Introduction: Julia’s Second Act 3
PART I: THE FRENCH CHEF FACES LIFE
1. Dinner and Diplomacy 11
2. The French Chef 31
3. Volume II 56
4. The French Chef in France 85
5. That’s It 113
PART II: THE FRENCH IN AMERICA
6. From Julia Child’s Kitchen 131
7. The Spirit of ’76 152
8. The President, the Queen and the Captain 167
9. The New French Revolution 180
10. A Go-To Cultural Figure 201
11. Bursting Out of the Straightjacket 227
PART III: FOLLOWING THE GLEAM
12 Prime Time 245
13 The Celebrity Chef 256
14 “Bon Appétit, America!” 262
Epilogue: A Civilized Art 272
INTRODUCTION: Julia’s Second Act
In mid-July, 1976, Julia Child attended President Gerald R. Ford’s bicentennial celebration in Washington, D.C., where she provided commentary for public television, interviewed the White House chef, and met Queen Elizabeth II. Then, as the somewhat raucous party was still winding down, Julia slipped away to rejoin her husband, Paul, in the quiet anonymity of rural France.
Julia was near the height of her celebrity at the time. As “The French Chef,” she had won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and the French Ordre du Merite Agricole; appeared on the cover of Time magazine; made documentary films; and co-authored two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which had helped launch a food revolution in America. Flinging baguettes, slapping eggplants, flapping chicken wings, she had proven to be a natural performer on TV: a knowledgeable, unaffected culinary guide whose comic timing and idiosyncratic vocalizations were lauded and satirized across the country. In France, however, the French Chef was virtually unknown, which was just how the Childs liked it.
Every year, Paul and Julia would retreat to their small, simple house outside of Cannes for a few weeks at a time. They had named the house La Pitchoune – La Peetch for short – which means “the Little Thing” in the Provencal dialect. It was the place they went to exhale and rejuvenate. Paul would write, paint, photograph, and tend the garden. Julia would sleep, visit restaurants, and cook with her “French sister” Simca Beck. It was a familiar pattern, only this time the Childs invited my family to join them.
We flew from New York to Nice, rented a small olive-green car, and drove along winding roads to the Childs’ house near the hill town of Plascassier. That evening the Childs welcomed us with a succulent dinner of roasted lamb and Ratatouille. Julia was ebullient. In coming days, she toured us around the outdoor market in Cannes, where she spoke to nearly every vendor and bought heaps of fish for what she would deem a “great Bouillabaisse.” Then she was off, visiting with M.F.K. Fisher, negotiating with the plumber, having her hair done, attending to desk work, and always tinkering with something in her compact cuisine.
At La Peetch – as in their larger home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts — Paul had erected Peg-Board on the wall, from which he hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine. He outlined her copper pots and steel pans with black magic marker, so one would know exactly where each should be hung. Julia worked at a small gas stove vented by a window, a tall worktable, and with a row of knives arranged by size on a magnetic strip. It was an efficient space, and it seemed to emit mouth-watering smells at all hours.
Though Paul and Julia never had children (they had tried but it “didn’t take,” Julia said), they welcomed my sisters and me as surrogate grandchildren. Paul was the twin brother of my maternal grandfather, Charles Child. We had been lucky to spend time with them in Cambridge, New York and Maine, but this was our first visit to La Pitchoune.
In ensuing years, Paul would fade into a state he would ruefully called “the mental scrambles.” Never fully recovering from his operation, he suffered a series of strokes and other ailments which left him weary, confused, and irascible. In retrospect, those days at La Pitchoune in 1976 were the last glimpse I had of the intelligent, warm and enthusiastic man he had been: the genuine Paul Child.
Julia, on the other hand, was entering a dynamic new phase of her career, when she left behind classical French cuisine and The French Chef to reinvent — and re-Americanize — herself as “Julia Child.”
Chapter 7: The Spirit of ‘76
I. The Bearded Child Manifesto
In advance of the American bicentennial celebration in 1976, Julia envisioned a TV series and book about pre-Revolutionary cooking, and she wanted to collaborate on it with her good friend, James Beard, whom the New York Times called “the dean of American cookery.”
She named the project “Thirteen Feasts for Thirteen Colonies.” Its conceit, Julia wrote, was that “In the 200 years since Independence, Americans have been enjoying — without knowing it – many dishes of the Revolutionary period.” Now the two best-known cooks in the country would “acquaint Americans with their great national dishes and how to prepare them.”
With the combined strengths of “Julia and Jim,” as the publicists called them — or “the Bearded Child” (“l’enfant barbu”) as they called themselves — it was an idea perfectly suited to its bicentennial moment.
James Beard, a six-foot two-inch, rotund, twinkle-eyed cook, culinary historian, and author was born in 1903, in Portland, Oregon .
Julia first met Jim Beard in 1961, at a publication party for Mastering. By then, Beard was America’s most famous cook: he taught classes across the country, and from 1946-47 hosted the nations’ first network cooking show, I love to Eat, on NBC. Upon the publication of Mastering in October 1961, Julia and Simca, who were complete unknowns, arrived in New York to promote their book (Louisette Bertholle remained with her family in France). Judith Jones — who “rather cheekily” cold-called Beard – asked him to read their new book. He did, and was so impressed that he offered to host a book party at Dione Lucas’s restaurant, the Egg Basket. The evening featured everyone of note in New York’s small food and publishing worlds, including Craig Claiborne; Helen MacCulley, the powerful editor of House Beautiful; and her protégé, a young French chef named Jacques Pepin. Jim and Julia hit off right away. “After the party he said, ‘I wish I had written that book,’ ” Jones recalled. “High praise indeed.”
By 1975, Jim and Julia were great pals, and he was a frequent guest at La Pitchoune. They loved to cook together, and made a natural and charming duo in their live performances onstage. So hopes ran high for the pilot for “Thirteen Feasts for Thirteen Colonies.”
The title referred to the British Colonies on the East Coast, stretching from Virginia to Georgia to the New England enclaves. In 1776, those colonies declared their independence from Britain and later banded together as the United States of America. The colonists had arrived in the New World bearing tastes, sensibilities, and utensils from the Old World. They settled in rugged areas, some which had short growing seasons. As the Europeans adapted their recipes and cooking styles to local clams, lobster, cod, venison, pheasant, wild turkey, corn, cranberries, wheat, and the like, the combination of Old World techniques and New World ingredients led to a distinctly American cuisine.
As Julia put it: “the persecuted Puritans came to New England ‘to serve their God and to fish.’ ”
“As Massachusetts is the mother of American cooking, so Boston is the mother of American cookbooks,” wrote Jose Wilson, a South African-English editor hired to research “Thirteen Feasts.” The first cookbook authored by an American was Amelia Simmons’ American Cookery (1796), which led to Mrs. D. A. Lincoln’s Mrs. Lincoln’s Boston Cook Book (1884) and Fanny Merritt Farmer’s The Boston Cooking-School Cook Book (1896). The food lore of Massachusetts had a strong influence nationwide, “unlike the Southern states, what they cooked in the northeast translated easily to the Midwest and west.”
To set the scene, Wilson quoted from America Cooks:
When young daughters who trekked across the mountains recovered from the first hardships of setting up housekeeping in their own log houses, they wrote back home asking mother how she did this and that, and pasted mother’s recipe in a blank book along with father’s directions for killing potato bugs and curing the horse of heaves. Many a fine old dish, like the original Pan Pie which one of our great-great-grandmothers wrote down as a popular Michigan recipe of her day, might have been lost to posterity had it not been preserved in the Midwest. Thus, as many Massachusetts recipes, modernized and adapted, of course, turn up in the other states as have survived in the Mayflower Colony itself.
Julia loved this kind of story, and “Thirteen Feasts” gave her an excuse to return to one of her favorite subjects: her family’s roots, and the foods they ate as they migrated across the country from East to West.
IV. From Julia Grownup to “Save the Liver!”
Julia understood that when she appeared on a TV show – virtually any TV show – book sales would spike, no matter how silly or serious it was. If imitation and satire are the sincerest forms of flattery, then she was doing very well by the mid-seventies. Spoofs of her patrician bearing and singsong warble cropped up as soon as she reached celebrity status, most of which played on the misperception that Julia performed drunk.
As early as 1965, in a variety act called “Cooking While Gassed,” a San Franciscan named Charles Huse donned a toque and zealously stuffed a turkey as he chugged a bottle of wine. In the early Seventies, the actress Judy Graubart played the character Julia Grownup on the Electric Company’s skit “Here’s Cooking at You”
Julia’s esprit may have also influenced the Muppet character “The Swedish Chef” – an over-enthusiastic, mustachioed puppet who waved forks, saws, and hockey sticks around the kitchen, while explaining “recipes” in a Swedish gibberish: “Yur puuurt thuur chiir-ken airn der bewl – bork, bork, bork!”
But without question Julia’s most revered parodist was Dan Aykroyd, the veteran Saturday Night Live (SNL) star, who was raised near Toronto in a food-loving family.
“Julia Child was directly responsible for the Bass-O-Matic,” Aykroyd told me. He was referring to one of his most famous SNL sketches, which aired in April 1976 (and reprised, word-for-word, on the show’s 40th anniversary show in 2015). In it, Aykroyd appears as an intense, motor-mouthed salesman with manicured hair and moustache, dressed in a loud checked jacket and wide maroon tie.
“How many times has this happened to you? You have a bass. You’re trying to find an exciting new way to prepare it for dinner. You could scale the bass, remove the bass’s tail, head and bones, and serve it as you would any other fish dinner,” he exhorts at maximum speed. “But why bother — now that you can use Ronco’s amazing new kitchen tool, the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76!”
The skit was inspired by the real “infomercial” pitchman Ron Popeil, known for hawking items such as the Veg-O-Matic (“It slices! It dices!”), GLH (Great Looking Hair) spray-on hair, the Pocket Fisherman, Smokeless Ashtray, and the tag-line “But wait, there’s more!”
Aykroyd channeled Popeil’s manic energy and ratcheted it into the absurd: “The days of troublesome scaling, cutting and gutting are over. Because the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76 is the tool that allows you to use the use the whole bass, with no fish waste, without scaling, cutting or gutting. Here’s how it works: catch a bass, remove the hook, and drop the bass – that’s the whole bass – into the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76. Now adjust the control dials so that that bass is blended just the way you like it.”
With that, he drops a “bass” (the fish looks like a Porgy) into a standard blender, turns it on high, and liquefies it into pale brown goop. “Yes, it’s just that simple!,” he exhorts. “The Bass-O-Matic ’76 works great on sunfish, perch, sole, and other small aquatic creatures … it’s clean, simple, and after five or ten fish it gets to be quite a rush!”
Although Julia’s name is never uttered in the skit, Aykroyd credits her with inspiring the skit, via a semi-traumatic piscatorial experience of his own .
In the Seventies Aykroyd was fascinated by Julia as “a go-to cultural figure,” and would rush home from SNL rehearsals to watch her on PBS. It was this devotion to Julia that inspired one of the most iconic skits in SNL’s history, one that defined his career and cemented Julia’s celebrity status: the “Save the Liver!” skit.
Chapter 10: A Go-To Cultural Figure
III. Speaking Out
Julia was comfortable with her stature and understood its power (though she rarely talked about it), and in the mid-seventies – when she was her mid-to-late sixties — she was increasingly willing to “speak out on any subject I feel strongly about.”
By that point, the choices people made about what foods to buy, cook and eat had become political statements that divided America into opposing camps. On one side were those who relied on conventional supermarket fare, largely produced by “agribusiness.” On the other side were converts to local, natural, organic, macrobiotic, or other “health foods.” Underlying these two fiercely defended positions were strata of educational, class, and racial divisions. Somewhere in the middle stood Julia Child, outspoken, and not always politic.
When food activists began to ask pointed questions about the pesticides, fertilizers, antibiotics and growth hormones used by the food industry, Julia – who was suspicious of orthodoxies in general, and food fads in particular – was vehement. “I just hate health food,” she said, because it seemed to be a diet of “nuts and berries,” akin to “bird food,” that tasted bad and left her hungry. She worried that nutritionists – especially “that dreadful woman” Adele Davis — were cold-blooded scolds who considered food merely as fuel, or worse, medicine. “I have never met a healthy, normal nutritionist who loves to eat,” Julia declared.
At a moment when Americans began to worry about cholesterol and cancer, and embraced vegetarianism, bottled water and distance running as prophylactics against those diseases, Julia denounced “the food police” and “the fear of fat mania.” She lamented that, “The dinner table is becoming a trap rather than a pleasure,” and predicted that “if fear of food continues it will be the death of gastronomy.”
At times, Julia could be downright provocative, as when she declared, “The only time to eat diet food is while you’re waiting for the steak to cook.”
Looking back on the vegetarian movement, she said in 1999:
Personally, I don’t think pure vegetarianism is a healthy lifestyle. It’s more fear of food – that whole thing that red meat is bad for you. And then there are people who don’t eat meat because it’s against their morals. Well, there’s nothing you can do with people like that. I’ve often wondered to myself: Does a vegetarian look forward to dinner, ever?
I don’t think we were as afraid of food in the early days, except for pesticides. I do take some steps – I wash everything I eat in hot water … Now there’s worry about irradiation and bio-engineering, but I think the critics are often short on facts.
Such pronouncements upset and confused many of her followers, who wanted to believe that Julia Child was always perfect, according to their worldview. When she declined to criticize irradiated food, for instance, one fan felt betrayed: “You, of all my favorite people!”
Chapter 13: The Celebrity Chef
I. A Revolutionary in Pearls
Julia Child was the nation’s first “celebrity chef.” Though there were other chefs on television, and Julia’s fame was just one aspect of the nation’s growing interest in food, she played a pivotal role in revolutionizing the way Americans shopped, cooked, and ate. Julia, it turned out, had brought the right message to the right place at the right time, and she was the right messenger.
She was a quintessentially American personality: a confident, outgoing Californian educated at Smith College, a worldly diplomatic wife who lived in Paris and trained at the Cordon Bleu, wore pearls with her apron, and loved to cook with others; I think of her as “a revolutionary in pearls.” As such, she was a tremendously appealing ambassador from the Land of Food to the American public.
While Julia enjoyed her success, she was ambivalent about it. She saw herself as “a teacher of cookery” and “an eternal pupil,” rather than as a celebrity to be fawned over. She preferred to carry her own luggage through airports, and to wait in line “like regular people” than to get special treatment (although she occasionally used her name to gain restaurant reservations). Julia was more interested in trying new foods, meeting new people, learning new skills, exploring herself by exploring cookery, than in looking back in self-congratulation. Her philosophy was that few dishes were too complicated for the home cook; all people needed was a little “gumption” and “elbow grease,” and they could make anything their hearts desired. “If I can do it, anyone else ought to be able to do it, too,” was her mantra.
Perhaps that is true of her recipes, but is not true of her career. When I asked if she understood what a huge impact she had had on America, Julia shrugged and demurred: “Well, if it wasn’t me, it would have been someone else.”
But it was her. And it is unlikely that anyone else could have done what she did, when she did, and how she did it. Julia Child changed the nation, even if she didn’t like to admit it.
“The more you do, the more you learn,” Julia told Boston magazine. “We always say there aren’t any set rules. If you’re persistent and enthusiastic, you’ll find a way. We just tell [people] to follow that gleam.”
To support independent stores in your community visit IndieBound. The book is also on sale at Amazon
, and Barnes & Noble
The enchanting story of Julia Child’s years as TV personality and beloved cookbook author–a sequel in spirit to My Life in France–by her great-nephew
Julia Child is synonymous with French cooking, but her legacy runs much deeper. Now, her great-nephew and My Life in France coauthor vividly recounts the myriad ways in which she profoundly shaped how we eat today. He shows us Child in the aftermath of the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, suddenly finding herself America’s first lady of French food and under considerable pressure to embrace her new mantle. We see her dealing with difficult colleagues and the challenges of fame, ultimately using her newfound celebrity to create what would become a totally new type of food television. Every bit as entertaining, inspiring, and delectable as My Life in France, The French Chef in America uncovers Julia Child beyond her “French chef” persona and reveals her second act to have been as groundbreaking and adventurous as her first.
You can buy the Audiobook here: http://www.penguinrandomhouseaudio.com/book/234110/the-french-chef-in-america/