The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act

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9780399564826: The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act

The enchanting story of Julia Child's years as TV personality and beloved cookbook author--a sequel in spirit to My Life in France--by her great-nephew

Julia Child is synonymous with French cooking, but her legacy runs much deeper. Now, her great-nephew and My Life in France coauthor vividly recounts the myriad ways in which she profoundly shaped how we eat today. He shows us Child in the aftermath of the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, suddenly finding herself America's first lady of French food and under considerable pressure to embrace her new mantle. We see her dealing with difficult colleagues and the challenges of fame, ultimately using her newfound celebrity to create what would become a totally new type of food television. Every bit as entertaining, inspiring, and delectable as My Life in France, The French Chef in America uncovers Julia Child beyond her "French chef" persona and reveals her second act to have been as groundbreaking and adventurous as her first.

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About the Author:

ALEX PRUD'HOMME is Julia Child's great-nephew and the coauthor of her autobiography, My Life in France, which was adapted into the movie Julie & Julia. He is also the author of The Ripple Effect: The Fate of Freshwater in the Twenty-First Century, Hydrofracking: What Everyone Needs to Know, and The Cell Game, and he is the coauthor (with Michael Cherkasky) of Forewarned: Why the Government Is Failing to Protect Us--and What We Must Do to Protect Ourselves. Prud'homme's journalism has appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Vanity Fair, Time, and People.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
Julia’s Second Act
 
In mid-July 1976, Julia Child attended President Gerald R. Ford’s bicentennial celebration in Washington, D.C., where she provided commentary for public television, interviewed the White House chef, and met Queen Elizabeth II. Then, as the somewhat raucous party was still winding down, Julia slipped away to rejoin her husband, Paul, in the quiet anonymity of rural France.
 
Julia was near the height of her celebrity at the time. Performing as “The French Chef,” she had won an Emmy, a Peabody Award, and the French Ordre du Mérite Agricole; appeared on the cover of Time magazine; made documentary films; and co-authored two volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which had helped launch a food revolution in America. Flinging baguettes, slapping eggplants, flapping chicken wings, she had proven to be a natural on TV: a knowledgeable, unaffected culinary guide whose comic timing and idiosyncratic vocalizations were lauded and satirized across the country. In France, however, the French Chef was virtually unknown, which was just how the Childs liked it.
 
Every year, Paul and Julia would retreat to their small, simple house outside of Cannes for a few weeks at a time. They had named the house La Pitchoune—La Peetch, for short—which means “the little thing” in the Provençal dialect. It was the place they went to exhale and rejuvenate. Paul would write, paint, photograph, and tend the garden. Julia would sleep, visit restaurants, and cook with her “French sister,” Simone “Simca” Beck. It was a familiar pattern, only this time the Childs invited my family to join them.
 
We flew from New York to Nice, rented a small olive-green car, and drove along winding roads to the Childs’ house overlooking the hill town of Plascassier. That evening the Childs welcomed us with a succulent dinner of roasted lamb and ratatouille. Julia was ebullient. In the coming days, she toured us around the outdoor market in Cannes, where she spoke to nearly every vendor and bought heaps of fish for what she would deem “a great bouillabaisse.” Then she was off—visiting with M. F. K. Fisher, negotiating with the plumber, having her hair done, attending to desk work, and always tinkering with something delicious in her compact cuisine.
 
At La Peetch—as in their much larger home kitchen in Cambridge, Massachusetts—Paul had erected Peg-Board on the wall, from which he hung Julia’s batterie de cuisine. He outlined her copper pots and steel pans with black Magic Marker, so one would know exactly where each should be hung. Julia worked at a small gas stove vented by a window, a tall worktable, and with a row of knives arranged by size on a magnetic strip. It was an efficient space not much bigger than a ship’s galley, and it seemed to emit mouthwatering smells at all hours.
 
Though Julia and Paul never had children (they had tried but it “didn’t take,” Julia said), they welcomed my sisters and me as surrogate grandchildren. Paul was the twin brother of my maternal grandfather, Charles Child. We had been lucky to spend time with Julia and Paul in Cambridge, New York, and Maine, but this was our first visit to La Pitchoune. I was almost fifteen years old in the summer of 1976, with bushy blond hair down to my shoulders; my sisters were thirteen and nine. While my parents were lodged in a guest room, my sisters slept in an outbuilding, and I was relegated to a couch in the open living-dining room. We children had been warned to be on our best behavior, and made sure to walk slowly and keep our voices down around Paul, who was seventy-four and still recovering from a heart-bypass operation two years earlier.
 
Paul was an erudite man who was a decade older, and several inches shorter, than Julia. He was pleasant, if reserved, that July. He would appear at meals, but spent much of his time sequestered in the little cabanon (cabin) across the driveway, painting, writing, and organizing the bottles in his wine cave. He had grown thin, his face was often slack, and he seemed mentally present one minute but distant the next. He could be stern and liked to talk about Serious Things, like Politics, Economics, and Culture, which made him an intimidating presence. I would later learn that he was suffering from nightmares and insomnia at the time. Because Julia was a snorer and a thrasher, they slept apart; but when Paul awoke at 4 o’clock one morning, he slipped into her bed for comfort, and, he noted in his date book, they “‘sleep’ late.”
 
Our two weeks at La Pitchoune were an idyll. We bought flowers in Grasse, shopped for handblown glass in Biot, picnicked in sunny fields, wandered through Old Nice, lunched at the house of the expat American chef Richard Olney, and swam in the azure Mediterranean. Inspired by the Formula 1 cars that race in nearby Monaco, I ground the gears and spun the tires of our rental car in the bumpy field below La Peetch, teaching myself how to drive a stick shift. After terrorizing a herd of goats, putting a dent in the fender (stone wall), and feeling the adrenaline surge as I bounced through mud patches at warp speed, I declared myself fit for a driver’s license, not to mention hot laps around Monte Carlo.
 
As always, talk at the Childs’ house centered on the gastronomic and painterly arts, and these subjects came together for me in a new way on the afternoon that we drove up to Saint-Paul-de-Vence for lunch. It is a secluded medieval town nestled in the steep hills between Nice and the Alpes-Maritimes mountains. There, we ate at La Colombe d’Or, a seemingly modest auberge where a sign reads: “Ici on loge à cheval, à pied ou en peinture” (“Here we lodge those on horseback, on foot, or with paintings”). The inn was established in 1920 by Paul Roux, a local farmer, and is decorated with a remarkable collection of artwork by the oncestruggling painters and sculptors who traded their work for lodging: Picasso, Braque, Léger, Chagall, Calder, and others.
 
Perhaps it was the familial warmth, the food and wine, the proximity to such a collection of masterworks, or some other mysterious trigger, but Paul suddenly grew animated. His one good eye came into focus (the other had been blinded in childhood), he smiled for the first time in days, he regaled us with stories about the local villages-perchés—the fortified hill towns built to defend against raiding Saracen pirates—and encouraged me to try a glass of rosé. My grumpy granduncle was suddenly entertaining and interesting; it was as if Paul had reverted to his charming, pre-bypass self.
 
A couple of evenings later we gathered on the terrace at La Pitchoune for dinner. It was hot, the air was still, and we were tired. The sun faded behind the hills, and Julia hummed to herself as she cut up a whole chicken and steeped it in a fantastic marinade, then grilled it one sizzling piece at a time on a tiny hibachi in the corner. Paul ran a long extension cord from the house to a small black-and-white TV placed on a wobbly chair. He turned the TV on to the Summer Olympics, then under way in Montreal. As the graceful Cuban heavyweight boxer Teó- filo Stevenson battled Romania’s Mircea Şimon, Paul jabbed the air with his fist and translated the French announcer’s play-by-play into English with growing excitement. When Stevenson knocked out Şimon to win the gold, we stood to hoot and holler at the little screen. (It was Stevenson’s second gold medal, after triumphing in Munich. Winning again in 1980, he was the first boxer to win three Olympic gold medals in one weight class.) Paul was so animated, and Julia’s chicken was so delicious, that the evening lingers as memorable.
 
In ensuing years, Paul would fade into a state he ruefully called “the mental scrambles.” Never fully recovering from his operation, he suffered a series of strokes and other ailments that left him weary, confused, and irascible. In retrospect, those days at La Pitchoune in 1976 were the last glimpse I had of the intelligent, warm, and enthusiastic man he had been: the genuine Paul Child.
 
Julia, on the other hand, was in the midst of a dynamic new phase of her career, when she left behind classical French cuisine and the French Chef, to reinvent—and re-Americanize—herself as “Julia Child.”

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