There have been few sign-offs in television history more famous, or more frequently parodied, than the emphatic, "This is Julia Child: bon appetit!" And it was thoroughly characteristic straightforward, enthusiastic, convincing and delivered with the gusto that pervaded her life. It was that frank If I can do it, you can do it approach, says her great-nephew Alex Prud'homme, that so swiftly made Julia a friend, confidant and coach to millions of amateur cooks.
But what her viewers and readers also recognized was her very real passion for food, particularly French, of course, but also for any honest, fresh, imaginative and generous approach to cooking. In fact, Julia Child was a great romantic, and her new memoir, completed with Prud'homme's help after her death, is first and foremost a love story.
"This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life," she writes in the introduction to My Life in France. "My husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating." And it is impossible not to feel Julia's excitement at her progressive discoveries of French cuisine, culture, cookware, cooking and ultimately teaching throughout this lively reconstruction of the Childs' first posting to Paris, from 1948-1954, and later in their second home in Provence.
It's also clear how much she adored her husband, a self-taught gourmet and bon vivant, a painter and photographer despite having lost one eye as a boy and her greatest fan. Both the dedication, "To Paul Child," and the cover make this clear. The jacket photograph shows P & J, as they sometimes signed themselves, with red paper hearts pinned to their shirts. It was their habit to send out Valentine's Day cards instead of Christmas cards, Prud'homme says, and he includes photos of several in the book.
For Prud'homme, who had not known his great-uncle in his prime, getting to know Paul through his letters was part of the fun; "it was sort of like doing archaeological exploration of my own family. We were fairly close Paul and [my grandfather] Charlie were twins, and we were always together for Thanksgiving and so on but they seemed kind of exotic, always flying off to Paris or California or something." Fortunately, Paul Child was a great correspondent.
"He was such a vibrant person as a young man," says Prud'homme. "He sent letters to his brother every week, long, handwritten letters, funny, acerbic, very lively." Prud'homme, a successful freelance journalist, uses many of these old letters, as well as photographs and mementos ("she had them stuffed everywhere ") to set off his great-aunt's often irreverent reminiscences.
"She had always talked about writing a book like this, and every year I used to go and visit and offer to help. But she was very much of a life moves forward' person, and it would have made her lonely to pore over old letters. So I would just get her talking and take notes." The stories are frequently hilarious—post-World War II Paris was not always an easy place for a six-foot-two and rather gawky American naif—often with her sense of wonder and delight still tangible. It's especially vivid when discussing her determination to learn French techniques, and her unhappy sense that the great school Le Cordon Bleu was in decline, even as she subjected her husband and friends to endless batches of homemade mayonnaise.
That she and two of her friends, Simone Simca Beck Fischbacker and Louisette Bertholle, dared to call their fledgling school L'Ecole des Gourmettes was a sort of declaration of culinary independence. They were determined to teach not haute cuisine but honest cuisine bourgeoisie—an attitude that led to the publication of the landmark Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Prud'homme says, "She patterned her teaching technique on Chef Max Bugnard, her mentor at Cordon Bleu. He taught her not only how to cook like the French but how to shop like the French take your time, ask the vendors about their wares and they'll open up to you. He used to say, Goutez! Goutez! (Taste! Taste!)" There are fascinating cameos and sidelights throughout the book: the wild-haired grande dame of literature Colette at her favorite cafe; James Beard in a vast billowing Japanese kimono strolling across the fields to breakfast with the Childs; a series of eccentric maids, including one who flushed a beer can down the toilet, and so on. There's a cheery Calamity Julia tone to these adventures. It's somehow not at all surprising that just before she was to tape the first episode of "The French Chef," the studios at WGBH, the Boston public television station that produced the show, burned down.
"What you see in 'The French Chef' is what you got with Julia, maybe a little amp-ed up for television, but not much," says Prud'homme. " But what I didn't really get as a kid was what a great impact she had on so many people. And I also didn't realize how hard she worked at it. She had tremendous discipline, despite the funny stuff."
Julia Child died in her sleep on Aug. 13, 2004, two days short of her 92nd birthday. She was so indelible a part of American culture that the kitchen where much of " The French Chef" was filmed has been reconstructed in the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History.
Her last words in the book refer to her first meal on French soil, in 1948. "In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite—toujours bon appetit!"
Eve Zibart is a restaurant critic for the Washington Post and the author of nine books, including The Ethnic Food Lover's Companion.