms of yellow hues from Meyer lemons to Dijon mustard, outpaced the bee balm and dwarfed the fat white clusters of Phlox paniculata ‘David’. The roses cheerfully gave and gave. The last blooms, the color of aged cheddar, clung to their stems until the first hard frost.
How like Julia, I couldn’t help thinking. Often the tallest person in the room, she was a woman of unstinting generosity who lived life with unabashed gusto, the one instantly and irrevocably associated with good things to eat.
Like many young brides of the ’60s I taught myself to cook from Mastering The Art of French Cooking and fine-tuned my skills by watching TheFrench Chef on public television. I earned my “graduate degree” by spending time in the kitchen, in the studio, and at the table with Julia Child. And it was through Julia that my path led from kitchen to garden.
The connection began when her original French Chef series producer, Ruth Lockwood, hired me to cater a small dinner party. If she had told me ahead of time that the special guests for whom I would be cooking were Julia and Paul Child, my stress level would have surely trumped any culinary confidence I had acquired up until then. The dinner, to my relief, was a great success, with the hostess and her guests generously overlooking any missteps. In fact, Julia took a great interest in knowing all about me and how I had come to cooking. Over time, I joined the legion of Julia’s many fledglings, visiting the famous Cambridge, Massachusetts, kitchen, absorbing and relishing every morsel of “the world according to JC.”
The following three decades were punctuated by special times, from the dinners at her house to the occasional opportunity to cook for her. One such evening in the mid-1970s found us on my deck before dinner, enjoying the summer air. Always an appreciative guest, Julia complimented me on the marinated Nicoise olives I had served. Then she promptly pitched a handful of pits into the yard.
“There,” she proclaimed in that famously wobbly voice. “Someday you’ll have an olive tree all your own.” Back then I didn’t know a Zone 9 (where Julia grew up) from an end zone, and, since I did believe that Julia was omnipotent, I checked for several months afterward to see if anything had sprouted.
Even though my mother was a truly talented cook, I grew up in the era when greens came from cans or the freezer, and spices were measured from glass bottles. While neighbors might have had backyard gardens, we had a lush, uninterrupted expanse of lawn. Learning to cook in my adult years meant more than good meals for appreciative family and friends. Everything was new and exciting, from learning that there was such a thing as fresh tarragon to tasting my first raw oyster. Cooking unleashed a creative side that combined all the things I loved to do, including getting my hands dirty and shopping for exotic ingredients.
Julia became my inspiration and guide to making food from real ingredients, to connecting the dots from source to table. She taught me (along with a generation of hungry viewers) how to select a ripe cantaloupe, refresh wilted basil, clean the grit out of spinach, and julienne to a fare-thee-well.
Still, my source for all these ingredients was the market, or the farmstand. My epiphany didn’t arrive until our family accepted an invitation to visit Julia’s house in Provence. We ate roasted lamb grilled over sprigs of thyme and rosemary gathered from the yard. Our sons picked the lavender that flavored the crème brûlée. As soon as I got home, I planted my first garden. It was small and mostly herbs, but as my confidence grew, so grew the garden. Roses were my last frontier and, just as in the kitchen, Julia lit the way. Like the copper pots hanging above my sink, her namesake roses are a shining reminder of the way she illuminated my life. If they could talk, I know they would wish us all “Bon Apppétit!”
Web Exclusive: Marinated Niciose Olives
You can use almost any kind of firm olive here, but the tiny oval Niciose olives lend a distinctive air of Provence to this simple recipe.
2 cloves garlic, peeled
1/2 teaspoon mustard seed
1 teaspoon whole black peppercorns
1 teaspoon capers, drained
1 bay leaf
1 pound (16 ounces) Nicoise olives, drained
2 springs fresh rosemary
2 sprigs fresh thyme
1/2 cup extra virgin olive oil
1/3 cup Balsamic vinegar
Select a jar with a non-corrosive lid. Place the garlic on a work surface and use the side of a heavy knife the crush the cloves. Lay the garlic, mustard seed, peppercorns, capers and bay leaf in a double layer of cheesecloth, pull up the edges to form a small package and tie it closed with a length of kitchen string. Add this bouquet garni to the jar. Add the olives, and then insert the rosemary and thyme sprigs. Add the olive oil and vinegar. Cover the jar tightly and shake gently several times to combine. Refrigerate for at least 3 days, shaking or tuning the jar over and back once a day.
To serve, transfer the olives to a serving bowl. Discard the bouquet garni and herbs, but retain the oil for repacking any left over olives, or to use in making a salad dressing.
Yield: 1 1/2 cups