At first, the death of Julia Child seemed wildly out of place in the storm-tossed days of last week.
Yet all around us food was hardly forgotten. You cannot eat plywood and batteries. In the preparations for the looming storm, I saw the rush for last-minute gourmet takeout, Mexican immigrants lining up for foil-wrapped trays of home-cooked tacos and shoppers crowding grocery stores everywhere, their carts full of produce, fresh meat, anything but canned goods.
In crises and in less stormy times, food nourishes us with comfort and pleasure. Preparation of it, by ourselves or by others, is a worthy and admirable endeavor. But we didn't need Julia Child to tell us that.
Or did we?
In the early 1960s, when Child first tied on an apron before the camera, Americans had already fallen in love with fast-food and frozen dinners. Tray tables were set in front of the television. The epidemic of cooking illiteracy was widespread.
A few burned pans, a chortled Hollandaise recipe and a glass of wine do not seem like an effective antidote. Child's love of butter and eggs and her devotion to French cooking are dated today. Her tip on lining your oven with quarry tile to bake French bread is excessive but nevertheless effective.
And when The French Chef was first broadcast, she appeared to be a middle-aged woman of privilege pursuing a fancy for European sophistication to suit her husband. Which she was. A perfect star for public television.
Yet TV plays funny tricks. Child was watched by more than garden party hostesses and reached viewers who didn't subscribe to Gourmet. If she was at times pretentious, she was charmingly awkward and joyfully physical while dissecting a turkey, a fish or an eel. It made great television - and great Saturday Night Live. One of SNL's most memorable skits is Dan Aykroyd warbling as an injured Child.
Child brought cooking and cooks to visual life in a way centuries of written recipes and anonymous authors and editors could not. She showed us how to cook step by step when we had lost contact to those who could. She was like an aunt who miraculously appeared with old family photos - and Mame's gospel of enjoying life.
In the process, Child created the celebrity cook genre. Other famous foodies - James Beard, Craig Claiborne, Irma Rombauer, Fannie M. Farmer and M.F.K. Fisher - never made it off the printed page with much success.
She created food television, too. Cooking shows - "women's programming" - were neglected by the commercial networks but became a PBS forte, making up much of its Saturday schedule. Today, an entire cable channel is filled with cooks and hosts who have hipper eyeglasses, better haircuts and more attitude than Child. But they have a lot less knowledge, too.
She knew what she was doing and worked hard at it for 40 years, a career that began when she was 50.
The first time I met Child, she was in the long round of 80th birthday celebrations. She was weaker than she seemed on TV, her hair thin and losing color, but her spirit wasn't diminished. She looked bright, a tall woman in a long jacket of many colors, happily trying everything in the room.
The food had been cooked by chefs from Alfred Portale to Nobu Matsuhisa. She talked to them all, and these superstars thanked her for lessons learned from reruns and customers inspired by her gusto.
The last time I saw her, she was 90, still tall and brightly dressed at the James Beard Awards, where the food world she had tended so long gave her a standing ovation.
But the most important times we saw Julia Child were on television. And we were in her kitchen.
American Masters: Chef Julia Child changed the way people cook, eat and think about food. 8 tonight on WEDU-Ch. 3. The Food Network is planning a tribute on Sunday, rerunning shows featuring Child. Shows air from 8:30 to 11 a.m. and 7 to 10 p.m.