Julia Child, before she became an icon of cooking, cuisine and culture, was a housewife who had trouble boiling water. But by the force of a determined yet optimistic personality, Child created a recipe for decades-long success in the culinary, literary and broadcasting worlds.
The late bloomer followed her passion for food into the kitchen of the famous male-dominated French culinary school, Cordon Bleu, in post-war France, and into the hearts of foodies around the world. Child has influenced countless culinary careers, books, a movie and several generations of home cooks.
On the menu of the Westport Public Library this January is Child's book, "My Life in France" -- the 2014 choice for the annual WestportREADS community reading project. The book, which Child co-wrote in 2006 with her great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, will be the focus of a month-long slate of programs at the library and other local venues, including five local restaurants that will host Julia Child-inspired menus throughout the month of January.
"My first real cookbook was hers, `The Way to Cook.' It was what I used as my baseline for all the stuff I made when I was younger. My mom gave it to me," said Bryan Malcarney, owner and chef of Blue Lemon Restaurant at 15 Myrtle Ave., which will host a Child-inspired dinner on Jan. 23.
Eric Sierra, owner and chef of Rive Bistro, a French restaurant at 299 Riverside Ave., was not really influenced by Child, but he did enjoy watching Child and Jacques Pepin on a television program they co-hosted. "It was interesting to see them on TV teaching Americans to cook French. She was funny. She was great," Sierra said. His restaurant's Child-inspired menu will be served on Jan. 15.
The WestportREADS dinner at Da Pietro's, 36 Riverside Ave., on Jan. 22 is already sold out, according to Pietro Scotti, owner and executive chef of the restaurant that features northern Italian and southern French cuisines.
Scotti, a native of Italy, said Child had a profound influence on his life when he first moved to America in 1974. "Julia influenced me the way she was talking and the way she was cooking," said Scotti. He was already a chef when he came to the U.S., but learned from Child culinary terms in English, cooking techniques and to respect females as chefs.
"Until Julia Child I never thought of women being an executive chef, even though women at home were the ones who prepared every meal," he said.
Scotti was so impressed with the culinary giant that he held a party in his Westport home to mark Child's 85th birthday. Child did not attend, but about 120 chefs from New York, Connecticut and Massachusetts did.
"I roasted a lamb on a spit. We did a suckling pig also, and I made cassoulet -- a recipe detailed on page 399 of Child's 1961 book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," which inspired the book and film "Julie and Julia." The film will be shown as part of the WestportREADS project at 4 p.m. Jan. 11 at Christ & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church hall, 75 Church Lane. Scotti's birthday party raised $6,000 for Child's own cooking school.
Scotti, however, did meet Child several times. "She was a very lovely lady. She called us `fellow friends,' not chefs," he said.
Janine Scotti, Pietro's wife, said she watched Child regularly on her PBS program and misses the master chef's personality and casual style. "It's a shame cooking shows today are so produced and polished. The charm of watching Julia Child was you felt like you were in her kitchen," Janine Scotti said.
Like her husband, Janine said she was also influenced by Child. In college, when other students were having keg parties she was hosting dinner parties. At Thanksgiving in her mother's house, Janine Scotti found an early edition of Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" and took it home with her.
"Now that I have this cookbook I'm going to ask Pietro to make things for me," she said, poring through the book and lingering longingly over several mouth-watering recipes.
For a full listing of the programs planned for the 2014 WestportREADS project, visit www.westportlibrary.org