Alex Prud’homme

Boston University, Boston, MA.
October 19, 2004

Good afternoon, I’m Alex Prud’homme, Julia Child’s great-nephew. When she died last August, Julia and I were writing a book together about the years she and her husband lived in Paris and Marseille. I am now finishing it, and Knopf will publish it next year.

Julia arrived in Paris in late 1948, not speaking the language or knowing how to cook. Six years later she left, fluent in French, an accomplished cook, a budding teacher, and in the midst of co-writing her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Our working title is “Bon Appetit: My Life with Paul in France,” and it’s about what she called, “the best years of my life.”

Paul and Julia Child shared an extraordinary life in some extraordinary places — not only in France, but in Asia during the Second World War, in Washington DC, here in Cambridge, and in California.

I’ve always believed that you can tell a lot about a person from their surroundings, and so I tried to get Julia to tell me about each place they lived in, and especially about her kitchens.

But it wasn’t always easy.

Julia was keenly observant of people, and could tell wonderfully evocative stories about the meals she’d eaten fifty years ago, but she wasn’t very good at describing physical places.

I’d ask her: “What did your apartment building in Paris look like?”

She’d smile, look at me with her big blue eyes, and say: “Well, it was… a building.”

That wasn’t especially descriptive, and so I have made a point of visiting a few of her favorite places, in the hope that they’d tell me something about her.

For the last few years Julia has been living in apartment I-178, a small but cozy one-bedroom at the Casa Dorinda retirement home, in Montecito, California. There, she was surrounded by her assistant Stephanie, her nurses, plants, cookbooks, and her pussyquette Minou — not to mention a seemingly endless parade of family and friends. An amazing amount of activity went on in that apartment, which is how Julia liked it. She loved to be engaged, and to have life swirl around her.

The kitchen in her apartment was small, with white Formica countertops and a stainless steel sink. But she made this plain space her own by mounting some of her favorite cookware on the walls — knives, strainers, old-fashioned egg-poachers, and – my personal favorite – heavy copper pan-lids in various sizes.

Those tools were a sort of good-luck talisman for Julia. She hasn’t been able to cook much lately, but she loved it when friends came over and filled the apartment with wonderful smells and delicious food. As long as someone was using those seemingly magical implements from her cooking life, Julia was happy. And she came to love her little place.

A few years ago, the Casa Dorinda offered her a bigger and sunnier apartment, with a deck. But she said: “No thank you — I like what I’ve got right here.”
The place that most of you are familiar with is the famous gray house at 103 Irving Street, in Cambridge. Paul and Julia lived and worked there for about 40 years. Julia’s kitchen was the central room of the house: not only the hearth, but the very nerve-center of 103 Irving.

The design of that kitchen was deceptively simple — with its aqua green walls, pegboards covered with outlined pots and pans, a long table surrounded by curved Norwegian chairs, the trusty Garland stove, and “enough knives to outfit a pirate ship,” as Julia liked to say.

But in fact that seemingly simple space was the 17th kitchen that Paul and Julia had designed together, they figured, and there was both an art and a science to it. The kitchen was not at all pretentious, or especially stylish, but it was supremely functional and comfortable – a place that made you want to stay, cook, sip something, and talk all night.

One of my favorite nights there, my wife Sarah and I sipped Maker’s Mark and had a spirited discussion with Julia about things like “The Trouble With Politicians These Days,” “Movie Stars Who Can Actually Act,” and, of course, “What We’d Choose For Our Final Meal if We Were Ever Put on Death Row” (Julia’s topic). She was in her 80s at the time, and we were having, as Julia said, “such fun!,” that we were surprised to discover that it was suddenly 2 AM. We all went to bed, but Julia was up at 6 the next morning, as usual, working away.

Paul was handy around the house, and a good gardener – although he was frustrated by the recalcitrant Wisteria bushes that refused to give him flowers. Ironically, or poetically, a few days after his death, at age 92, the Wisteria bloomed full of flowers for the very first time.

Julia’s kitchen from that house is now on display at the Smithsonian museum, in Washington, where it has proven one of the museum’s most popular exhibits. After her death, people flocked there with flowers and condolence cards, watched tapes of old cooking shows, laughed and cried, and told each other Julia stories in front of her kitchen. She would have loved that.

For, at heart, Julia was a teacher. She had a great gift for communicating with any kind of person, from a dishwasher to the President of the United States, and her inquisitive enthusiasm was always genuine.

She was modest about her accomplishments, but proud that her kitchen was in the Smithsonian. And she was amused that the curators had left a piece of chewing gum and several banana stickers stuck underneath the big Norwegian table there — left, she said, by Paul, who ate a banana every morning.

Julia described her very first meal in France, a lunch of sole meuniere in Rouen, in late October 1948, as “an opening up of the soul and spirit.” And later she’d say that she suspected she really was French, only no one had ever let her in on the secret.

One of the most important lessons she learned there was to take the time to get to know people, and the food, and how to really communicate.

“Shopping in France taught me all about les human relations,” she told me. “If I didn’t take the time to talk to the sellers about what they were selling, then I wouldn’t go home with the best bit of steak in my basket.”

A few weeks ago I was in Paris, and I finally had a chance to visit Julia and Paul’s building at 81 Rue de l’Universite, which they called “Roo de Loo.” As Julia had told me, it is “just a building” — it’s four-stories tall, cream-colored, with a tall wooden door, scrolled window moldings, and it overlooks a green park in the 7th Arrondissement. I’d guess Roo de Loo looks today just as it did 55 years ago: its easy to imaging Paul coming out of that door and crossing the Seine to work at the US embassy, Julia driving to classes at the Cordon Bleu in the Blue Flash — their enormous Buick station wagon — the two of them laughing and exploring Paris’ cobblestoned streets together.

But I hope the kitchen at Rue de Loo has changed over the years.

In 1949 it was on the third floor, connected to the dining room by a dumb-waiter, and it was dominated by an immense black stove that required five tons of coal to heat. On top of this “monster,” as Julia called it, stood a little two-burner contraption and a box-oven that could barely warm plates. There was a vast sink with no hot water and had its pipes freeze in the winter, and no garbage receptacles.

While living there, Julia wrote: “I didn’t mind living in primitive conditions with my in-laws at their hand-built cabin in the Maine woods, but I saw no sense in being even more primitive while living in the supposed ‘cultural center of the world’ in Paris.”

So she set a tub of water over a gas flame, bought garbage cans, hung up a can-opener on the wall, and declared it “home.” Then she and Paul celebrated with champagne and oysters.

Julia liked to describe herself as “a knife freak, frying pan freak, and gadget freak.” And the place where she nursed her obsession was Dehillerin – the encyclopedic cookware store, near the Pompidou Center.

I’m happy to report that she’s still there.

When I stopped by the other day, I looked up and noticed a large color photograph of Julia hanging over the cash register, as if she’s the patron saint of gadget freaks: it shows her smiling gleefully and holding up an enormous rolling pin, like she’s about to bop someone over the head.

In Marseille, where the Childs lived for a year, I was thrilled to discover their Art Deco apartment building overlooking the Old Port. Walking along the quay, I looked up and instantly recognized its distinctive wave-patterned ironwork from Paul’s photographs.

The kitchen there was small and dark, but Marseille is where Julia learned to love the sunny taste of garlic and tomatoes, the cursing fishermen and their screaming wives, and the infinite number of ways to make Bouillabaise – each one of which, she was assured, was the “real” recipe.

The Childs were warned that this neighborhood was dangerous and dirty in 1954, a place full of criminals and prostitutes, but Julia loved its earthiness. Today the Old Port has been cleaned up for the America’s Cup, and looks rather sleek and fashionable. Instead of smelly fishing boats and rusty tramp steamers, it is filled with gleaming speedboats and mega-yachts. I did not see a single screaming fish-wife in Marseille — an “improvement” that, I suspect, Julia would not approve of.
La Pitchoune means “the Little One,” and the house by that name that Paul and Julia built in the town of Plascassier, near Cannes, is modest, with stucco walls, green blinds, a red tile roof, olive trees and lavender bushes.

It was a house built on friendship.

Simca Beck — Julia’s co-author on Mastering the Art of French Cooking — and her husband Jean Fischbacher, allowed Paul and Julia to build La Pitchoune on their property, with the understanding that the house would revert to them once the Childs had finished using it. Basically it was all arranged with a handshake — which is quite un-American, and “equally un-French,” Julia liked to point out.

The Childs went to La Pitch every year, often with foodie friends like Jim Beard or MFK Fisher. Simca’s much bigger house, called Bramafam — which translates to “a Cry for Hunger” — was nearby, and the two cooks beat a path between their kitchens, as they experimented with recipes and wrote together. But, by 1992 Simca had died and Paul had suffered a series of strokes, and Julia gave up the house.

Fittingly, La Pitchoune is now being run as a cooking school by Kathie Alex, an American chef who studied under Simca Beck and worked at the nearby Moulin de Mougins — where Julia met her while taping a segment on Provencale cooking for “Good Morning America.” Julia once wrote to Kathie: “I’m counting on you to teach Americans about butter and cream!” And so she is, with great enthusiasm.

The day Julia gave up La Pitchoune, she simply handed the keys over to Simca’s relatives and walked away. Or so she said.

But what really happened was that Julia let her niece Phila Cousins deal with handing-over the keys. On the last day there, Phila cried at giving up the beloved Pitchoune. Julia, meanwhile, cooked a Daube and then blithely went off to play golf.

When I heard this second version of the story, I didn’t know what to make of it: did Julia really not care about La Pitchoune, one of her favorite places on earth? Or, was giving up the house, in fact, too emotional, too much for her to face, so that she avoided that moment of truth?

When I asked her about this directly, Julia said that once Paul and Simca were no longer with her, La Pitchoune had lost its raison d’etre.

And then I understood: while Julia loved certain things, like her pans and knives, or places, like her wonderful houses, what she cared most about was the people around her. Julia taught us is to take the time to appreciate the people we are with, and to really communicate with them — no matter which kitchen we happen to be in.

Merci, Julia and Toujours bon appetit!

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.