An Interview with Fern Berman on Julia Child
Emily Bell: How long did you know Julia Child?
Fern Berman: I knew her for 10 years. We were very close. I did the publicity for her TV shows through her producer. I wound up doing a lot of work for her.
EB: What was your role as Julia’s publicist?
FB: You stand guard in a way and just make sure the word gets out properly about the TV show or what chef she’s working with. Making sure the people know the show is on. And then I’d get calls from various people who wanted to use her for their purposes.
EB: How close were you?
FB: We became very close friends. I mean really close friends. She was one of the people I cherished most in my life, because she became a good friend. On 9/11 she was the first call that came through for me.
EB: What happened that day?
FB: I walked into the door of my apartment and the phone was ringing and it was Julia and she said “Are you okay dear? I know you can see the World Trade Center from your office. Do you want to come up here?” I said no and she asked why not. I just said “I’m okay, I’m okay.” But she said, “the key is here,” if I needed it. She was just a good, good soul. A lovely, wonderful person.
EB: How did Julia approach her work? Did she embrace the air of celebrity that grew around her?
FB: She loved what she did. It was a passion. There was a whole different celebrity chef world then. She really started it. She was the first person with a dedicated show. But what she did was really different from being a celebrity. She wasn’t trying to get out there in a way that a lot of the chefs do now. It was just a different world. Now it’s become everything.
EB: How do you think Julia tapped into the consciousness of the American dining public?
FB: It was right after World War II, so there were a lot of soldiers who had been to France and Europe and knew there was a whole different world.
EB: What don’t people commonly know about Julia Child?
FB: Julia was in the OLSS. She and [her husband] Paul were actually in it but she never talked about it. I remember I asked her about it and she said “Oh, I did some filing dear,” and changed the subject. She made a promise to the country and she was keeping it. She was very, very patriotic. She was very proud of this country. She would be of service to this country in any way because she was so proud of it.
EB: How do you think people perceive Julia? As a writer? A cook? A celebrity?
FB: She was Julia. I think what people remember is she was a woman who was passionate about what she did, whether it was writing or TV shows or cooking.
I remember once I was at this dinner—it was a really wonderful dinner party—and everybody was chipping in and doing stuff. So I said “I’ll chop the garlic because I can do that” and she walked over to me and said “you’re not doing that right, dear,” and she showed me blading and salting. And she said “do you know why?” I was crying. I was young. She was showing me, and I was in tears, because I was so honored. You’d think it’s a really simple thing to do, but in fact there was a right way and a wrong way.
EB: So Julia was a teacher first?
FB: She was the best teacher. When I first started working with her I wrote a press release. I sent it to her for approval and got a note back from Stephanie. It said “Julia wanted me to remind you that she wants to be known as a teacher.” She didn’t want to be known as a celebrity chef person, and a television personality, that was it.
EB: What is one of the main lessons you have taken away from knowing Julia?
FB: One of the things that I remember very much was when she did those TV shows, you know those old TV shows when she would drop something on the floor and say nobody will know? Well I was having a dinner party and I’m making a quiche and it falls onto the oven door. So I think “what would Julia do?” and I put it on a plate and I cover it with salad and I said “this is our salad with quiche!” I served it and it was fine—and my guests were thrilled. That’s what Julia did. She taught you if you drop something, you just continue cooking, you don’t go nuts. You just continue. If you bring attention to something that’s wrong, people are going to be upset.
EB: How would you characterize Julia’s food?
FB: It’s sacred in an everyday way. The first time she made lunch for me she made a chicken. She used Barbara Kafka’s book to make the chicken; she was testing the recipe. She would always cook from other people’s book to see what they were doing. So I go to their house, the table is set for two, she has a chicken and she’s made white bread. There’s a jar of Hellman’s and ice berg lettuce on the table and we had chicken salad. And that was pretty swell.
EB: Did she have any quirky food preferences?
FB: She loved Pepperidge Farm Goldfish. There were always bowls of them around her house. We’d sit and have a glass of wine at her place and the Goldfish would be on the table.
EB: What do you think distinguishes Julia’s approach from other cookbook authors?
FB: I get a cookbook a lot of times from chefs. And they’ll call for a cup of rabbit stock. And who has rabbit stock? She felt very strongly about that, that to cook at home was really important. Sometimes I would call her and say “I’m making a caramelized onion tart.” And I was asking her about the puff pastry. And she talked me through it. That was Julia.