Before famous chef Julia Child died two years ago at the age of 91, she inspired her grandnephew Alex Prud'homme to complete a memoir about her first trip to France with her new husband, Paul Child. After Child tried French food, she was hooked and studied at the Cordon Bleu under Chef Bugnard. Her career as a culinary star had begun.
In August 2004, Julia Child and I sat in her small, lush garden in Montecito, California, talking about her life. She was thin and a bit stooped, but more vigorous than she'd been in weeks. We were in the midst of writing this book together. When I asked her what she remembered about Paris in the 1950s, she recalled that she had learned to cook everything from snails to wild boar at the Cordon Bleu; that marketing in France had taught her the value of "les human relations"; she lamented that in her day the American housewife had to juggle cooking the soup and boiling the diapers -- adding, "if she mixed the two together, imagine what a lovely combination that would make!"
The idea for My Life in France had been gestating since 1969, when her husband, Paul, sifted through hundreds of letters that he and Julia had written his twin brother, Charles Child (my grandfather), from France in 1948-1954. Paul suggested creating a book from the letters about their favorite, formative years together. But for one reason or another, the book never got written. Paul died in 1994, aged ninety-two.
Yet Julia never gave up on the idea, and would often talk about her intention to write "the France book." She saw it, in part, as a tribute to her husband, the man who had swept her off to Paris in the first place.
I was a professional writer, and had long wanted to work on a collaborative project with Julia. But she was self-reliant, and for years had politely resisted the idea. In December 2003, she once again mentioned "the France book," in a wistful tone, and I again offered to assist her. She was ninety-one, and her health had been waxing and waning. This time she said, "All right, dearie, maybe we should work on it together."
My job was simply to help Julia tell her story, but it wasn't always easy. Though she was a natural performer, she was essentially a private person who didn't like to reveal herself. We started slowly, began to work in sync, and eventually built a wonderfully productive routine. For a few days every month, I'd sit in her living room asking questions, reading from family letters, and listening to her stories. At first I taped our conversations, but when she began to poke my tape recorder with her long fingers, I realized it was distracting her, and took notes instead. The longer we talked about "little old France," the more she remembered, often with vivid intensity -- "Ooh, those lovely roasted, buttery French chickens, they were so good and chickeny!"
Many of our best conversations took place over a meal, on a car ride, or during a visit to a farmers' market. Something would trigger a memory, and she'd suddenly tell me about how she learned to make baguettes in Paris, or bouillabaisse in Marseille, or how to survive a French dinner party -- "Just speak very loudly and quickly, and state your position with utter conviction, as the French do, and you'll have a marvelous time!"