Interviewing Julia Child

 

Got a call from an old college buddy of mine who now lives in Hawaii.  He apparently turned on CNN’s new Julia Child documentary (it premiered May 30) and got a surprise.  It seems there is a scene — which now has more than 1.1 million views on YouTube — in which Ms. Child talks about her love of Mcdonald’s french fries . . . and how disappointed she was when Mickey D’s stopped using lard to cook them.

I know that clip well, because I was Julia’s interviewer. It was 1995 and the clip was from my self-named PBS series Malone.  We filmed it in the empty nightclub upstairs in SF’s Fairmont Hotel.  We sat at a tiny round table — and Julia was so tall (and I’m 6’1″) that we basically interleaved our knees.

Before the shoot, when we were asked if we wanted something to drink, Julia immediately asked for a martini.  After seeing her handler make a cut-throat motion to me over her shoulder I quickly diverted her to water with the promise of a drink later (It seems that at her age, Ms. Child tended to fall asleep after a cocktail).

The interview went well, not least because I asked her about Wild Bill Donovan and the OSS (she was his secretary). That, and my father’s career in the CIC, then the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, gave us a common “Spook” lineage.

It was about halfway through the interview when I asked Julia about Mcdonald’s.  Here’s the video:

Try not to laugh at my 35 years younger self, complete with a ‘fro and a three-piece suit.

After the interview, as we were still sitting at the table, the chef came out and announced that it would be an honor to serve a fine wine to “the great Ms. Julia Child”.  This time we both accepted.  After the chef poured our cabernet, I grabbed my glass by the bowl and took a sip.  “Oh no, no, no, Michael” Julia said in her inimitable voice, “Never like that.  Hold it by the stem, by the stem.”

I felt like a hillbilly at that moment.  In the years since, the french fry clip has taken on a life of its own.  After forty years in the media, at least in total impact, it appears to be the most consequential thing I’ve ever done.

But, at least I can say that my drinking habits were corrected by Julia Child herself . . .

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  1. Gary McVey Contributor
    Gary McVey
    @GaryMcVey

    A wonderful story, Michael! A great personality sketch, plus a wry glimpse at the minor problems (for example, two tall people trying to fit in to one tiny table) that have to be dealt with, or simply ignored for the camera. 

    • #1
  2. Brian Watt Inactive
    Brian Watt
    @BrianWatt

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard. 

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    • #2
  3. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard.

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Doesn’t lard also come as those large white solid masses?  Maybe that’s what she meant.

    • #3
  4. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard.

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Doesn’t lard also come as those large white solid masses? Maybe that’s what she meant.

    Yes, that’s what we’ve been looking for for 30 years now.  Just a few years ago we finally saw lard on supermarket shelves again.  We stocked up just in case it was a mistake.

    • #4
  5. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard.

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Doesn’t lard also come as those large white solid masses? Maybe that’s what she meant.

    Yes, that’s what we’ve been looking for for 30 years now. Just a few years ago we finally saw lard on supermarket shelves again. We stocked up just in case it was a mistake.

    Oh there was always lard on the store shelves in Phoenix.  Probably even at 7-11.  Maybe because of all the Mexicans.

    • #5
  6. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard.

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Doesn’t lard also come as those large white solid masses? Maybe that’s what she meant.

    Yes, that’s what we’ve been looking for for 30 years now. Just a few years ago we finally saw lard on supermarket shelves again. We stocked up just in case it was a mistake.

    Oh there was always lard on the store shelves in Phoenix. Probably even at 7-11. Maybe because of all the Mexicans.

    Yes, lard isn’t bad for you, it’s using so much of it.

    • #6
  7. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard.

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Doesn’t lard also come as those large white solid masses? Maybe that’s what she meant.

    Yes, that’s what we’ve been looking for for 30 years now. Just a few years ago we finally saw lard on supermarket shelves again. We stocked up just in case it was a mistake.

    Oh there was always lard on the store shelves in Phoenix. Probably even at 7-11. Maybe because of all the Mexicans.

    Yes, lard isn’t bad for you, it’s using so much of it.

     

    • #7
  8. Vance Richards Member
    Vance Richards
    @VanceRichards

    Not lard but their own mix of vegetable oil and beef tallow that they called Formula 47. There are recipes online that try to recreate the original Mc Donald’s fries.

    • #8
  9. jmelvin Member
    jmelvin
    @jmelvin

    Thanks for sharing your occasion with us @michaelsmalone !  Having the opportunity to hear the background details of what any of can see on TV makes the whole story more interesting.  

    Once you both enjoyed the wine at the end of the interview, did Ms. Child subsequently take to napping or nodding off?

    • #9
  10. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    I love the story and the french fry clip, Michael! Thanks for sharing them with us.

    • #10
  11. MarciN Member
    MarciN
    @MarciN

    I envy you. I would have loved to have met her. Her books taught me how to cook. :-) 

    Great interview. She also did an interview at some point with James Beard and Craig Claiborne in which she said the unimaginable at the time: She loved eggs and butter, and she didn’t think they were killing anyone. Yay Julia! 

    • #11
  12. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Fantastic post!  These types of stories are so fun and interesting.

    You should start a post about ‘brushes with greatness” wherein Ricochetti tell their stories about running into celebs, famous people, etc.

    My wife and I rode in an elevator with Lee Greenwood and his wife (the former Miss Tennessee USA) after the HQMC Marine Corps Ball.  He & Mrs. Greenwood were very nice (at least for the two minutes were on the elevator.)

    • #12
  13. Some Call Me ...Tim Coolidge
    Some Call Me ...Tim
    @SomeCallMeTim

    Of course, no one can forget Ms. Child’s appearance on Saturday Night Live:

     

    • #13
  14. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    I still think McDonald’s has the best fries on the fast food market, but I would have loved to try the real stuff from back then.

    I love French fries but it’s very difficult to find good ones.

    • #14
  15. ctlaw Coolidge
    ctlaw
    @ctlaw

    Brian Watt (View Comment):

    “Lard” must have been used before I worked there decades ago. I started working at McDonalds in 1973 while I was still in high school and before the transition to frozen fries. We used to haul up from the basement 100 pound sacks of fresh potatoes (to show off, we would put one 100-pound sack on each shoulder and then climb the basement stairs…but I digress). We would use a large fork-like tool (that looked like a Tudor torture weapon) to stab each potato to place it in the slicer and then blanche the fries in water for a while before lowering them in the vat to cook. At that time, and after the introduction of frozen fries, we lowered the baskets of fries into vats of vegetable shortening that came in large boxes as a white solid mass that quickly melted in the vat. The thankless task was having to drain the vats from time to time. We wore large rubber gloves to do that because burning one’s arms as the hot, and by then dark brown shortening after several hours of making fries, poured out of the drain opening was an occupational hazard.

    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Back in the 80s, my university owned several blocks worth of single family residences contiguous with the official campus. It largely housed students in those residences. I worked at a student-run restaurant in one of those residences. We also used the solid white shortening.  As part of a construction project, the school tore that block down, moved the restaurant to student center on the main campus, and placed it under the jurisdiction of the Student Life head. She switched us to using liquid oil in the fryers.

    • #15
  16. cqness Inactive
    cqness
    @cqness

    As mentioned in a prior post, it was beef tallow mixed with vegetable oil that was one of the keys to the goodness of Mickey D’s fries.  The other major step in giving them their special goodness was a flash fry or blanching of the fries for 30 seconds (it was timed).  The baskets of blanched fries were then hung on racks to cool off.  This blanching caused a caking of starch to come to the surface of the fries.  The cooled fries were then washed off to remove the starch and back to the racks to wait the final frying step before salting and going into the bags to be sold.

    • #16
  17. EB Thatcher
    EB
    @EB

    Brian Watt (View Comment):
    If Mrs. Child had McD’s fries cooked in lard it must have been prior to the 1970s.

    Well, lard is pretty white.  I don’t know when they switched to vegetable oil.  I had always heard that they used tallow (beef fat) and that was why the fries tasted so good.  I’ve never made a comparison, but for some reason, I think tallow would have more flavor than lard.

    Anyway, it’s been quite a while since I had fries at McDonald’s of any kind.

    • #17
  18. Misthiocracy got bored of the joke and Member
    Misthiocracy got bored of the joke and
    @Misthiocracy

    She wasn’t wrong.  McDonalds french fries are the standard by which all others are measured.

    They don’t work for poutine though.  For poutine you need thick, fresh-cut fries.

    • #18
  19. Mark Camp Member
    Mark Camp
    @MarkCamp

    I don’t care how many people saw a squirrel and went chasing it.

    I thought this piece was terrific!

    • #19
  20. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    Love it! She was an icon in so many ways. I used to watch her on PBS when we lived in Boston – she filmed from her kitchen in Cambridge.  Fast forward to a few years ago before my next door neighbor here in FL moved back to Tampa. She made her own mayo because she (like me) is terribly allergic to soy. I asked how do you make your own mayo? She pulled out the trusted Julia Child Bible of French cooking and pointed to her recipe.

    I did a post on Ricochet some time ago on women who were recruited as spies during the war – quite a few movie stars and…….Julia Child.  The woman seemed to be like a cat, with multiple lives – one being a comedian.  Thank you – for your post – wish I had seen more of the interview – only a minute about fries?? Preposterous!  My favorite thing about her was her positive spirit and love of people.

    • #20
  21. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    Some Call Me …Tim (View Comment):

    Of course, no one can forget Ms. Child’s appearance on Saturday Night Live:

     

    Classic.

    • #21
  22. Michael S. Malone Contributor
    Michael S. Malone
    @MichaelSMalone

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    Love it! She was an icon in so many ways. I used to watch her on PBS when we lived in Boston – she filmed from her kitchen in Cambridge. Fast forward to a few years ago before my next door neighbor here in FL moved back to Tampa. She made her own mayo because she (like me) is terribly allergic to soy. I asked how do you make your own mayo? She pulled out the trusted Julia Child Bible of French cooking and pointed to her recipe.

    I did a post on Ricochet some time ago on women who were recruited as spies during the war – quite a few movie stars and…….Julia Child. The woman seemed to be like a cat, with multiple lives – one being a comedian. Thank you – for your post – wish I had seen more of the interview – only a minute about fries?? Preposterous! My favorite thing about her was her positive spirit and love of people.

    I’m pretty sure all of the Malone shows are in the PBS Archives.  Some — perhaps this one — are in the Library of Congress.

    • #22
  23. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    Stina (View Comment):

    I still think McDonald’s has the best fries on the fast food market, but I would have loved to try the real stuff from back then.

    I love French fries but it’s very difficult to find good ones.

    But they only last ten minutes before they start reverting back to their petroleum components.  I have it on good authority that everything at McDonalds is made from petroleum products, even the buns.  (I don’t have a citation.)

    • #23
  24. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):

    I still think McDonald’s has the best fries on the fast food market, but I would have loved to try the real stuff from back then.

    I love French fries but it’s very difficult to find good ones.

    But they only last ten minutes before they start reverting back to their petroleum components. I have it on good authority that everything at McDonalds is made from petroleum products, even the buns. (I don’t have a citation.)

    Steve Martin had a bit on that.  Everything at all burger places is the same stuff, coming out of a vat/dispenser.

    “*Splat*  Double Cheeseburger.”

    “*Splat*  Large fries.”

    “*Splat* Chocolate shake.”

    “*Splat* Here’s your change, thank you, come again!”

     

    • #24
  25. Cassandro Coolidge
    Cassandro
    @Flicker

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):

    I still think McDonald’s has the best fries on the fast food market, but I would have loved to try the real stuff from back then.

    I love French fries but it’s very difficult to find good ones.

    But they only last ten minutes before they start reverting back to their petroleum components. I have it on good authority that everything at McDonalds is made from petroleum products, even the buns. (I don’t have a citation.)

    Steve Martin had a bit on that. Everything at all burger places is the same stuff, coming out of a vat/dispenser.

    “*Splat* Double Cheeseburger.”

    “*Splat* Large fries.”

    “*Splat* Chocolate shake.”

    “*Splat* Here’s your change, thank you, come again!”

    Funny, that.  I got the idea for my life-long “petroleum” joke from when I once worked at a McDonalds.  The shake machine had to be scrupulously cleaned each day because if the shake liquid hardened in the machine anywhere, it couldn’t even be chiseled off.  It had to be removed with acid.  Not the nicest example of Better Living Through Chemistry.

    • #25
  26. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    kedavis (View Comment):

    Cassandro (View Comment):

    Stina (View Comment):

    I still think McDonald’s has the best fries on the fast food market, but I would have loved to try the real stuff from back then.

    I love French fries but it’s very difficult to find good ones.

    But they only last ten minutes before they start reverting back to their petroleum components. I have it on good authority that everything at McDonalds is made from petroleum products, even the buns. (I don’t have a citation.)

    Steve Martin had a bit on that. Everything at all burger places is the same stuff, coming out of a vat/dispenser.

    “*Splat* Double Cheeseburger.”

    “*Splat* Large fries.”

    “*Splat* Chocolate shake.”

    “*Splat* Here’s your change, thank you, come again!”

    Funny, that. I got the idea for my life-long “petroleum” joke from when I once worked at a McDonalds. The shake machine had to be scrupulously cleaned each day because if the shake liquid hardened in the machine anywhere, it couldn’t even be chiseled off. It had to be removed with acid. Not the nicest example of Better Living Through Chemistry.

    They changed that to real ice cream sometime in the last several years, didn’t they?

     

    • #26
  27. kedavis Coolidge
    kedavis
    @kedavis

    Oh, another reference.

    Moonshine is “corn squeezins'”

    Milk is “cow squeezins'”

    Mtn Dew is “chemical-plant squeezins'”

     

    Either that, or Slurm.

     

    • #27
  28. Stad Coolidge
    Stad
    @Stad

    Michael S. Malone: Try not to laugh at my 35 years younger self, complete with a ‘fro and a three-piece suit.

    Sorry, but I couldn’t hold it back!

    But seriously, Julia is right about the fries.  However, I seem to remember it being about making the fries satisfactory to vegans and cultures that worship cows.  I could be wrong, as my wife always insists I am . . .

    • #28
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