Grandnephew has the book on Julia Child
Julia Child and her husband Paul gaze at each other on the cover of her autobiography My Life in France. They’re young. They’ve pinned red paper hearts over their real hearts, signalling a love for the ages
When the book, co-written with Julia Child’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, was published in 2006 (after Child died), Prud’homme’s friends were confused. “How did they get that cover photo of you with Julia?” they asked him. (And why the love hearts, they must have been wondering.)
There lies a clue as to why Prud’homme was close to his famous great aunt. “I look like him,” Prud’homme says of Paul Child, his great uncle (his grandfather’s brother) who died in 1994. “It’s one of the reasons Julia and I got along so well. We looked alike, we had similar temperaments and shared a similar sense of humour.”
I, too, was struck by the close family resemblance when I interviewed Prud’homme at the Fairmont Waterfront Hotel recently. Their hairstyles? Identical. That is, their hairline receded in exactly the same pattern and their heads seem cast from the same mould. Their faces project calm and good humour.
He was in Vancouver promoting The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act, his second book about his great aunt. This one, however, was not based on interviews with Julia as much on the Childs’ papers, including letters, memos, TV scripts, articles, speeches, cookbooks, date books and of course, his personal knowledge. He cites the sources in 21 pages of footnotes. Prud’homme has also written political/scientific books on energy and the environment.
“Their marriage was a remarkable business and life partnership,” says Prud’homme. “They even used to write joint letters. It was a fantasy marriage.”
Facebook didn’t exist back in the day but their letters foreshadowed things to come.
“They wrote letters full of details about everything — the weather, the price of wine, what was happening during the Cold War. It was almost like they knew they were going to live extraordinary lives. Julia always typed her letters, which were full of crossed-out words. It’s tremendous. They kept everything pristine.”
In the beginning, Julia and Paul had something of a Pygmalion relationship.
“She considered herself too tall, too loud, too unsophisticated. Paul (a U.S. diplomat in France) mentored her,” says Prud’homme.
But later, after moving back to the U.S., she was a beloved celebrity chef with two massive volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, TV cooking shows and much more to come.
Whereas the first book detailed Julia’s life in France, French Chef in America is about Julia back in the U.S.
“She found her raison d’etre in France in the late ’30s and ’40s. It was pure joy, an Aha! moment when she understood the reason why she was on the planet,” says Prud’homme. “She was the right person at the right time with the right ideas and communicated them in the right way. She didn’t invent a food revolution but she certainly catalyzed it.”
In America, she jump-started a second career with American cookbooks and more TV shows. “She was responsible for creating that. She reinvented herself and it didn’t happen overnight. It was hard work but she loved working.”
She was a superstar. But in France, not so much.
“The French don’t like anyone telling them how to cook their food and profess not to know who she is.” However, after the movie Julie & Julia (where Meryl Streep reincarnates Julia), American tourists descended upon Julia’s France, so the French “certainly had an inkling,” says Prud’homme, who coached Stanley Tucci for his performance as Julia’s husband. “I played an extra at a party scene,” says Prud’homme.
He says Julia refused to endorse products. “She forewent millions of dollars,” he says. “People were constantly trying to use her name. She was a modest person who didn’t like to talk about herself, carried her own suitcases through airports but the only time she used her name was to get into restaurants she desperately wanted to try. She’d only do it for food.”
At restaurants, she visited the kitchen to talk to everybody.
“She spent more time with the dishwasher than the chef. She always wanted to know their stories,” he says.
She wasn’t vain but she did have facial plastic surgery. She never talked about it but Prud’homme found references in letters, coded in her doctor’s name. “She understood that on TV, you’re judged by looks,” he says.
In America, she began writing in the first person, telling personal stories. “She discovered her voice and had a whole second career, which was more American,” says Prud’homme. “She used that voice and became very outspoken. She was not like a nice little old lady. She was big and strong and tough. She railed against vegetarians and nutritionists and the fat police. She stirred it up and got people to talk. She later changed her position on nouvelle cuisine but never changed her mind about butter. She hated margarine so much she wouldn’t speak the word.”
She had detractors in the 1970s. Madeleine Kamman, a French chef and cookbook writer in the U.S., said Julia was neither French nor a chef. “Julia thought it was mean spirited,” says Prud’homme. Paul, meanwhile, was investigated during the McCarthy era.
“Paul and Julia never had kids but they had surrogate children — my sisters, me, my cousins — they were generous with them and with a lot of other people.” To the young Prud’homme, Julia was like a fairy godmother. “They’d often come and stay with us and we’d watch her show on black and white TV. As a kid, it was like she just walked out of the TV,” he says.
His great aunt viewed cooking as a civilized art. She’d originally dreamed of being a famous novelist but when she found cooking, those urges went into cookbooks. “I think maybe that’s a hidden reason why her cookbooks had such power. There’s something more than recipes. It’s like an iceberg with hidden passion.”
If her recipes tend to be long, it’s because she wanted them to work perfectly. “If there were risks of something going wrong, she’d write about how to save it.”
Prud’homme visited Julia two days before she died and she talked of going lobster fishing, visiting a slaughter house in Chicago, and teaching kids.
“She still had that hell fire,” he says. “We were gathering to celebrate her 92nd birthday. When she died, we decided to have a party anyway.”
For him, her legacy was her optimistic, risk-taking nature and a non-apologetic approach to life.
“I use her as a touchstone,” he says.
His next book is about the history and role of food in the White House.
“It tells you a lot about the state of the nation, where we were as a people, where the culture was and what we ate.”
The project wouldn’t have happened, he says, without inspiration from his great aunt having been the first to go into the White House kitchen with TV cameras, first during the Lyndon Johnson presidency and another during a dinner for Queen Elizabeth and Prince Phillip under President Ford.
Thus article originally appeared on vancouversun.com