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Synopsis|Excerpt

Synopsis

Julia Child singlehandedly created a new approach to American cuisine with her cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking and her television show The French Chef, but as she reveals in this bestselling memoir, she was not always a master chef. Indeed, when she first arrived in France in 1948 with her husband, Paul, who was to work for the USIS, she spoke no French and knew nothing about the country itself. But as she dove into French culture, buying food at local markets and taking classes at the Cordon Bleu, her life changed forever with her newfound passion for cooking and teaching. Julia’s unforgettable story – struggles with the head of the Cordon Bleu, rejections from publishers to whom she sent her now-famous cookbook, a wonderful, nearly fifty-year long marriage that took them across the globe – unfolds with the spirit so key to her success as a chef and a writer, brilliantly capturing one of the most endearing American personalities of the last fifty years.

Excerpt

Foreword_In August 2004, Julia Child and I sat in her small, lush garden in Montecito, California, talking about her life. She was thin and a bit stooped, but more vigorous than she’d been in weeks. We were in the midst of writing this book together. When I asked her what she remembered about Paris in the 1950s, she recalled that she had learned to cook everything from snails to wild boar at the Cordon Bleu; that marketing in France had taught her the value of “les human relations”; she lamented that in her day the American housewife had to juggle cooking the soup and boiling the diapers—adding, “if she mixed the two together, imagine what a lovely combination that would make!”The idea for My Life in France had been gestating since 1969, when her husband, Paul, sifted through hundreds of letters that he and Julia had written his twin brother, Charles Child (my grandfather), from France in 1948–1954. Paul suggested creating a book from the letters about their favorite, formative years together. But for one reason or another, the book never got written. Paul died in 1994, aged ninety-two. Yet Julia never gave up on the idea, and would often talk about her intention to write “the France book.” She saw it, in part, as a tribute to her husband, the man who had swept her off to Paris in the first place.I was a professional writer, and had long wanted to work on a collaborative project with Julia. But she was self-reliant, and for years had politely resisted the idea. In December 2003, she once again mentioned “the France book,” in a wistful tone, and I again offered to assist her. She was ninety-one, and her health had been waxing and waning. This time she said, “All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together.”My job was simply to help Julia tell her story, but it wasn’t always easy. Though she was a natural performer, she was essentially a private person who didn’t like to reveal herself. We started slowly, began to work in sync, and eventually built a wonderfully productive routine. For a few days every month, I’d sit in her living room asking questions, reading from family letters, and listening to her stories. At first I taped our conversations, but when she began to poke my tape recorder with her long fingers, I realized it was distracting her, and took notes instead. The longer we talked about “little old France,” the more she remembered, often with vivid intensity—“Ooh, those lovely roasted, buttery French chickens, they were so good and chickeny!”Many of our best conversations took place over a meal, on a car ride, or during a visit to a farmers’ market. Something would trigger a memory, and she’d suddenly tell me about how she learned to make baguettes in Paris, or bouillabaisse in Marseille, or how to survive a French dinner party—“Just speak very loudly and quickly, and state your position with utter conviction, as the French do, and you’ll have a marvelous time!”Almost all of the words in these pages are Julia’s or Paul’s. But this is not a scholarly work, and at times I have blended their voices. Julia encouraged this approach, pointing out that she and Paul often signed their letters “PJ” or “Pulia,” as if they were two halves of one person. I wrote some of the exposition and transitions, and in so doing tried to emulate Julia’s idiosyncratic word choices—“Plop!,” “Yuck!,” “Woe!,” “Hooray!” Once I had gathered enough material, I would write up a vignette; she would avidly read it, correct my French, and add things as they occurred to her in small, rightward-slanting handwriting. She loved this process, and was an exacting editor. “This book energizes me!” she declared.Julia and I shared a sense of humor, and appetite, and she thought I looked like Paul, which probably helped our collaboration. As for me, I was grateful for the chance to reconnect with her and to be part of such an interesting project. Some writers find that the more they learn about their co-authors the less they like them, but I had the opposite experience: the more I learned about Julia Child, the more I came to respect her. What impressed me most was how hard she worked, how devoted she was to the “rules” of la cuisine française while keeping herself open to creative exploration, and how determined she was to persevere in the face of setbacks. Julia never lost her sense of wonder and inquisitiveness. She was, and is, a great inspiration.Another great inspiration has been our editor, Judith Jones, who worked with Julia for more than forty years. With patience and a deep understanding of our subject, she was indispensable in helping to shape this book. Judith’s assistant, Ken Schneider, was also a great help.On August 13, 2004—just after our conversation in her garden, and only two days before her ninety-second birthday—Julia died of kidney failure in her sleep. Over the next year, I finished My Life in France, but every day wished I could call her up and ask her to clarify a story, or to share a bit of news, or just to talk. I miss her. But through her words in these pages, Julia’s voice remains as lively, wise, and encouraging as ever. As she would say, “We had such fun!”Alex Prud’hommeAugust 2005IntroductionThis is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating. It is also something new for me. Rather than a collection of recipes, I’ve put together a series of linked autobiographical stories, mostly focused on the years 1948 through 1954, when we lived in Paris and Marseille, and also a few of our later adventures in Provence. Those early years in France were among the best of my life. They marked a crucial period of transformation in which I found my true calling, experienced an awakening of the senses, and had such fun that I hardly stopped moving long enough to catch my breath.Before I moved to France, my life had not prepared me for what I would discover there. I was raised in a comfortable, WASPy, uppermiddle- class family in sunny and non-intellectual Pasadena, California. My father, John McWilliams, was a conservative businessman who managed family real-estate holdings; my mother, Carolyn, whom we called Caro, was a very warm and social person. But, like most of her peers, she didn’t spend much time in the kitchen. She occasionally sallied forth to whip up baking-powder biscuits, or a cheese dish, or finnan haddie, but she was not a cook. Nor was I.As a girl I had zero interest in the stove. I’ve always had a healthy appetite, especially for the wonderful meat and the fresh produce of California, but I was never encouraged to cook and just didn’t see the point in it. Our family had a series of hired cooks, and they’d produce heaping portions of typical American fare—fat roasted chicken with buttery mashed potatoes and creamed spinach; or well-marbled porterhouse steaks; or aged leg of lamb cooked medium gray—not pinky-red rare, as the French do—and always accompanied by brown gravy and green mint sauce. It was delicious but not refined food.Paul, on the other hand, had been raised in Boston by a rather bohemian mother who had lived in Paris and was an excellent cook. He was a cultured man, ten years older than I was, and by the time we met, during World War II, he had already traveled the world. Paul was a natty dresser and spoke French beautifully, and he adored good food and wine. He knew about dishes like moules marinières and boeuf bourguignon and canard à l’orange—things that seemed hopelessly exotic to my untrained ear and tongue. I was lucky to marry Paul. He was a great inspiration, his enthusiasm about wine and food helped to shape my tastes, and his encouragement saw me through discouraging moments. I would never have had my career without Paul Child.We’d first met in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) during the Second World War and were married in September 1946. In preparation for living with a new husband on a limited government income, I decided I’d better learn how to cook. Before our wedding, I took a bride-to-be’s cooking course from two Englishwomen in Los Angeles, who taught me to make things like pancakes. But the first meal I ever cooked for Paul was a bit more ambitious: brains simmered in red wine! I’m not quite sure why I picked that particular dish, other than that it sounded exotic and would be a fun way to impress my new husband. I skimmed over the recipe, and figured it wouldn’t be too hard to make. But the results, alas, were messy to look at and not very good to eat. In fact, the dinner was a disaster. Paul laughed it off, and we scrounged up something else that night. But deep down I was annoyed with myself, and I grew more determined than ever to learn how to cook well.In our first year as young marrieds, we lived in Georgetown, in Washington, D.C., in a small white clapboard house on Olive Avenue. While Paul worked on mounting exhibits for the State Department, I worked as a file clerk. In the evening, I would approach the stove armed with lofty intentions, the Joy of Cooking or Gourmet magazine tucked under my arm, and little kitchen sense. My meals were satisfactory, but they took hours of laborious effort to produce. I’d usually plop something on the table by 10:00 p.m., have a few bites, and collapse into bed. Paul was unfailingly patient. But years later he’d admit to an interviewer: “Her first attempts were not altogether successful. . . . I was brave because I wanted to marry Julia. I trust I did not betray my point of view.” (He did not.)In the winter of 1948, Paul was offered a job running the Visual Presentation Department for the United States Information Service (USIS) in Paris, and I tagged along. I had never been to Europe, but once we had settled in Paris, it was clear that, out of sheer luck, I had landed in a magical city—one that is still my favorite place on earth. Starting slowly, and then with a growing enthusiasm, I devoted myself to learning the language and the customs of my new home.In Paris and later in Marseille, I was surrounded by some of the best food in the world, and I had an enthusiastic audience in my husband, so it seemed only logical that I should learn how to cook la cuisine bourgeoise—good, traditional French home cooking. It was a revelation. I simply fell in love with that glorious food and those marvelous chefs. The longer we stayed there, the deeper my commitment became.In collaborating on this book, Alex Prud’homme and I have been fortunate indeed to have spent hours together telling stories, reminiscing, and thinking out loud. Memory is selective, and we have not attempted to be encyclopedic here, but have focused on some of the large and small moments that stuck with me for over fifty years.Alex was born in 1961, the year that our first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which I wrote with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, was published. How appropriate, then, that he and I should work together on this volume, which recounts the making of that book.Our research has been aided immeasurably by a thick trove of family letters and datebooks kept from those days, along with Paul’s photographs, sketches, poems, and Valentine’s Day cards. Paul and his twin brother, Charlie Child, a painter who lived in Bucks County, Pennsylvania, wrote to each other every week or so. Paul took letter writing seriously: he’d set aside time for it, tried to document our day-to-day lives in a journalistic way, and usually wrote three to six pages a week in a beautiful flowing hand with a special fountain pen; often he included little sketches of places we’d visited, or photos (some of which we have used in these pages), or made mini-collages out of ticket stubs or newsprint. My letters were usually one or two pages, typed, and full of spelling mistakes, bad grammar, and exclamation points; I tended to focus on what I was cooking at the time, or the human dramas boiling around us. Written on thin pale-blue or white airmail paper, those hundreds of letters have survived the years in very good shape.When I reread them now, the events those letters describe come rushing back to me with great immediacy: Paul noticing the brilliant sparkle of autumn light on the dark Seine, his daily battles with Washington bureaucrats, the smell of Montmartre at dusk, or the night we spied wild-haired Colette eating at that wonderful Old World restaurant Le Grand Véfour. In my letters, I enthuse over my first taste of a toothsome French duck roasted before an open fire, or the gossip I’d heard from the vegetable lady in the Rue de Bourgogne marketplace, or the latest mischief of our cat, Minette, or the failures and triumphs of our years of cookbook work. It is remarkable that our family had the foresight to save those letters—it’s almost as if they knew Alex and I were going to sit down and write this book together one day.We tip our hats in gratitude to the many people and institutions who have helped us with My Life in France, especially to my dear friend and lifelong editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, she of the gimlet eye and soft editorial touch. And to my beloved French “sisters,” Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom I collaborated; to my sister, Dorothy, my enthusiastic niece, Phila Cousins, and her brother, Sam; to my invaluable assistant, Stephanie Hersh, and my attorney Bill Truslow. We also sing the praises of the Schlesinger Library at the Radcliffe Institute, which has graciously housed the bulk of my papers and Paul’s photographs; the Museum of American History at the Smithsonian Institution, which has been kind enough to display artifacts from my career, including my entire kitchen from our house in Cambridge, Massachusetts; to WGBH, Boston’s public television station; to my alma mater, Smith College; also to the many family members and friends who have aided us with memories, photos, good company, and fine meals as we pieced together this volume.What fun and good fortune I had living in France with Paul, and again in writing about our experiences with Alex. I hope that this book is as much fun for you to read as it was for us to put together—bon appétit!Julia ChildMontecito, CaliforniaAugust 2004


From the Hardcover edition.
Julia Child|Alex Prud'Homme|Author Q&A|Author Desktop

About Julia Child

Julia Child - My Life in France

Photo © Christopher Hirsheimer

Julia Child was born in Pasadena, California. She graduated from Smith College and worked for the OSS during World War II in Ceylon and China, where she met Paul Child. After they married they lived in Paris, where she studied at the Cordon Bleu and taught cooking with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, with whom she wrote the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961). In 1963, Boston’s WGBH launched The French Chef television series, which made her a national celebrity, earning her the Peabody Award in 1965 and an Emmy in 1966. Several public television shows and numerous cookbooks followed. She died in 2004.

About Alex Prud'Homme

Alex Prud'Homme - My Life in France

Photo © Sarah Prud'homme

Alex Prud'homme, Paul Child's grandnephew, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, and other publications. He is the author of The Cell Game and the coauthor (with Michael Cherkasky) of Forewarned. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York.

Author Q&A

A Conversation with Alex Prud'homme, coauthor of MY LIFE IN FRANCE Q: What was your original connection to Julia Child? A: We were related by marriage: Julia's husband, Paul, was the twin brother of my grandfather, Charles Child. So she was my great aunt. I grew up knowing her on TV and in person. The two Julias were one and the same. In other words, the personality you saw on TV was the same personality I saw at home-funny, smart, and happiest when cooking something delicious for an appreciative audience.Paul was shorter and quieter than Julia. He'd been a diplomat, was an accomplished artist, and was an essential part of Julia's success. In fact, our book is dedicated to him. He was ten years older than she was, knew all about wine, and entertained us with unusual tricks-how to tie a bowline knot with one hand (he'd been a sailor), how to trip someone (he was a black belt), how to hold a wineglass when making a toast (by the stem). He and I shared a love of bacon and bananas, and Julia thought we looked alike-which is probably one reason she liked me.Q: How well did you know Julia and Paul Child growing up? A: Quite well. Although they lived in Cambridge Mass, and we lived in New York, they were frequently in Manhattan as Julia's career flourished. We'd often have Thanksgiving together, and we'd see each other in Maine during the summer, where Paul helped my grandfather build a log cabin. They never had children of their own, but were close to Charlie's children (my mother, aunt, and uncle). They weren't quite another set of grandparents to us-Julia was a celebrity, and they were always flying off to exotic places like France or California-but they were very down-to-earth people, and always curious about what WE were up to. Julia and Paul were generous, and would pass on gifts of food and cookbooks they'd been given from well-meaning friends. But their biggest gift was to live their lives in an exemplary way: they taught us the importance of passion, doggedness, creativity, and humor.Mostly about eating, of course. Julia's kitchen in Cambridge was her laboratory, and the center of the house. We'd sit around the big table there talking-about movies, politics, food-while she tinkered with some new recipe on her old Garland stove. There were all sorts of giant knives and copper pots and exotic culinary contraptions in her kitchen-like the giant mortar and pestle she bought in Paris. (Her entire kitchen is on display at the Smithsonian.) This seemed natural to me, and it was only much later that I realized how lucky I was to spend time with her.In Maine, Julia would join us in picking strawberries, fishing for mackerel and digging for clams. She'd make chowder, bouillabaisse, lobsters, bread, and-our favorite-lace cookies, jams and berry pies.In New York, Julia would sometimes take us along to a fundraiser she was doing, and then we'd go out to a restaurant, where they'd seat us in the middle of the room and feed us way too much food. Afterwards, Julia made a point of going into the kitchen to thank everyone from the dishwasher to the head chef. Entering a restaurant with her was an experience-I've seen near-riots break out when Julia walked into a room. Once, a woman nearly broke her ankle in front of a Howard Johnson's when she saw Julia and tripped off a curb. Another time, a woman at a fancy restaurant set her napkin on fire when she knocked a candle over in a rush to get Julia's autograph. Julia handled the crush of attention very well; Paul didn't like it much, but put up with it for her sake. In France, we visited Paul and Julia in Provence a number of times. Shopping at the great outdoor market in Cannes, Julia spoke to every vegetable and meat purveyor, and, naturally, they loved her. In 1976, when I was 14, she took us to La Colombe d'Or, a restaurant in St. Paul de Vence, where I had my first really extraordinary, three-plus hour French lunch. On that visit I also learned how to drive a stick-shift car in their field (I ground the gears and put a dent in the bumper, but it was fun!). Then Paul set up a TV on the veranda, and we watched the Montreal Olympics while Julia grilled the most delicious chicken I've ever eaten.Of course, one of my best memories of all is spending time with Julia at the end of her life: we were writing this book together, and getting to know each other-and our family stories-all over again. I feel very lucky.Q: When did you first learn that Julia was writing a book about her life? A: The years she lived in France, Julia said, were “among the best of my life.” It was there that she figured out who she was and what she wanted to do with herself. And for almost as long as I can remember, she talked about writing a book about that time--“the France book.” In 1969, Paul suggested printing the letters that he and Julia had written to my grandparents from France. But the publishers weren't interested. Julia liked the idea, though, and kept mental notes about it. She kept files of things she had written about her experiences there-her first meal in Rouen; how to shop for partridge in Paris, or fish in Marseille; the trials and tribulations of getting Mastering the Art of French Cooking written and published. But for some reason, “the France book” never got written.Q: How did you first become involved in the writing of MY LIFE IN FRANCE?A: I was a professional writer, and had long wanted to do something collaborative with Julia. But she was self reliant, and for years had politely resisted my offer.By December 2003, Julia had retired to Santa Barbara, CA, and when I made my annual visit, she once again mentioned “the France book” in a wistful tone. She was 91, and growing frail, and I once again offered to assist her. This time she surprised me by saying, “All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together.” I wasn't especially prepared, but we sat down and did our first interview the next day. Our collaboration grew from there.Q: Talk about the process of writing this book with Julia. A: For a few days every month, I would sit in Julia's modest living room, asking questions, reading from a stack of family letters, looking at Paul's evocative photographs, and listening to her stories. Occasionally we'd watch a tape of one of her old TV shows, and she'd tell me about it. It wasn't always easy, though. Julia could only work for a couple of hours at a time. She didn't like to talk about her innermost thoughts. My tape recorder distracted her, so I took notes instead. But after some fits and starts, we finally got into a good working rhythm. Many of our best conversations took place over a meal, on a car ride, or while I rolled her wheelchair through the farmer's market. Something would trigger her memory, and she'd suddenly tell me how she learned to make baguettes in a home oven, or how one had to speak very loudly in order to be heard at a French dinner party.When I had enough material, I would write up a vignette. Julia would read it, correct it, and add new thoughts. She loved this process, and was an exacting editor. “This book energizes me!,” she'd say.We worked like this from mid-January to mid-August, 2004, when she passed away in her sleep from kidney failure. She died on August 13th, two days before her 92nd birthday. I spent the next year finishing My Life in France, and wishing I could call on her to fill in the gaps.The final product is a true collaboration, featuring the voices of Julia, Paul, and a bit of me. It is not a scholarly treatise, and in some places I have blended Paul and Julia's words. Not only was this practical, but Julia encouraged it, noting that they often signed their letters “PJ,” or “Pulia,” as if they were two halves of one person. I wrote some exposition and transitions, and used her funny words--“Yuck!,” “Plop!,” “Hooray!”Q: What was it like to work on this with Julia's long-time editor and friend Judith Jones?A: Judith is a legend in her own right, and working with her was one of the best experiences I've ever had as a writer. What is amazing is that she lived in Paris at roughly the same time that Julia did (though they didn't know each other there), and so when the twice-rejected manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking landed on her desk, Judith instantly understood it in a way that no one else did. She was a young editor, but her passionate advocacy for Mastering persuaded the rather skeptical Alfred Knopf to publish it. He didn't like the title, which Judith had written, and said, “If anyone buys a book with that title, I'll eat my hat.” She says: “I like to think he's eaten a lot of hats!”Judith has a deft and sensitive editorial touch-something any writer can appreciate. Added to that, she worked with Julia for forty years, and her deep understanding of our subject helped this book immeasurably. Q: What are you currently working on?A: My new book is about the perilous state of the world's fresh water, the people and forces that are defining how we use it, and why water will be the central issue facing the planet this century.I came to this subject in part through Julia: not only is France the place where bottled water and private water companies got their start, but her niece is married to a globe-trotting hydrogeologist who is full of amazing water stories. It should be a lot of fun. I think Julia would approve.

Author Q&A

Alex Prud'homme on Working with Julia Child:

"This is such fun!" Julia said, as we pored over hundreds of family letters and photographs dating from 1948-1954, when she and her husband Paul lived in Paris and Marseille. She was 91 last summer, and could only talk for an hour or so at a time, but our conversations were always lively. I'd ask her questions or read from the letters: sometimes she wouldn't remember details, but usually her fifty-year-old memories would come rushing back--"We ate sole meuniere that first day in France, and it was so good I can still practically taste it!" she beamed. Many of our best conversations were triggered by a car ride, or a visit to the farmer's market, and the longer we talked about "little old France" the more Julia recalled. She learned how to cook everything from snails to wild boar at the Cordon Bleu, said that marketing in France taught her the value of relationships, and felt that the best way to learn about a country is drive back roads, poke your nose into restaurant kitchens and "ask lots of questions."

Capturing her idiosyncratic word choices--"Plop!" "Yuck!" "Hooray!"--was a challenge, but great fun. I'd write up a story, and she'd carefully edit it, a process she loved. It helped that we got along so well. Julia was my great aunt: we had a similar sense of humor, and she thought I looked like Paul. As for me, I was grateful for the chance to reconnect with someone I had known my whole life but hadn't seen much of recently. Not only was she a wonderful person with an amazing life story, but I found new respect for Julia's work ethic and seriousness about food. "France," she said, "is where I found my true calling."

Praise

Praise

“A delight.” —The New York Times“What a joy!” —The Washington Post“Endlessly engaging.” —The Philadelphia Inquirer “Inspiring..” —Entertainment Weekly“Delighful and ebulliently written. . . . Her joy just about jumps off the books pages.” —Christian Science Monitor “Lively, infectious. . . . Her elegant but unfussy prose pulls the reader into her stories.” —Chicago Sun-Times“Captivating. . . . Her marvelously distinctive voice is present on every page.” —San Francisco Chronicle

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