Long before Julia Child was, well, Julia Child, she was simply the wife of a diplomat, Paul Child, also a poet and artist. When they moved in France in 1948, she didn't speak the language, and surprise, surprise, didn't really know how to cook. It is not beyond the imagination to suggest that France made Julia Child the American icon that she was.
But she learned, because somewhere in her was a sense of smell and taste that ultimately rivaled the best chefs in the business. She has called her years in France the best years of her life. In the last book she wrote, "My Life in France," she spreads her food-related reminiscences snuggly into anecdotes about her life in France, in the style of the great food writer M.F.K. Fisher before her.
"My Life in France" was written by Child in the last two years of her life with the assistance of her grand-nephew, writer Alex Prud'homme. The memoir is based in large part on the letters that the Childs wrote to their friends and family. Those became, for Prud'homme, a kind of "running diary of what they were doing." As well, she wrote in detail about the nine years that went into writing, and then trying to have published, her classic cookbook "Mastering the Art of French Cooking."
A journalist, Prud'homme will read and sign the book—now out in paperback—at The Community Library in Ketchum, Friday, Nov. 9, at 8 p.m. He is the author of several non-fiction books including "The Cell Game," about the ImClone scandal, and "Forewarned" with Michael Cherkasky, about terrorism. In addition, he has written for many publications, including The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Talk and Time.
Child, who died in 2004 at 91, describes herself in the book as a "rather loud and unserious Californian." She grew up in a conservative Pasadena, Calif., household where all Europeans were considered suspicious. Thirty-six years old when they moved and 6 feet 2 inches tall, she was 2 inches taller than her husband and much less worldly. Paul Child was an urbane, well-traveled Bostonian with a reputation as a ladies man. They made an interesting couple, devoted to each other and playful. They met during World War II in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) while working for the OSS. After the war, they moved to Paris, where he worked for the U.S. Information Service.
At the first meal Julia Child had in France, the couple stopped at La Couronne, France's oldest inn, registered in 1345. As an introduction to France, there was probably no better place Paul could have taken her. While listening to a waiter speak to another customer, Child asked her husband to translate. It seemed they were discussing the type of chicken being served, where it was raised, what herbs were being used and what wine should accompany the meal. The book opens with this telling scene.
"'Wine?' (Child) said. 'At lunch?' I had never drunk much wine other than some $1.19 California Burgundy, and certainly not in the middle of the day.
"'In France,' Paul explained, 'good cooking was regarded as a combination of national sport and high art, and wine was always served with lunch and dinner.'
"Suddenly the dining room filled with wonderfully intermixing aromas that I sort of recognized but couldn't name. The first smell was something oniony—'shallots,' Paul identified it, 'being sautéed in fresh butter.' ('What's a shallot?' I asked, sheepishly. 'You'll see,' he said.)"
It was the start of a beautiful love affair, both with France and with food.
"She had this awakening," Prud'homme said. "She'd never had wine at lunch and was intimidated by the French. But during the lunch she began relaxing. She later she realized she was falling in love with France right there."
Prudhomme, whose grandfather Charles was Paul's twin brother, spent a fair amount of time with Julia and Paul over the years, including holidays, when Julia often cooked.
"She'd been talking about writing about those years in France since 1969," Prud'homme said. "After she retired to Santa Barbara she'd mention the France book. I assumed she was working on it. I was visiting her after Christmas in 2003, and said, 'I'm here to help' and she said, 'Let's do it.' I said, 'Show me what you have.'"
Child surprised Prud'homme by pulling out a drawer of her desk where, instead of a manuscript, was a collection of letters on blue airmail stationary.
"For a writer it was like finding a pile of gold. There were a series of letters to my grandparents, Charles and Frederica. They wrote them every week. My job was to extract stories from the letters, books and interviews I conducted once a month when I'd fly to Santa Barbara and spend days with her. I wove it all together keeping it in Julia's voice, so its sort of a series of vignettes."
For those who remember Julia Child's unique voice and demeanor, the collection of stories are a reminder of a classic American character, full of bravado, charm and humor.
"It was the most fun book I ever worked on. I think that translated," Prud'homme said. "There's was an excitement, for her. She said she was so excited living in Paris she could hardly breathe. That breathless thrill comes through in her stories."