My Life in France

Like most people, I became acquainted with Julia Child on WGBH's groundbreaking program, The French Chef. I was already interested in cooking, an activity that, because I was not a girl, was forbidden to me. But for me cooking meant baking, the branch of culinary art that most requires the attentiveness to quantity and texture that I had already developed by playing with my chemistry set in the basement. I was fascinated by white bread. Where did the holes come from? How did pasty dough become airy crumb? In any case, I wasn't about to be entertaining friends at a dinner party any time soon, so what struck me most about Julia Child was what most impressed all non-cooks who found themselves riveted by The French Chef: the bizarre harmony of Child's robust modulation, a plummy accent not much heard in the Sixties,* and the fact that she resembled no one's idea of a television housewife. Without appearing to be clumsy, exactly, she did not perform with the poised, balletic grace of other broadcast cooks, who knew how punctuate their maneuvers with fetching smiles directed at the camera. She didn't perform at all. Her unselfconsciousness on television was, and remains, startling.

Maybe that was how she became a media star in the first place. She did not even own a television set when she was asked to appear on a books program, I've Been Reading, hosted by Albert Duhamel. Notified that she'd been given a half-hour slot to discuss Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and having no idea what she would talk about for all that time, Julia showed up with everything needed to make an omelette. The producers gamely went along.

Before I knew it, we were on the brightly lit set and on the air! Mr Duhamel was calm, clear, and professional; it helped that he loved food and cooking, and had actually read our book. After chatting with him for a bit, I demonstrated the proper technique for cutting and chopping, how to "turn" a mushroom cap, beat egg whites, and make an omelette. There was a large blowup of Mastering's dust jacket projected on a screen behind me, but I was so focused on demonstrating proper knife technique that I completely forgot to mention our book.

Ah me, I had so much to learn!

In response to that little book program, WGBH received twenty-seven more or less favorable letters from viewers. I don't think one of them mentioned our book, but they did say things like "Get that woman back on television. We want to see some more cooking!"

Over the years, we would learn that Julia Child was a far more worldly woman than she seemed to be on The French Chef, but after reading My Life in France, the posthumous memoir that Child had just about completed before she died, in August 2004, two days shy of her ninety-second birthday, I don't think that I would call her a sophisticated woman. Why? Because I don't think that she ever put much stock in the idea of "acquired tastes." For her, France was not a glamorous beacon of culture and ooh-la-la, but simply the country to which her husband, a diplomat with the USIS (today's USIA), had been posted. She had never given cooking, or even food, a thought. She discovered the territory in 1948 at a restaurant in Rouen, en route from the dock to Paris. Any dish might have done the trick, but in the event it was sole meunière.

I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.

In Pasadena, we used to have broiled mackerel for Friday dinners, codfish balls with egg sauce, "boiled" (poached) salmon on the Fourth of July, and the occasional pan-fried trout when camping in the Sierras. But at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I'd ever had before.

She was thirty-six at the time. Mozart would have been dead already.

My Life in France is the story of how the epiphany at La Couronne unfolded into Child's calling as a professor of la cuisine bourgeoise - which is actually French cuisine tout court, but without the showy presentations and exotically expensive ingredients (truffles and foie d'oie are, for these purposes, merely expensive). Cuisine bourgeoise includes some extremely elaborate dishes, and it is not to be confused with what Americans think of as home cooking, but Child was persuaded early on that it could be done at home. She taught herself to cook in Paris because she wanted to enjoy French food at home with her husband, but what distinguished her from countless others who also loved French food was that she liked to cook. She found that she liked to cook so much that she soon recognized the limits of her own autodidactic skills and signed up for a course at L'École du Cordon Bleu, the cooking school that everybody knows about, thanks to Sabrina. One thing led to another, and eventually, as luck would have it, Child bumped into a couple of French women who were trying to put together a French cookbook for the American market.

That's the pivotal moment in My Life in France, when a personal history that anybody might have had shifts into an epic, "How I Got There" story to which everybody knows the ending. In the excitement, it is easy to overlook the fact that Mastering the Art of French Cooking and its successors are the work of a gifted and dedicated writer. What makes My Life in France so mouthwatering is that it is the writer, and not the television star, who is finally the center of attention, very possibly for the first (and sadly for the last) time. My Life in France, in short, is not a celebrity autobiography. It is a work of literature that educated Americans will read for generations. For the facts of Julia Child's life, we will have to turn to scholarly biographies, as they will no doubt emerge. But for the flavor of a certain kind of American life, this book is indispensable.

Long after we're gone, scholars may have a field day investigating the book's veracity - and attributing any lapses either to Julia Child or to her amanuensis, Alex Prud'homme. Mr Prud'homme, a New Yorker writer and Paul Child's great nephew, had to wait until Child's last year to persuade her to collaborate on a book that Paul Child had proposed back in 1961. (Indeed, one comes away from My Life in France wondering why he didn't write up the story of their "favorite, formative years together.") Paradoxically (or so it would seem), Julia Child didn't actually write a word of My Life in France. Insofar as the book is true to its subject, most of the credit goes to Mr Prud'homme. He tried taping Child's recollections, but when he found that the tape recorder distracted her, he fell back on notes.

Though she was a natural performer, she was essentially a private person who didn't like to reveal herself.

And indeed, My Life in France is a memoir malgré soi. It is not until well into the long second chapter that Child talks about what had always seemed to me to be the mystery years, the time between her graduation from Smith College in 1934 and the war - when, as is fairly well known, she worked for the OSS (the forebear of the CIA) in Sri Lanka and China. What did she do with her twenties? Not much! After abandoning the career of "a famous woman novelist," she worked in advertising for a while before drifting back to Pasadena, where her mother was suffering from the hypertension that would kill her at sixty. After her mother's death, Child looked after her father (not that the crusty old conservative dinosaur needed much caring).

I kept house for my father, did some volunteer work for the Red Cross, and generally felt like I was drifting. I knew I didn't want to become a standard housewife, or a corporate woman, but I wasn't sure what I did want to be.

When her younger sister, Dorothy ("Dort") returned from Bennington, Child set out for Washington, whether on a visit to friends or to find herself or both she doesn't say. Once the war broke out and, "too tall for the WACS and WAVES," Child signed up with the OSS, she "set out into the world looking for adventure." The self-mocking twinkle is not to be taken entirely seriously. She was looking for adventure. And if she was as surprised as anyone to find it in a kitchen, that's only the measure of an upper middle-class American girl's remove from the world of food. Not only was she innocent of any home-cooking experience, but she grew up in a culture that staunchly avoided complicated pleasures.

But what's most telling about this passage is that the thumbnail description of her family background and pre-Paul life takes up little more than a page. Mr Prud'homme attributes her reticence to reserve, but I think that something else was at work. Julia Child believed, I suspect, that her private joys and disappointments - "private" here covering those with no connection to her professional career - would not be of much interest to anybody else, and probably oughtn't to be.

Child nevertheless reveals her tastes, her view of things, and her character in the countless anecdotes that stud the pages of My Life in France. I've chosen two. The first one is entertaining, and must have been told many times. The second one illustrates, not altogether intentionally, the breezy unconcern for the regard of others that is common to tall, smart people. Simca - Simone Beck Fischbacher, Child's collaborator on the two Mastering treatises - appears in both of them. (Louisette Bertholle contributed only to the first.)

One day Louisette took Simca and me to meet the celebrated gastronome Curnonsky. He was about seventy-nine years old, rotund, with twinkling blue eyes, triple chins, and an eagle beak. His ego was enormous, but so were his charm and the breadth of his knowledge. Curnonsky was most famous for his twenty-eight-volume encyclopedia of France's regional foods, but he had also founded the Académie des Gastronomes in 1928, and was editor of the French cooking mgazine Cuisine et Vins de France.

His real name was Maurice-Edmond Saillant. As a twenty-year-old reporter, Saillant, even then a gourmet, was sent by his newspaper on a routine assignment to cover a feast of Russian royalty in Paris. (All things Russian were very à la mode at the time.) He wrote a magnificent article, but his editor balked at his rather pedestrian byline: "After all, Monsieur Saillant, you are an unknown reporter. If we use your real name, who will ever read this? It's really a pity you aren't a Russian noble."

"That's simple to fix," replied Saillant. I'll sign it 'Prince Curnonsky'." And he did. He had cleverly created this vaguely Russian-sounding nom de plume form the Latin words Cur non and the English "sky" ("Why not sky?").

The "prince's" article was read by le tout Paris. "Who is this fabulous Curnonsky who knows so much about our cuisine?" everyone wondered.

By the time the truth leaked out, several months and several more articles later, Curnonsky was established. And he'd written - and eaten and drunk - off his reputation ever since.

The day we met him, Curnonsky greeted us at four in the afternoon, in his apartment, dressed in a billowing nightshirt and red bathrobe. He was eating a boiled egg. As usual, he would go out to tea, or for a cocktail, a little later. Come evening, his biggest decision would be which invitation to accept, as there were always more offers than he could accept. After an enormous meal at one or another of Paris's best restaurants, followed by the theatre or music or the latest nightclub (always at someone else's expense), he'd retire by 4:00 a.m.

Simca and I immediately fell for him. He struck me as a character out of a novel, or from another century. I couldn't imagine a person like le prince coming from anywhere but France.

Whatever Curnonsky talked about with Child and her friends is conspicuously omitted from this polished account. It would add nothing but length. Having set forth the beginning of a friendship with a remarkable figure, and highlighted his panache with remarks about appearance and a pseudonym, Child deploys an almost imperceptible tact. You will find that no tangent wanders too far.

The second anecdote takes place years later, at La Pitchoune ("little thing" in Provençal). This was a house that the Childs built on the corner of a spread belonging to Simca's family; when Child finally left it, in 1989, it reverted to them. It's important to recognize the generosity that underlay Simca's easily-bruised ego.

Just after Christmas, I bought some flowers in the market at Mouans to spiff up La Peetch for Vogue, which was sending a team to do a story on us cookery-bookers at work. The writer, Mary Henry, a blonde, energetic forty-five-year-old American, interviewed Simca, Paul and me, and took pages of notes in longhand. The photographer, Marc Riboud, a small, twinkle-eyed forty-year-old Frenchman, shot something like two hundred pictures of us with his four Pentax cameras and a bagful of lenses and films that Paul eyed enviously. Later, it would turn out that Simca's feelings had been hurt, as she felt the journalists had focused on me instead of the two of us. I hadn't really noticed it at the time. But when we discussed the matter in private, Paul said, in effect, "I told you so." (He never scolded, but he made his meaning clear.) He claimed that I had protected Simca from the full knowledge of how popular The French Chef had become in the USA, and that she was belatedly catching on. I should have given her some warning before Vogue showed up on our doorstep, he said.

Perhaps he was right. But Simca was 50 percent of the book, a proud Frenchwoman, and a good friend of mine. I had no intention of making her feel like a second-class citizen.

It's like staring into a deep pool and seeing here and there a patch of the bottom. The conversational basis of the entire book is clearly reflected on the surface; I'm pretty sure that, composing the text herself, Child would have smoothed the transition from Paul's coveting Riboud's gear to Simca's hurt feelings - and in a way that might shed a bit less light on her own train of thought. I have said that I regard Julia Child as a great writer even though I'm convinced that her one book not meant for the kitchen would not have been better if she had actually written it. Which is just the sort of twist that suits the amazing Julia Child.

* Is it possible that she retained an older way of speaking because she'd spent television's first decade in Europe?

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