MY LIFE IN FRANCE

By Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme

On November 3, 1948, Julia and Paul Child arrived in Le Havre, France, aboard the SS America.  Julia — who thought of herself as “a six-foot-two-inch, thirty-six year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian” — had never been to Europe, didn’t speak much French, and was not a very good cook. As she peered through the fog at the twinkling lights of the harbor, she had no idea what she was looking at. “France was a misty abstraction for me, a land I had long imagined but had no real sense of.”

Paul was ten years older than Julia, a diplomat, and a gourmand who spoke fluent French. They had met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) in the OSS during world War II. Paul loved France, and when he was offered a job there with the US Information Service, Julia says, “I tagged along as his extra baggage.”

Driving to Paris in their Buick, they stopped to lunch in Rouen, at La Couronne, a restaurant built in 1345. They ordered portugaises oysters, Sole Meuniere, a green salad, and Pouilly Fume; for dessert, fromage blanc and café filtre. Julia, who had never had such food, was transported. “It was,” she recalled, “the most exciting meal of my life.”

In Paris, the Childs settled into a quirky apartment at 81 Rue de l’Universite (“Roo de Loo”), and immersed themselves in the cafes, restaurants, and marketplaces of the city. While Paul worked at the US embassy, Julia began to shop and cook and learn the language. Eventually, she graduated from the famous le Cordon Bleu cooking school, taught her own cookery classes with two “food-mad” French friends, Simone (Simca) Beck and Louisette Bertholle, and turned their recipes into Mastering the Art of French Cooking — the cookbook that would revolutionize America’s ideas about food.

The first two-thirds of My Life in France are about Paul and Julia’s six years in Paris and Marseille. Here Julia recalls her triumphs and failures behind the stove, how Chef Max Bugnard taught her la cuisine bourgeoise, and the nine years it took to write and rewrite Mastering before Knopf finally published it in 1961. These were what Julia called “the best years of my life,” the crucial moment when she defined herself, and experienced “an awakening of the senses.” The last third of the book is about the Childs’s later adventures in France, their house in Provence, Julia’s TV career as “The French Chef,” her friendship with James Beard and Roger Verge, the dissolution of her collaboration with Louisette and Simca, and the many fine meals she and Paul enjoyed along the way.

Judith B. Jones, who edited Mastering, and worked with Julia for over forty years, was also the editor of My Life in France. She lived in Paris at roughly the same time that the Childs did (though they didn’t know each other there), and so when the twice-rejected manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cookinglanded 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 Masteringpersuaded the rather skeptical Alfred Knopf to publish it. He didn’t like the title, saying, “If anyone buys a book with that title, I’ll eat my hat.” After forty five years, Mastering is still in print. “I like to think Alfred’s eaten a lot of hats!,” Judith says.

Contents

Foreword by ALex Prud’homme         ix

Introduction         3

Part I

La Belle France         II

Le Cordon Bleu         61

Three Hearty Eaters         113

Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise       166

Part II

French Recipes for American Cooks       209

Mastering the Art       242

Son of Mastering       274

The French Chef in France       301

From Julia Child’s Kitchen       317

Epilogue | Fin       329

Index       335

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’homme August 2005

Introduction This 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!

Chapter 6: Mastering the Art

In late 1959, when Bill Koshland showed our manuscript to theBoeufBourguignoneditors at Knopf, it was Judith Jones who immediately understood what we were up to. She and Evan tried out a few of our recipes at home, subjecting our work to the operational proof. They made a boeuf bourguignon for a dinner party. They used our top-secret methods for making sauces. They learned to make and flip an omelette the way Bugnard had taught me (they practiced the omelette flip using dried beans in a frying pan, as we had suggested, on their little deck; the following spring, they discovered beanstalks sprouting from their roof). They avidly read our suggestions on cookware and wine.

French Recipes for American Cooks is a terrible title,” Judith said to her husband. “But the book itself is revolutionary. It could become a classic.”

Back at the office, Judith declared to her somewhat skeptical superiors: “We’ve got to publish this book!”

Angus Cameron, a Knopf colleague who had helped to launch the Joy of Cooking at Bobbs-Merrill years earlier, agreed, and together they hatched up all kinds of promotional schemes.

In mid-May 1960, I received a letter from Mrs. Jones in Oslo. Once again I found myself holding an envelope from a publisher that I hardly dared to open. After all these years of soaring hopes and dashed expectations, I was prepared for the worst but was hoping, really hoping, for the best. I breathed deeply, pulled out Mrs. Jones’s letter, and read:

We have spent months over [your] superb French cookbook . . . studying it, cooking from it, estimating, and so on, and we have come to the conclusion that it is a unique book that we would be very proud to have on the Knopf list. . . . I have been authorized to make you an offer. . . . We are very concerned about the matter of a title because we feel it is of utmost importance that the title say exactly what this book is which distinguishes it from all the other French cookbooks on the market. We consider it the best and only working French cookbook to date which will do for French cooking here in America what Rombauer’s THE JOY OF COOKING once did for standard cooking, and we will sell it that way. . . . It is certainly a beautifully organized, clearly written, wonderfully instructive manuscript. You have already revolutionized my own efforts in the cuisine and everyone I have let sample a recipe or talked to about the book is already pledged not to buy another cookbook.

I blinked and reread the letter. The words on the page were more generous and encouraging than I ever dared dream of. I was a bit stunned.

When Avis called us transatlantic, she gave a big “Whoop!” and assured us that Knopf would do a nifty printing job and would know how to really publish the book the right way.

• • •

It turned out that Mrs. Jones had never edited a cookbook before. Yet she seemed to know exactly what she liked in our manuscript and where she found us wanting. She enjoyed our informal but informative writing style, and our deep research on esoterica, like how to avoid mistakes in a hollandaise sauce; she congratulated us on some of our innovations, such as our notes on how much of a recipe one could prepare ahead of time, and our listing of ingredients down a column on the left of the page, with the text calling for their use on the right.

But she felt that we had badly underestimated the American appetite. “Withboeuf bourguignon,” she noted, “two and a half pounds of meat is not enough for 6–8 people. I made the recipe the other night and it was superb, so much so that five hungry people cleaned the platter.” Of course, our servings had assumed that one was making at least a three-course meal à la française. But that wasn’t the American style of eating, so we had to compromise.

• • •

The title of our book caused the biggest headaches. Judith felt that French Recipes for American Cooks was “not nearly provocative nor explicit enough.” I agreed completely, which set in motion a hunt for a nifty new name. As bounty, I offered friends and family a great big foie gras en bloc truffé, straight from France. Who could resist such mouth-watering temptation? All someone had to do to claim the prize, I wrote, was to “invent a short, irresistible, informative, unforgettable, catchy book title implying that ours is the book on French cooking for Americans, the only book, the book to supersede all books, the basic French cookbook.”

My own suggestion was La Bonne Cuisine Française.

Judith felt this wouldn’t do, as a French title would be “too forbidding” for the American reader.

Some of the other early contenders included French Cooking from the American Supermarket, The Noble Art of French Cooking, Do It Yourself French Cooking, French Magicians in the Kitchen, Method in Cuisine Madness, The Witchcraft of French Cooking, and The Passionate French Cook.

As the apple trees blossomed in Oslo, and Paul and I started to grill outdoors, we debated the merits of poetic titles versus descriptive titles. Who could have predicted that the Joy of Cooking would become just the right title for that particular book? What combination of words and associations would work for our tome? We made lists and lists—The French Chef ’s Companion; The Modern American’s Guide to French Cooking; How, Why, What to Cook in the French Way; Food-France-Fun—but none seemed to be le mot juste.

In New York, meanwhile, Judith was playing with a set of words like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, trying to get them to fit together. She wanted to convey our idea that cooking was an art, and fun, not drudgery; also that learning how to cook was an ongoing process. The right title would imply scope, fundamentality, cooking, and France. Judith focused on two themes: “French cooking” and “master.” She began with The Master French Cookbook, then tried variations, like The French Cooking Master. For a long time, the leading contender was The Mastery of French Cooking. ( Judith’s tongue-incheek subtitle was: An Incomparable Book on the Fundamental Techniques and Traditional Dishes of the French Cuisine Translated into Terms of Use in American Kitchens with American Foods and American Utensils by American Cooks.) Reactions were generally enthusiastic to the title, but the Knopf sales manager worried that mastery is an accomplished thing, and that the title did not tell you how to go about mastering it. Well, then, how about How to Master French Cooking? Judith suggested.

Finally, on November 18, 1960, she wrote me to say that she’d settled on exactly the right title: Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

I loved the active verb “mastering,” immodest as it was, and instantly replied: “You’ve got it.”

At the eleventh hour, Simca declared that she did not care for the title.

“It’s too late to change it,” I said, adding that only an American ear could catch the subtle nuances of American English. Plus, I said, Knopf knew a lot more about books than we did, and they were the ones who had to sell it. So, in effect, tant pis!

Unbeknownst to us, Alfred Knopf, the imperious head of the publishing house, who fancied himself a gourmand, was skeptical that a big woman from Smith College and her friends could write a meaningful work on la cuisine française.But he was willing to give it a chance. Then, when Judith announced that we’d decided to call the book Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Alfred shook his head and scoffed: “I’ll eat my hat if anyone buys a book with that title!”

But then he acquiesced. “All right, let’s let Mrs. Jones have a chance.”

To support independent stores in your community visit IndieBound. The book is also on sale at  Amazon, and Barnes & Noble.

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

FAQ’s

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.

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.

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.

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.

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 92d 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!”

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.

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.