Bon Appétit, America: How the French Chef captured the zeitgeist.
In 2006, Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France was a rousing bestseller. The story of how a “6-foot-2-inch, 36-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian” (her words) transformed herself and America’s appetites was a sheer delight. But it nearly didn’t happen. For years she had talked about writing a memoir of her postwar years in Paris, and her grandnephew, journalist Alex Prud’homme, kept gently nudging her. Finally, in 2003, she confessed to him that she had not begun to write, and said, “All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together.”
They worked on the book for eight months until Julia Child died in August 2004; Prud’homme spent the next year weaving interviews and an extensive archive of family letters into a memoir written in her voice. His aim was to make the reader feel “that we were sitting around a little café-table, having a glass of wine or a cup of coffee, and Julia was there telling you a story.” In The French Chef in America, he continues Julia Child’s life story from her debut as The French Chef on WGBH in Boston in 1963, through her “Second Act”—the next four decades that covered her television heyday and the 17 cookbooks she wrote after publishing the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The key to her success was her ebullient personality, but Julia Child always aimed at contemporary relevance as well. In the 1971-72 season of The French Chef, the 26 half-hour programs were “a refresher course for experienced cooks and . . . a jet-assist takeoff for beginners.” The next year was devoted to the “demands of society,” including family dinners, unexpected company, and three-course sit-down dinners. Sadly, these decades were also marked by the illness of her husband Paul, who had been the “man who is always there: a true partner in her career as dishwasher, official photographer, mushroom dicer and onion chopper, editor, taster, idea man, and husband.” Heart surgery in 1974 deprived Paul of oxygen for too long, and he never regained his full mental abilities. To a teenaged Alex Prud’homme visiting Aunt Julia, Paul Child seemed like a “grumpy old man.”
Child continued to include Paul in her life as much as possible, but she also poured her considerable energy into work. Writing From Julia Child’s Kitchen, she discovered that working on her own actually gave her “a new sense of freedom and purpose.” Published in 1975, it was her most personal cookbook, with each recipe presented as a class. Her voice was omnipresent, and each recipe included personal anecdotes and bits of advice “as if she were standing next to you, kibitzing.” Her mantra was “try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!”
Julia Child was in the forefront of the media ecosystem that emerged in the 1970s. Her personality made her a star in the new mass-marketing synergy that connected television, journalism, public relations, and Hollywood. Prud’homme suggests that her growing celebrity, Paul’s decline, and the publication of From Julia Child’s Kitchen marked a real transition in her life—the launch of her Second Act. From the mid-1970s on, she broke from classical French cuisine and explored foods from around the world, examined foods of her colonial forebears, and “intentionally re-Americanized herself.” At the age of 63, she “had at last [discovered] her true voice.”
Her new celebrity was memorably spoofed by Dan Aykroyd on Saturday Night Live. He gives her full credit for inspiring the Bass-O-Matic, but his 1978 parody is the true classic. Here, “Julia” demonstrates how to de-bone a chicken with a very sharp knife:
You cut along the backbone to the pope’s nose, like so—rrrrrraaAHHHH! Oh! Oho! Now I’ve done it. I’ve cut the dickens out of my finger!
As blood gushes, “Julia” explains, “Well, I’m glad, in a way, this has happened. We have never really discussed what to do. First, we must stop the bleeding.” Of course, the blood keeps spurting and Julia grows woozier until she collapses onto the counter, finally saying, “I think I’m going to sleep now. Bon appétit!”
She continued on PBS with such series as Julia Child & Company and Dinner at Julia’s; she was also a guest on The Tonight Show and had a regular short segment on Good Morning America beginning in 1980. In 1993, she began her PBS series Cooking with Master Chefs, and in 1999-2000 partnered with Jacques Pépin in a series called Cooking at Home. Along the way, she continued to publish cookbooks.
Unlike My Life in France, The French Chef in America does not exactly bubble over with Julia’s personality. It is a straightforward biography of the last four decades of her life written in Prud’homme’s journalistic voice. It covers the territory well, including her disgust with such late-20th-century food fads as cuisine minceur and nouvelle cuisine. She wasn’t a food snob, however, and “enjoyed hot dogs, hamburgers, and French fries as much as the next person.”
Julia Child was clearly undaunted by age. Prud’homme writes that her mind remained sharp when they worked together in her 92nd, and final, year. She considered My Life in France “a sacred trust, a set of rules about the right way and wrong way to approach food” that she felt a duty to pass along. Her purpose was “to make cooking easy for people, so that they can enjoy it, and do it. . . . And it’s a civilized art, don’t you think?”
Originally posted at weeklystandard.com