August 20, 2004
Mastering the Art of Julia Child
By ALEX PRUD'HOMME
A few days before Julia Child died, we sat together in her compact, fragrant garden in Montecito, Calif., talking about her life. She was about to turn 92. Although she was thin and pale, she seemed stronger and more acute that day than she had been in weeks. She had always loved to work, and, as usual, she corrected my French accent and added little soupçons of information to the book we were writing together, a series of reminiscences from the years 1948 to 1954, when she and her husband Paul, my great-uncle, lived in France. Julia sometimes had difficulty remembering a conversation from the day before, but she could recall events from 50 years ago with surprising clarity.
She had arrived in France in November 1948 not speaking the language or knowing how to cook. "I had never even heard of a shallot," she said. "I was there as Paul's extra baggage." Ten years older than Julia, he ran the visual presentation department at the United States Information Service. By the time they left for other postings six years later, Julia was fluent in French, ran a cooking school and was co-authoring a comprehensive cookbook that would later make her famous.
She learned many things in Paris, she said, one of the most important of which was how to shop like a Parisian. "It was life-changing," she said, "because shopping in France taught me about human relations." Through daily excursions to the outdoor market on the Rue de Bourgogne, or into the organized chaos of Les Halles, she learned that the French are highly attuned to social nuance. If a tourist enters a food stall thinking she will be cheated, the salesman will happily oblige, Julia explained. But if he senses that his customer took a genuine interest in his produce, then he will just "open up like a flower."
With a smile, she added: "I quickly learned how to communicate. If I wasn't willing to spend time to get to know the sellers and what they were selling, then I wouldn't go home with the freshest head of lettuce or best bit of steak in my basket. They really made me work for my supper. But what a supper - yum! And it was such fun."
It was this spirit, her vigorous curiosity and joie de vivre, that made Julia so appealing to so many people. And it is one of the things that sets her apart from many of today's celebrity chefs and lifestyle entrepreneurs. While the sale of her books - starting in 1961, with "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. I'' - provided her with a very good living, she was never in it for the money. She refused to endorse products or restaurants, and turned down many lucrative commercial television projects in favor of public television. She was motivated by a deep enjoyment of food and its preparation, and would happily spend hours tinkering in the kitchen by herself or, preferably, with others.
In her garden that day the flinty side of Julia was also on display. This is an aspect of her personality that people tend to overlook or ignore, but it was just as much a part of her as the fun-loving "ham" and "hayseed" that was her television persona. She was not simply a funny tall lady who dropped food on the floor and appeared to swig wine intemperately. (In fact, she was privately irritated by such caricatures.) She was a driven and rigorous technician, a well-trained and hard-working cook who loved French cuisine in part because it had what she called "rules."
One didn't simply whip up a homemade baguette or champignons à la grecque any old way; one must make them the "right" way. Julia's method was to spend hours on "scientific" research, learning how master chefs approached a recipe. When she found an approach she liked, she'd "submit it to the empirical test." By this, Julia meant: "Find out if a recipe is any good by doing it. If the mayonnaise doesn't 'catch' properly, then try it again until you get it all right - the temperature of the bowl, the type of oil, the vinegar, the speed at which you whisk it all together. A little extra effort shows your guests that you care about the food. It's always worth it."
If a dish goes horribly wrong, like a "vile" eggs Florentine she once made for a friend, Julia instructed, "Never apologize." She considered it unseemly for a cook to twist herself into knots of excuses and explanations. Such admissions "only make a bad situation worse," she said, by drawing attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings) and prompting your guest to think: Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal. "The cook must simply grin and bear it," Julia said firmly.
Our conversation drifted to the Cordon Bleu, France's famous cooking school. In 1950 she was the lone woman in a class of 11 American G.I.'s learning to cook there under the G.I. Bill. Always considerate of "the boys" in person, Julia confided to her sister-in-law that the G.I.'s weren't serious enough: "there isn't an artist in the bunch," she coolly observed. And when I asked about Madame Brassard, the school's formidable proprietor, Julia, who rarely spoke ill of anyone, snapped: "She was a horrid woman. She hardly knew how to cook and was mostly interested in making money. Besides, she wasn't even French - she was Belgian."
When I asked her about the recent tension between France and the United States, Julia said she'd found it disappointing but not surprising. "It was the same in 1949," she recalled. That year, an old American friend in Paris had blurted out that she considered the French mean, grasping, chiseling and unfriendly in every way. The friend, Alice, couldn't wait to leave France and said she would never return. "Her words were still ringing in my ears the next morning, when I had a flat tire, broke a milk bottle and forgot to bring a basket for strawberries," Julia recalled. "Yet every person I met that day was helpful and sweet, and one of them even gave me a fish head for our cat! Alice had been a good friend, but I just didn't understand her anymore."
Julia, meanwhile, had decided that "I must really be French - only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere and the generous pace of life there. I saw no reason to leave, ever."
Julia led a charmed life, but it wasn't perfect. In France she and Paul had half-heartedly tried to conceive, but, "it didn't take," she said with a shrug. Resolutely unsentimental, Julia did not dwell on this. Instead, she directed her enormous energy into "cookery." Paul, who was quiet but strong-willed, was fully supportive of her decision. "If we'd had children, I never would have had the career I did," she said. "I don't regret it."
As Julia grew sleepy, and her black-and-white cat Minou chased butterflies around our feet like a mischievous sprite, my wife Sarah asked her: "What was your favorite thing you've ever done?"
Julia paused a beat, and with eyes suddenly bright, answered: "Cooking with other chefs!"
That deceptively simple phrase was quintessential Julia: clear, modest, committed, eager to participate, and happiest when she was sharing delicious food with others.
"It's been a very nice life," she said. And then she lay down to rest.
Alex Prud'homme is the author of the forthcoming "Bon Appetit: My Life with Paul in France," which he was writing with Julia Child.