For years, I couldn’t bring myself to erase that mundane message. I am not generally a fanboy, but there was something about her folksy-but-refined lilt, and her matter-of-fact delivery of the eternal verities of cuisine and the clock, that I found irresistible: they were a touchstone to my own post-college years in Cambridge, Mass. (coincidentally, her hometown)—a time of my growing independence, when I learned to cook for myself and first discovered her TV shows and cookbooks. So I hung on to that message like a jewel.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those phone messages—mine and Jacques’—since watching Julie Cohen’s and Betsy West’s new documentary Julia, which does a fine job capturing not only her professional and cultural accomplishments as a pathbreaker in the fields of American food and media, but also some of the personal idiosyncrasies and flaws that made her complex and unforgettable—someone whose voice you would want to save on a tape. It’s not only that she was a cultural icon with a famously imitated manner; she was a unique and formidable presence. I finally had the chance to meet her several times over the final decade of her life; in person, she managed to be warm, gracious, and often very funny, but with a barely disguised steely core of determination and focus—she could be flinty, a force you might not wish to cross.
That impression was reinforced over the years through reminiscences and anecdotes shared with me by Jacques and other frequent television colleagues of Julia. So I was relieved (if a bit surprised) to find that the recent documentary, while very affectionate and admiring of its subject, chose not be a hagiography, but a fully dimensional portrait that included some of her lesser-known traits: her salty language in private, her competitiveness, her occasionally retrograde references to gay men (despite the fact that so many of her culinary and television colleagues were gay). These are the warts that make people believably human, if not always 100% admirable. Jacques’ and my voicemails were the artifacts of a flesh-and-blood person, not an icon.
This article first appeared at EatDrinkFilms.com.