By Joe Ortiz
What would it feel like to get on an airplane with the paranoid sensation that you are a smuggler transporting contraband? Try bringing sourdough starters to Julia Child’s house for a video shoot.
What seemed like an easy mission at first, quickly became a morbid fear that my unlabeled jars of pasty mixtures would be critically “inspected” by TSA agents, who might not know a mother dough from a facial lotion.
A week before the trip, I lay awake every night, worrying about whether my concoctions would bubble up and ooze out of their containers in the overhead compartment—microorganisms on their way to Cambridge to entertain Julia coming alive on a 747, running wild in the aisles. The humor and absurdity of the thought helped me relax.
Yet, my mind ran away with me. No, actually, I was freaked! I feared the TSA inspectors would confiscate my luggage and haul me off the flight in handcuffs just for trying to smuggle through a few active yeast cells for making peasant country bread. Would the agents suspect my goopy mixtures as some sort of catalyst for an explosive?
I’ll admit I was working myself into my own self-imposed paranoia, supercharged by the gravity of my “momentous undertaking.” And I’ll also admit I’ve been given to exaggerating the significance of bread’s contribution to human existence. Could this be the tragic flaw of any craftsperson or artist? Hubris on the scale of a modern-day Don Quixote, tilting, not with a lance to fight windmills but with a teaspoon or chopstick to stir and nurture an elixir to save the world?
Or can it simply be the artisan baker’s occupational hazard of inhaling too many fumes?
From what I understand, TSA inspectors are prone to question anything suspicious: What evil motive lurks in the mind of a person who would carry a jar of microorganisms on a flight?
Chemical warfare came to mind. Or a guarded caution about an unknown substance:
“Explain this to me, mister! You’re bringing a wet, slimy paste across country to do what? Make a peasant country “boule.” And for who? Julia? Sure. What the hell’s a boule anyway, smart alec? And who’s this Julia? A code name for some spy cell? Some covert operation?”
Oh, no, I think. Julia and her husband were both CIA before she became a celebrity chef. Spies!! What am I getting myself into?
“Unfasten your seatbelt, wise guy,” the TSA agent tells me in my fantasy shakedown. “Stand up, put your hands behind your head and exit the plane.”
These were the thoughts that ran through my mind several nights before my flight to Cambridge.
A few months earlier, my wife Gayle and I were in Scotland for the Open golf tournament when I got a call from our bakery: “Julia Child just called, and she wants to talk to you about changing your presentation next week.”
“Uh, Oh!” I told Gayle, “I have to call her. And now.” When you hear from Julia, you pick up the phone and dial.
Once I got Julia on the phone, I told her I was in Scotland and she said, “Are you fishing for salmon?”
I had to chuckle. When a foodie responds to an arbitrary comment about any subject under the sun, they often bring the conversation back to food!
Having been selected for Julia’s PBS TV show, Baking with Julia months before, I had originally committed to demonstrating bread sculpture, or pain fantasie. But Julia, in her endearing bulldog determination, must have decided she wanted more drama. She asked me to demonstrate sourdough instead. At first, I panicked. But let me say right here, when Julia wants you to take a detour, you simply agree–no questions asked. You do it wholeheartedly because she’s Julia. And she’s so darn nice.
People always ask, “What was she like?” Well, I’ve never met a more sincere person. I often tell people, “She makes you feel like you’re the most important person on earth.” Always willing to find out who you are and what makes you tick. And if what makes you tick happens to be food, it places you squarely on her “team.”
Once on the plane, ready to take off, the starters were safe and secure in the overhead. Because the show’s producers tell you to bring three of everything in case there’s a mishap, I carefully prepared three little jars and secured them in a small portable cooler.
The moment we were airborne, my anticipation of the announcement to be made upon landing–“please be careful when opening the overhead compartment because the contents may have shifted during the flight”–took on an entirely different meaning.
But none of my worst fears came true. I must have checked the jars in the overhead a half dozen times, pretending
I was looking for a pencil. So, my three precious starters arrived intact.
Once I got to Cambridge, the anguish subsided. The starters began to behave predictably after giving them a feeding in my hotel room sink. Like finicky kids on a difficult flight, they settled down to normal after they’d been given a little nourishment and kindness.
I even felt safe when, the day before the shoot, I was relegated to the basement for prep. Down there I felt secure among Paul’s equipment and his nerdy penchant for outlining with a black sharpie exactly where each tool should be hung on a peg board. And I missed a party that night while coaxing my mixtures to maturity. But I didn’t care. Feeling confident in my preparation far outweighed any desire I may have had to enjoy a dinner party.
And the next day’s shoot went according to plan.
The most amazing revelation of the entire experience, though, wasn’t the perfectly professional execution of the production or that Julia deserved her fame because of her graciously allowing younger cooks and bakers to showcase their talents, but at that moment during the shoot when her assistant walked by to say that her book, Mastering the Art had just gone into its 97th printing. Yes, 97th!
It couldn’t have happened to a nicer person.
And, by the way, the bread turned out wonderfully on the first try. And Julia—tall as she is amenable—didn’t even have to stoop down to grab me around my neck, cradle my head in the crook of her arm, and offer me an affectionate noogie on the scalp as my just reward.
Joe Ortiz, author of “The Village Baker,” wrote and produced a musical inspired by bread and created a musical based on his family story, Escaping Queens, that was a hit at Cabrillo Stage. He and his wife Gayle received the 2016 Gail Rich Award for contributions to the arts in Santa Cruz County. Contact him at [email protected]