Is there anything left to say about Julia Child? Interested readers can pore over numerous biographies about the woman who brought French cooking to America, then turn to memoirs by her friends and colleagues. Child herself contributed the charmingly discreet autobiography My Life in France, co-written with her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’Homme. Now, 12 years after Child’s death, Prud’Homme returns with The French Chef in America.
Given the above, readers may assume another Julia Child biography can only revisit well-known material. Happily, The French Chef in America does nothing of the kind. This fresh look at Child’s life and work focuses on the period between the 1960’s and early 1980’s, an era Prud’Homme calls “Julia’s Second Act: when she retooled her career, embraced her American roots, and finally discovered her true voice.”
Child is famously recalled for her towering height, fluty voice, and boundless, good-natured energy. While nobody could accuse her of cultivating a public facade, Child was by nature discreet, keeping interpersonal squabbles and personal pain under wraps. Only now, when most of the persons involved have died, does Prud’Homme disclose the darker moments of his great-Aunt’s life. This isn’t prurience. Rather, it completes the picture of a singular, remarkable American woman.
The French Chef in America opens in 1967, with Child taping a diplomatic dinner at the Johnson White House. Permitted to visit the White House kitchens, Child peers over executive Chef Henry Haller’s amazingly calm shoulder as he prepares a meal for the visiting Japanese Prime Minister and his wife. Taping completed, the Childs fly to France for a much-needed vacation.
Their rest was cut short when Child found a lump in her breast. Neither lumpectomy nor cosmetic reconstruction were commonplace in 1968; doctors treated the “lima bean-sized” malignancy by cutting off Child’s entire breast. In letters to friends, Child calls the experience a “nuisance”. She does not mention the hospital stay or, once home, sobbing in the tub over her lost breast.
Beginning on a such a dire note is misleading, for The French Chef in America, like its subject, is often delightful. Prud’Homme’s insider proximity affords readers wonderfully detailed descriptions of the Childs and their residences, particularly their three-story home in Cambridge. On entering the house, one felt as if “…you were stepping into Paul’s and Julia’s conjoined brains. It was the decoration that gave that impression. The front hallway led to one of Paul’s handcarved wooden chests, while nearly every wall was decorated by his etchings, photographs, and paintings.”
One writer visited the house, looked around, and asked Paul Child why nobody thought to interview him.
Paul Child was a polymath — painter, photographer, oenophile and skilled handyman. That he was utterly indispensable to his wife was no secret. He did everything from shooting Julia’s cookbook photographs to washing the dishes. Naturally quieter and more retiring than his gregarious wife, Child preferred to remain in the background.
Nevertheless, Prud’Homme writes of his great-aunt: “There was a tension inherent between her wish to be a good wife and her professional ambitions. The first required selflessness while the latter required selfishness; maintaining a balance wasn’t easy.”
This quandary grew more difficult in 1974, when Paul Child underwent heart bypass surgery. During the procedure, Child’s brain was deprived of oxygen, leaving him permanently impaired. Prud’Homme recalls visiting his great-uncle in France: slumped, silent, and grumpy, Child was given sudden, mortifying public scenes. Julia, outwardly unfazed, would calm him down. Over time, Child’s health grew perilously frail, forcing Julia to place him in assisted living.
Prud’Homme also describes Julia Child’s complex relationship with Simone “Simca” Beck, co-author of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Louisette Bertholle, third author, had bowed out shortly after the book went to press. This left two highly individual, often contrasting personalities to duke it out in the kitchen.
Beck shared many surface qualities with Child. Raised in a wealthy family, she was groomed to marry well, not cook — the family employed servants for that. The adult Beck divorced her first husband and attended Paris’s Cordon Bleu Cooking School. She adored sports cars, enjoying, in her words, driving “like a demon”. Happily remarried, the childless Beck devoted herself to cooking.
In My Life In France, Child says of Beck: “She was a dear friend, but horribly disorganized and rather full of herself. She didn’t bother to check the copy with care (of Mastering the Art of French Cooking), which led to several difficult moments between us.”
Child is being diplomatic. Excerpts of Beck’s correspondence, reprinted in My Life in France and The French Chef in America are argumentative, demanding, often breathtakingly rude. To be on the receiving end of such letters demanded astonishing patience. Child maintained that patience until 1971, when Beck sent an outraged letter about basting with beef dripping, a technique she herself suggested: Ce n’est pas français! You Americans cannot possibly understand that we French would never baste with beef drippings!
With this letter, the Child/Beck collaboration ceased. Remarkably, the women remained close friends until Beck’s death in 1991.
Knopf editor Judith Jones played a key role throughout. A keen home cook, Jones had lived in Paris. It was Jones who urged Alfred Knopf and his food-averse sister, Blanche, to accept Mastering the Art of French Cooking for publication. Jones went on to have a stories career as a food editor, publishing writers like Lidia Bastianich, James Beard, Edna Lewis, and Claudia Rodin. When Child and Beck parted ways, Jones helped Beck publish Simca’s Cuisine. She also acted as a resource for Prud’Homme in writing The French Chef in America, which is dedicated to her.
The French Chef in America also examines Child’s remarkable output over two decades. At a time when many people are contemplating retirement, Child worked unceasingly. In addition to numerous television specials, she appeared on The French Chef and Julia Child and Company. Child authored The French Chef Cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking Part II (with Simone Beck as co-author), From Julia Child’s Kitchen, Julia Child and Company, and Julia Child and More Company.
Nobody is without failings. Prud’Homme describes Child’s naïve reliance on trade groups like the Poultry and Egg Board for factual information. Strangely, for a woman who willingly spent hours perfecting flavors, Child supported the use of monosodium glutamate (MSG). Even more oddly — shockingly, really — is the couple’s homophobia: “There is no simple way to explain Julia and Paul’s homophobia except as a function of their generation, their ignorance, and their experience.”
Prud’Homme clearly finds their joint attitude bewildering. The Childs were close friends of James Beard and Richard Olney and professional acquaintances of Craig Claiborne.
Child’s attitude underwent an abrupt reversal in 1986, when her longtime lawyer, Bob Johnson, died of AIDS-related pneumonia. Johnson, only 46, had lived a closeted gay life. A horrified Child changed her thinking. She is quoted below at an AIDS benefit: “But what of those lonely ones? The ones with no friends or family to ease the slow pain of dying?”
In many ways The French Chef in America is a cook’s book; nowhere is this more apparent than in the pages about Child’s relationship with Jacques Pépin. Of this classically trained chef: “There was not much Julia could teach him about cooking, but there was a lot she could teach him about performing.”
After an automobile accident limited Pépin’s ability to stand for long hours, he turned to teaching, cooking demonstrations, and television. It was before the cameras that the more experienced Child, 23 years Pépin’s senior, had something to teach him. They argued genially over food as the cameras rolled, with Child often displaying a bawdy sense of humor.
Julia Child died as she had lived, with great dignity, in her words, “slipping off the raft” two days shy of her 92nd birthday. What was to have been her birthday celebration became a wake.
This reviewer received The French Chef in America for review on 14 November 2016. Opening it in a doctor’s waiting room, she nearly burst into tears. The French Chef in America opens on 14 November 1967, another world and time away. While the world was far from ideal 50 years ago, it’s difficult to believe that life wasn’t a little bit better when Julia Child peered over Henry Haller’s shoulder in the White House kitchen while a blundering Lyndon Johnson was hosting the Japanese Prime Minister upstairs.
Everything is relative.