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Celebrating Julia Child's Legacy

France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child tells the story of the years when Julia found herself through cooking

By
Kara Rota,
December 5, 2017
Episode #178

france is a feast book cover julia childs

In 1948 Julia was thirty-six, and described herself as “a rather loud and unformed social butterfly.” Raised in a wealthy Pasadena, California, household with a cook, and educated at Smith College, Julia had no professional direction, and knew hardly anything about food or France. Yet deep down she sensed that she was destined to do something special in life. The question was: what would that be, and how would she achieve it?

In her first months in Paris, Julia took French classes, worked part-time organizing the USIS files for Paul, and tentatively began to shop at local outdoor markets, and at Les Halles, the teeming marketplace in the center of the city. It was there, and in Paris’s famous restaurants, that she first discovered a passion for “good food, carefully prepared.”

Wandering the city, the Childs discovered places like La Truite, a snug restaurant off the Faubourg Saint-Honoré, which specialized in what Julia called “really chickeny-chicken”—a flavorful bird from Bresse that was suspended by a string and roasted before an electric grill. Or Chez la Mère Michel, a hole-in-the-wall bistro on the Right Bank that specialized in fish napped with a beurre blanc “wonder-sauce.” Or Le Grand Véfour, an ornate three-star restaurant dating to 1750, tucked in behind the gardens of the Palais Royal. There, Paul and Julia were bouleversé—bowled over—by the staff’s cordiality, the “deft and understated” service, the “spectacular” food, and even their fellow patrons, who included the novelist Colette. “You are so hypnotized by everything there that you feel grateful as you pay the bill,” Paul quipped of Le Grand Véfour.

Sampling her way through the délices of Paris, with Paul’s enthusiastic encouragement, Julia began to develop a sophisticated palate. And before long she felt the urge to learn how to cook coq au vin, boeuf bourguignon, and coquilles Saint-Jacques herself.

***

Paul and Julia settled into a multistoried apartment at 81 Rue de l’Université (which they nicknamed the “Roo de Loo”), on the Left Bank, next to the National Assembly and across the Seine from the American embassy. Their landlords were the Du Couédics, a genteel family of the fading aristocracy. Their femme de ménage (housekeeper) was called Jeanne-la-folle (crazy Jeanne). Their poussiquette was named Minette.

Before long, Julia’s sister Dorothy, known as “Dort,” came to visit and then moved in nearby. (Their brother, John McWilliams, remained in the States.) An inch taller and five years younger than Julia, Dort worked at the American Club Theater of Paris. She jumped into the expat social scene with both size-twelve feet, and eventually met her husband, Ivan Cousins, a Marshall Plan administrator, at the theater.

While Paul toiled in the semi-chaotic Visual Presentation Department at the embassy during the week, Julia decided it was high time she learned how to cook. In October 1949 she enrolled in the Cordon Bleu cooking school. The school’s ill-tempered director, Madame Élisabeth Brassart, first placed her in a “housewives” class in a sunlit room at the top of the building. When Julia complained that the class was too expensive and too simple, she was sent to the basement, to join a class of GIs learning to cook on the GI Bill. The Army men were not entirely pleased to have a tall Smith grad in pearls enter their classroom. But Julia soon distinguished herself as the hardest-working student in the basement.

Her mentor at the Cordon Bleu was Chef Max Bugnard, who taught her some of the same lessons that Paul had learned about photography—that mastering technique is essential, that it is “always worth taking time, and care, to do things right. And have fun—yes fun, Madame Scheeld,” Bugnard would say. “Cooking is joy!” Bugnard was a kindred spirit to the Childs. Paul approved of his humanistic and careful approach to food, and life. Julia internalized Bugnard’s lessons, and would repeat them to her students and audiences for the rest of her career.

Learning to cook la cuisine bourgeoise—delicious, carefully prepared, middle-class food—Julia experienced a “flowering of the soul” in Paris. Not only was French cuisine the best-tasting food she had ever had, she declared, it was easy to learn because it was built on a set of clearly established rules (first codified by Georges-Auguste Escoffier, the legendary chef and father of la Grande Cuisine). This latter aspect of French cooking appealed to the Childs’ respect for scientific rigor, combined with passion. “In France,” Paul liked to say, “good cooking is a combination of high art and competitive sport.”

One could say the same of photography.

Excerpted from France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, by Alex Prud’homme & Katie Pratt

Text copyright © 2017 Alex Prud’homme

Reprinted by permission of Thames & Hudson Inc., www.thamesandhudsonusa.com

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