MY LIFE IN FRANCE
By Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
Knopf. 317 pp. $25.95
By the time I met her, in the early 1990s, Julia Child seemed pretty tired of being Julia Child. It wasn't gastronomy that bored her, far from it. But 45 years after she had first picked up a sauté pan in Paris and 30 years after television's "The French Chef" had cemented her place in America's hungry heart, Child wanted to talk about other things -- White House politics, writing, the latest assaults by the "food police." Anything but herself.
Child didn't even have the patience to write her own biography. Instead, in her early eighties, she turned over all her papers -- documents, family letters, even the working manuscript for her first book with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, Mastering the Art of French Cooking -- to the biographer Noël Riley Fitch, who in 1997 produced An Appetite for Life, an authoritative look at Child's legend.
Even so, from time to time Child talked about doing "the France book" first suggested by her husband, Paul Cushing Child, back in 1969. In fact, when she spoke of it, it was clear the book (if it ever got written) would be a tribute to Paul, the man who had taken her to Paris in the first place. It would be based on the hundreds of letters that he and Julia had written to Paul's twin brother, Charles, from France between 1948 and 1954.
Alex Prud'homme, Charles Child's grandson and a writer in his own right, also would suggest collaborating on the book. But Julia, Prud'homme writes in the foreword, "was self-reliant, and for years had politely resisted the idea." But when she mentioned it again, wistfully, in December 2003, Prud'homme again offered to help, and this time she said yes. She died the following August, two days short of her 92nd birthday. Over the year that followed her death, Prud'homme finished the book, mostly in the words of Julia or Paul or a blend of both, which is fitting since "she and Paul often signed their letters 'PJ' or 'Pulia,' as if they were two halves of one person."
The outlines of the story told in My Life in France will be familiar to fans -- how she and Paul met in Ceylon, where she was working for the OSS, the precursor to the CIA; how they spent their first year as young marrieds in their small clapboard house in Georgetown (where she was already desperately trying to learn how to cook from Irma S. Rombauer's Joy of Cooking ), and how in 1948 Paul was offered a post with the United States Information Service in Paris, where he had earlier spent some years.
We revisit the sole meunière in Rouen that confirmed to affluent, Pasadena-born Julia that the household cooks of her girlhood had never had a clue about food. And we follow the Childs from apartment to apartment, from failing classes at the Cordon Bleu to giving classes with Beck and Bertholle in their own École des Trois Gourmandes.
What's different from Fitch's biography is that this time we get the details in the French Chef's own Jazz Baby words -- the gelid winter hunched around the coal stove in the salon of their first Paris rental, afternoons reserved for "cookbooking," Beck's mother's Cote d'Azur villa with its "inescapable odor of Air Wick."
In addition to the quotidian detail of the Childs' life abroad, we get to visit postwar Paris and Marseille -- wandering about Les Halles, the Paris food market, long before it was banished to the suburbs, listening in Marseille to the "wet Smack! Smack! Smack! " of a major tuna catch on the quay of the Vieux Port below their apartment. Some of that fresh tuna ended up in their kitchen, first soaked in vinegar and water for five hours, then braised with a " purée de tomates , oignons étuvés à l'huile , champignons , vin blanc , and quelques herbes ." Of course.
There are cameo appearances by Prince Curnonsky, dean of the French food writers; Alice B. Toklas; Averell Harriman; "Cohn and Schine," the "bully boy" assistants to Sen. Joseph McCarthy, in Paris to poke around the embassy. This is name-dropping of such a high order as to be reclassified as history. The political Julia pops up throughout the book. She was an unrepentant Kennedy Democrat who hated the "intolerant" Republican convictions of her father and, to hear her tell it, all of Pasadena. As anti-communist fervor gripped the United States -- and Paul was investigated -- she expressed their growing misgivings about working for the government. Paul's early retirement and the budding success of Mastering coincided, and in 1961 the international duo made a home, and a whole new career, based in Cambridge, Mass.
Some of the most interesting aspects of the memoir revolve around the way the three original authors of Mastering butted heads throughout the decade or more that the book took to write. Bertholle withdrew early on, leaving Beck and Child to hash out hundreds of recipes back and forth by air mail. The book also records, with some regret, the growing chilliness between Child and Beck as "The French Chef" took off on television and it became obvious that Child's star was the luminous one.
When Child was 84, I approached her about doing an article in which we would travel back to the places where she had had her first meals in France. She was game but wasn't sure how she could fit such a junket around the production schedule for her next TV series. The article fell apart for other reasons, but even as it was being considered, I was doing the math. Child's first meal on French soil had been in 1948! Here I was, some 50 years later, hoping for a table for four at the same places? Well, silly me -- this is France we're talking about, not Manhattan or L.A. Some version of the Restaurant La Couronne, site of that first lunch after the ferry from England, has been on the market square of Rouen, in Normandy, since 1345. In fact, it claims to have served a very full house on the day in 1431 when the clergy burned Joan of Arc at the stake as a heretic, right outside.
Dinner at Le Grand Véfour? Good enough for Julia Child and Napoleon, good enough for the rest of us. La Crémaillère 1900 in Montmartre, the art deco Prunier, the Hôtel Pont Royal, any bouillabaisse joint in Marseille? Most of the spots mentioned in the book are still standing, still serving the food that made a lifelong Francophile of an unformed California girl.
And so our last communication from Julia Child can double as a tour book. Quelle joie ! Child couldn't have planned it any better had she tried. Or maybe she was trying to teach us right up to the very end. ·
Nancy McKeon is Sunday Business editor at The Washington Post and a former editor of the paper's Food section.