Salad Days

By the time Julia and Paul Child left the United States for Paris in the late 1940s, a couple of cooks were already beginning to establish themselves as television celebrities in America. I Love to Eat, which appeared on NBC starting in 1946, featured James Beard, an actor turned caterer and cookbook author; To the Queen’s Taste, which debuted on CBS in 1948, starred Dione Lucas and was broadcast from her New York restaurant, the Egg Basket. But both Lucas and Beard had one problem so far as the viewing public was concerned: Both were not only professional cooks but also looked it. Julia Child’s lack of a professional culinary background would be noted in later years by detractors (chief among them the formidable Savoyard cooking instructor Madeleine Kamman, who noted rightly, “‘The French Chef’ is neither French nor a chef”), but her very lack of a background would be the key to her success. Fifteen years after departing for Paris and seven years after returning, she would establish herself on television as an informed American everywoman, eager to share the mysteries of France and of French cuisine but apparently never taking herself too seriously as she did so.

Child had not been a television watcher in the States, and there was no television to watch in the chilly rented apartment in Paris where she established herself in 1948 when her husband, Paul, took a job with the US government. In fact, she was not even a trained home cook: Only after marriage (and only out of necessity) had she begun teaching herself about food preparation, using Irma Rombauer’s great American workaday classic, The Joy of Cooking (1931), which Child familiarly referred to as “Mrs. Joy.” An alumna of Smith College (class of 1934), Julia Carolyn McWilliams had worked briefly as a copywriter in New York before returning to her hometown of Pasadena, CA, to live as a sporty young woman with vaguely journalistic aspirations, then joining the war effort as a typist for the Office of Strategic Services, a forerunner of the CIA. She came from a world where food was prepared by servants.

While stationed in present-day Sri Lanka in 1944, she met Paul, a man ten years older and also employed by the OSS, who had a taste for food and wine. After sharing a posting in China, the two (who both came from distinguished Massachusetts families) married in 1946. They set up house briefly in Washington before Paul accepted a position in Paris. There he would create propagandistic visual exhibitions. The job would prove stressful, bureaucratic, thankless, and particularly difficult for a man who had always hoped to live freely as an artist. But the posting did allow the couple to live in glamorous, bohemian Paris, and, after all, that was something.

Keeping house in Paris gave Child an extraordinary opportunity to discover French society and culture. Through old friends of Paul’s (who had lived there during the city’s School of Paris heyday), she took up the study of its language and literature. At the same time, she became fascinated by the taste and refinement of French cooking, as well as by the elaborate and entirely pleasurable ceremonies surrounding fine (restaurant) dining. Accordingly, she began to read and learn all she could about French food. Sensing that she might one day make a career for herself by teaching cooking to other Americans visiting Paris, or else by engaging in what she jokingly described as “cookery-bookery,” she began studying French cooking at the Cordon Bleu. Although her husband made little money, Child seems to have had some of her own. Thus, despite the many discomforts of postwar Paris (which included not just cold coal smog and antiquated plumbing but also, in both Paul’s and Julia’s case, a persistent stomach ailment picked up in Asia), the couple ate and drank very well.

Considering just how much was being written on food and wine in Paris during the period, My Life in France, Child’s posthumously published memoir, features little in the way of gossip on cookbook authors or food writers. The memoir is by no means a portrait of a time, place, or movement; neither is it exactly a memoir, since most of it was ghostwritten after her death. The world in which the Childs moved was, rather, one of bureaucrats (some more important than others), old friends from genteel backgrounds, and carefully selected new acquaintances. There were surely both elitism and homophobia within this world, and apparently a certain desire, as well, to keep other Americans who wrote about food at arm’s length. Thus Hadley Mowrer, the good-looking ex-wife of Hemingway, is mentioned a good deal, but Alice B. Toklas, whose cookbook-memoir would be one of the great publishing sensations of the ’50s, is mentioned only in passing (and not very kindly). M. F. K. Fisher, who published continuously on both French and American cooking from 1937 on and was herself raised just a few miles from Pasadena, isn’t mentioned at all. Neither are food writers Elizabeth David, Waverley Root, and Child’s friend and Smith College classmate Charlotte Snyder Turgeon, who attended the Cordon Bleu a decade before her, knew her in Paris, and in 1949 published her translation of that great classic of French home cooking, Tante Marie’s French Kitchen. Were Child’s adventures not so enviable, her memoir might seem a little airless, but this is a personal and not a professional memoir, and the reader is carried along by the fantasy of living, loving, and cooking in Paris in the early 1950s.

What seems to have been of the greatest importance to Child was immersing herself in French culture. The Childs were, however, much less interested in the existentialist movement or in developments in French visual art than they were in eating and drinking authentically and well in haute-cuisine restaurants like Lapérouse and Le Grand Véfour and in smaller, less expensive establishments renowned for one thing or another. Their quest was for authenticity in French cuisine, and they wanted to learn about it directly from the French. Doing so would be important, of course, to Child’s reputation as a cooking instructor. Paul therefore staged photographic tableaux of her with people like the great Parisian food authority Curnonsky, as a sort of visual propaganda by which he ultimately bolstered her credentials. The Childs worked hard to associate with those French chefs, restaurateurs, and homemakers who could give them the most direct experience possible of French cooking and dining traditions. Chief among these traditions, of course, were those of the Cordon Bleu cooking school.

Child’s Cordon Bleu was far from that elegant place portrayed in the 1954 Billy Wilder film Sabrina, starring Audrey Hepburn; its life consisted, rather, of large numbers of would-be American restaurateurs, funded by the GI Bill, studying in a hot basement kitchen while more simple-minded classes were conducted upstairs for high-paying and easily satisfied tourists. (To her credit, Child took the less expensive “professional” courses with the GIs and was the only woman in her class.) Indeed, with its extreme lack of funding, the school seems to have operated in a state of severe dysfunction. Her account of the experience (or rather, the account synthesized by her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme on her behalf, using letters and interviews from her archive) is grimly comic, in the manner of Balzac who was indeed Child’s favorite writer. Her love of Balzac makes perfect sense when one considers that this master of all things French was not only a physically unprepossessing sensualist and a genial master of realpolitik but also—and perhaps more to the point—a born entertainer.

During those early days in Paris, Child came to prefer a French cookbook given to her by her friend and French teacher, Hélène Baltrusaitis, to the more prosaic Joy of Cooking. The former was “a great big old-fashioned cookbook by the famed chef Ali-Bab,” My Life in France notes. “Even on sunny days, I’d retreat to my bed and read Ali-Bab . . . with the passionate devotion of a fourteen-year-old boy to True Detective stories.” Only by consulting Noël Riley Fitch’s 1997 Appetite for Life: The Biography of Julia Child, however, do we learn that the book was Gastronomie pratique by Henri “Ali-Bab” Babinski, originally published in 1907. In her devotion to a somewhat esoteric and highly entertaining French cookbook, Child was already charting the direction her career would take. Her writing and television work would engage readers in the same sort of fantasy: namely, that of cooking authentic French food in all its mystery and splendor.

While Child’s memoir describes a gastronomic education, it is also, in large part, the story of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that launched her career in 1961. Though it was her first book (and an endeavor she shared with two women coauthors), it is undoubtedly her masterpiece; it took over a decade to write, formed the body of knowledge on which all her subsequent writing was based, and taught French cooking technique via the recipes themselves, which are masterful in their clarity and detail.

Child’s engagement with the project began as the result of meeting two affluent Frenchwomen with a passion for cooking, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck Fischbacher, in 1950. Of the two, Beck was the more dedicated and energetic cook, and it was she who would collaborate with Child more closely. The three met through a women’s club devoted to good food, Le Cercle des Gourmettes, and in short order Child joined the two women in a project they had already begun, an attempt to write about French home cooking for Americans. She also proposed that the three of them open a small cooking school for well-heeled American women, one that they agreed to call L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes.

The book went through a number of revisions and canceled contracts, for its original publishers thought it much too elaborate and not what had been agreed on. Finally, with the persistent help of Avis De Voto (wife of historian Bernard De Voto and a great early believer in Child’s talents as a writer and a teacher), the manuscript landed on the desk of a savvy and ambitious young editor at Knopf, Judith Jones.

In the final agreement between the three collaborators, Bertholle took a reduced royalty but kept her name on the finished first volume. (Child was not just being polite in sharing the credit; she hoped that Bertholle’s stylish appearance and many social connections would help to promote the book.) Ultimately, however, only Child and Beck did publicity in the States. Beck soon returned to France, which is how Child went on to appear on Boston public television alone—first as a guest on a talk show and then, after enthusiastic viewer response, as a cooking instructor on a show of her own, The French Chef, in 1963. Out of allegiance to the early fantasy of the Bertholle-Beck-Child cooking school, however, Child continued to wear an “Ecole des Trois Gourmandes” insignia on her kitchen uniform throughout the early years of the show, whose best episode (on omelettes) is a tour de force of showmanship and whose worst disaster (the tarte tatin episode) makes fantastically good television, even if one can imagine Beck (who came from Normandy) recoiling at the sight of one tragically botched apple tart after another.

My Life in France is also, in part, a portrait of Julia and Paul Child’s marriage. The book is in fact dedicated to Paul and features many of his art photographs (though none of his paintings), but the picture of the marriage is too polite to be really convincing. Paul was clearly a mentor to Julia when they moved to France, as well as an ardent, even exhibitionistic lover (his poetry in praise of his wife is charming, well written, and surprisingly erotic), but he was not without a dark side. The memoir is circumspect in its portrayal of him, but even so, he was clearly neurasthenic and frustrated in his artistic ambitions. At the same time, he was unapologetically sensualist and physical, a bon vivant and a Francophile, and his devotion to his wife is evident in the many lovingly composed photographs of her that appear in the memoir, as well as in the sweet, funny photographic valentines the couple sent out in lieu of Christmas cards.

Julia and Paul Child in the bath. This photograph was taken in 1956 for a Valentine’s Day card that read, “Wish you were here. Happy Valentine’s Day, from the heart of old downtown Plittersdorf on the Rhine.”
Julia and Paul Child in the bath. This photograph was taken in 1956 for a Valentine’s Day card that read, “Wish you were here. Happy Valentine’s Day, from the heart of old downtown Plittersdorf on the Rhine.”

Julia and Paul were certainly opposites. While she was clownish, high-spirited, and naturally sociable, he was orderly, rigorous, introverted, and prone to bouts of both depression and paranoia that originated, one is told, in his highly unstable childhood and grew worse through his tortured relationship with his (healthier and more successful) identical twin. Fitch’s Appetite for Life gives a fuller account of his personality, though one senses that even that book (which was published during Child’s lifetime and with her full cooperation) politely refrains from telling what is probably a more complicated story. Her Smith classmate and fellow cookbook writer Turgeon, however, gave a concise account of Paul’s ways in an interview published last year in a special issue of the journal Gastronomica dedicated to Child:

[Paul] didn’t like me, and it was mutual. Things were never relaxed when he was around. I found him very dictatorial. He made it very clear that he considered me a threat to Julia’s career and wanted to get me out of the way. . . . He filled his life with her life the last twenty years, after he retired from the diplomatic service. [But] nobody ever managed Julia! . . . She knew how to manage her work, her house, and him. . . . They complemented each other well. He was very precise and neat, whereas she was more of a Sloppy Joe in some respects. He was so precise that his very deliberate process of opening a wine bottle used to drive me nuts.

Delightful as My Life in France is, it is also a troublesome book, for Child was only interviewed for it at a time when her health was failing and her ability to contribute was limited. The result was a book written in her voice (but only after her death) by her grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme. Thus, while the book captures the voice of Julia Child with astonishing accuracy, it is not a book written or dictated by Julia Child.

The careful packaging of celebrity is endemic to American culture, and throughout her life Child was presented to the public in a variety of ways. Paul packaged his wife for cookbook celebrity through his detailed photography of her, her work, and her Parisian contacts and milieu. Child’s editor at Knopf packaged her as a culinary authority in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, designing a book of extraordinary visual organization and gravitas, particularly compared with other period cookbooks. And Child’s television production team, Russell Morash and Ruth Lockwood, packaged yet another Child for The French Chef, allowing her eccentricities and droll sense of humor to come to the fore and encouraging her in cooking adventures that were attempted (and sometimes pulled off) like elaborate party tricks.

In this memoir, the reader experiences all the things one wants in a good escapist read: wealth, privilege, fun, adventure, hard work, erotic fulfillment, love, success, and fame. But there is a fundamental dishonesty here, and the longer one looks at the book, the less satisfying it becomes. Like Balzac, who enjoyed tantalizing his readers with the possibility that his novels were based in truth, Prud’homme has fabricated a memoir from both fiction and fact. But Julia Child delighted in Balzac, so (as deceptions go) this book is really not so bad. If dishonest, the book is at least fundamentally true to its subject and a very great pleasure to read.

Justin Spring is a biographer living in New York. His most recent book is The Itty Bitty Kitchen Handbook: Everything You Need to Know About Setting Up and Cooking in the Most Ridiculously Small Kitchen in the World—Your Own (Broadway Books, 2006).