Julia Dannenbaum, 89, grande dame of Philadelphia cuisine

Julia Dannenbaum headed a city cooking school for 20 years, wrote five cookbooks, and the "Dining In" column.
Julia Dannenbaum headed a city cooking school for 20 years, wrote five cookbooks, and the "Dining In" column.
Posted: December 28, 2011

Julia McMurray Dannenbaum, 89, the grande dame of Philadelphia cuisine, died of an apparent heart attack Thursday, Dec. 15, at her home on Delancey Street near Rittenhouse Square.

Mrs. Dannenbaum headed a cooking school in Philadelphia for 20 years, authored five cookbooks, wrote the monthly "Dining In" column for Philadelphia Magazine for eight years, and contributed to many other magazines.

Although she closed her Creative Cooking School and published her last cookbook in 1984, she told The Inquirer in 2006 that she watched "Anything on the Food Channel, because I'm still learning new things."

In the early 1950s, Mrs. Dannenbaum was married with toddlers and living in Chestnut Hill when a TV chef changed her life.

"I was transfixed," she later told the Daily News, the day she discovered the late Dione Lucas, an Englishwoman who taught French cooking at the Cordon Bleu School in New York. Lucas had one of the first TV cooking shows.

Completely hooked, Mrs. Dannenbaum signed up for classes with Lucas, commuting from Philadelphia to New York. "I couldn't wait from week to week," she told the Daily News in 1992.

For more than three years, when Lucas operated Egg Basket, a lunch-only restaurant in Manhattan, Mrs. Dannenbaum worked there three days a week.

"I'd see the kids off in the morning and I'd be back by the time they were home from school," she told the Daily News.

In 1964, Mrs. Dannenbaum opened a cooking school on Germantown Avenue. When she and her husband, Harry, moved to Delancey Street in 1971, she relocated it there.

She had classes for novices and more experienced cooks, and she invited Georges Perrier, Jacques Pepin, and other celebrated chefs to give demonstrations.

She was good friends with James Beard. In 1971, when he reviewed her first book, Julie Dannenbaum's Complete Creative Cooking School Cookbook, he wrote: "Julie's book is a reflection of Julie herself . . . unending enthusiasm, great imagination, and careful attention to detail."

Her other cookbooks were, Menus for All Occasions, Fast & Fresh, More Fast & Fresh, and Italian Fast & Fresh, winner of the Maria Luigia Dutchess of Parma Award.

Besides her Philadelphia cooking school, Mrs. Dannenbaum directed a cooking school at the Greenbrier Hotel in West Virginia from 1977 to 1990, and she operated a summer cooking school for European and American tourists at the Gritti Palace in Venice from 1974 to 1988.

She influenced several top chefs. In 2006, Susanna Foo held an 85th birthday party for her.

When asked several months later whom in her field she most admired, Mrs. Dannenbaum told The Inquirer: "It has to be Susanna Foo. She calls me a mentor, but I don't know about that. Oh man, is she talented. Her mind must be going all the time because every time I go to her restaurant, she has new dishes."

The women met in 1979 when Foo, whose family operated Hunan, a Chinese restaurant, decided to learn French cooking and enrolled in Mrs. Dannenbaum's school.

"We became friends. I always asked her advice," said Foo, whose Susanna Foo restaurant in Center City specialized in Chinese/French fusion cuisine. "She was a very generous and giving person."

Last month, Mrs. Dannenbaum sampled the lobster with shrimp at Foo's current restaurant, Susanna Foo Gourmet Kitchen in Radnor, and spoke about plans for her 90th birthday, Foo said.

Mrs. Dannenbaum told Inquirer Magazine interviewer Maralyn Lois Polak in 1983 that although she taught her pupils French cuisine and sometimes served her family beef heart and other exotic fare when she was experimenting with new recipes, she loved hoagies, cheesesteaks, and Pepsi. Her secret cravings, she said, included peanut butter Easter eggs, and Tastykakes.

For 10 years, Mrs. Dannenbaum was a volunteer for MANNA, which prepares hot meals to homebound people with AIDS and other life-threatening illnesses.

"You can't always just send in your check and think that's enough," she told The Inquirer in 1993. "I had friends, good friends, who died of AIDS. So . . . I'm retired, I'm looking for something to do. I volunteer here once a week. What's the big deal? I just chop and peel and pat butter on vegetables . . . whatever I'm asked to do. Besides that. I'm on the fund-raising committee, so I can get my friends to give money."

Mrs. Dannenbaum was active with several other charities, and for years helped plan the dinner for the Ball on the Square, a fund-raising event sponsored by the Friends of Rittenhouse Square.

She was a member of the Confrerie des Chevaliers du Tastevin, the Commanderie du Bontemps du Médoc et des Graves, the Commanderie de Tavel, and other food and wine societies.

In 2002, she was honored by the Philadelphia Chapter of Les Dames d'Escoffier for her lifetime achievements in the culinary field. She was a founding member of the chapter.

Mrs. Dannenbaum endowed an annual lecture by a cookbook author in 2008 at the Free Library of Philadelphia, when the library named its culinary-arts collection after her.

A native of Williamsport, Pa., Mrs. Dannenbaum attended Pennsylvania State University. "She called herself 'home-ec dropout,' " her daughter, Mimi Robertson, said.

After completing training at Temple University, she was a dental hygienist for several years before her marriage to Harry M. Dannenbaum Jr. in 1947. They met at the Jersey Shore.

She and her husband, a manufacturer, traveled all over the world, including to Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, and South America. He died in 2003.

Besides her daughter, Mrs. Dannenbaum is survived by another daughter, Janet Freese; a son, James; and a grandson.

No funeral is scheduled.


Memorial donations may be made to Les Dames d'Escoffier-Julie Dannenbaum Endowment Fund at the Philadelphia Fund, 1234 Market St., Suite 1800, Philadelphia 19107 or to the Free Library of Philadelphia, 1901 Vine St., Philadelphia, 19103, or to  the Joan Karnell Cancer Center, 3620 Hamiltion Walk, Philadelphia, 19104. Attn: Dr. Ford.


Contact staff writer Sally A. Downey at 215-854-2913 or sdowney@phillynews.com.


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