What inspired you to write this book? Julia Child was my great aunt (by marriage), and I grew up hearing her wonderful stories about learning to cook in France in the 1950s: I suspected that other people would enjoy them as much as I did. Julia had been talking about writing such a memoir since 1969. But, for various reasons, her “France book” never appeared. In the meantime, I built my own career as a writer. I offered to help Julia with her memoir, but she always politely declined. Then, when she was 91, she finally agreed. We worked together on the book over eight months in 2004; she died in August, two days short of her 92nd birthday, and it took me another year to finish the book. Her memoir was finally published in 2006, and I only wish she had seen it.
What was the best thing about writing this book? Spending time with Julia at the end of her remarkable life. Listening to her stories, helping her re-live her “favourite years,” when she and her husband Paul Child (my grandfather’s twin brother) lived in Paris and Marseille, and weaving it all together into a series of linked narratives was enormously gratifying. Julia discovered herself through eating and cooking French food, and she used those lessons to change America. In writing her memoirs, I was able to experience Julia’s thrills and disappointments vicariously.
Do you like to cook? I love to cook, and do it frequently. I am what Julia would call “an enthusiastic amateur.” I have cooked many of her recipes, but I also like to cook Italian and American dishes, and am constantly experimenting. Over the winter I made Julia’s boeuf bourgignon (beef stew) and tarte tatin (apple tart); now that it is spring, I have been roasting lamb, grilling fish and making big salads. My wife has been experimenting with vegetarian dishes. Our kids like to cook, too, especially things like bread, cookies and pancakes.
Can you describe some of the times you spent together with the Childs? Paul and Julia never had children of their own, but they had many surrogate “children,” and my sisters and I were lucky to spend time with them. Julia and Paul sometimes stayed at my parents’ apartment in NYC: as a kid, I would watch her on our little black-and-white TV, and then she’d appear in our kitchen in living color: I figured she just walked out of the TV set. There were great Thanksgivings at their house in Cambridge, MA, including the time Julia served a rich pumpkin soup inside a hollowed-out pumpkin. At our family house in Maine, Julia taught my sisters and me how to make lace cookies, blueberry pie, and fish chowder. And I’ll never forget visiting the Childs at La Pitchoune, their little house in Provence: in 1976, when I was 14, I ate at two-star restaurants, swam in the Mediterranean, learned to drive in the Child’s field (the rental car suffered), and sipped rose; one afternoon, we sat on the terrace while Paul translated French TV coverage of the summer Olympics in Montreal and Julia made the most delicious grilled chicken, one piece at a time, on a tiny hibachi. (I regret not asking for her marinade recipe.) As she would say, “we had such fun!”
What do you think contributed to Julia Child’s wonderful sense of joie de vivre? Julia led a charmed life, and fully embraced it. She was a naturally sunny person who was raised in an upper middle class household in Pasadena, CA; her mother, brother and sister were all tall and funny (her father was tall and serious); after graduating from Smith, Julia had many adventures in World War II and as a diplomatic wife in France, Germany and Norway, before returning home to become America’s first celebrity TV chef. Julia was a more complex person than people realize. She possessed an unusual combination of curiosity, intelligence, mischievous humor, a natural instinct for TV, and a deep seriousness about food. She wasn’t always perfect or right, and didn’t pretend to be. She was constantly learning and evolving. Her advice was: “Take the time and care to do things right. Work hard. Be willing to take risks. Make mistakes, but never apologize. And, above all, have fun!” These seemingly simple lessons can be applied to cooking, or to any other aspect of life.
Which are your favourite images in this book? All of them! Most were taken by Paul, and are evocative of certain times and places. (In fact, I am working on a book of Paul’s photographs.) I like seeing Julia newly-arrived in Paris, fresh-faced and a little nervous, but excited. Julia with her colleagues, Simca Beck and Loisette Bertholle, at their cooking school, L’Ecole des Trois Gourmandes (“The School of the Three Hearty Eaters”). Julia with chef Max Bugnard, her mentor, or Curnonsky, the great gourmand. Julia in Marseille, learning to shop for fish and cook with Mediterranean flavours. The wonderful Valentines cards. Julia and Paul working together to illustrate “Mastering” from the cook’s perspective – one of their innovations. The last shot of Julia at La Pitchoune, her “spiritual home” in the South of France.
What were some of the most important moments when writing this book? Julia was not shy, but she was modest, and the hardest part of writing her memoir was to convince her to talk about herself. (That may explain why she never wrote the book herself.) I would ask her a question, and she would turn it around and ask about me, or my kids, or someone walking by. I was finally able to crack the code by reading aloud from the letters Paul wrote from France to his twin, Charlie, in Pennsylvania. He wrote wonderfully detailed accounts about their lives – about the weather in Paris, the cost of wine, what Julia was cooking at the Cordon Bleu, the politics of the American embassy, the state of the Cold War, their travels hither and yon, etc. Hearing these stories seemed to take Julia back to those moments, which allowed her to talk about Paul, France, food – and, by the way, herself – and eventually unleashed a flood of memories. That was a huge breakthrough.
What was the most interesting thing you discovered when writing this book? There was not one thing, but I was impressed by Julia’s taste-memory – she could still remember certain meals fifty years after she’d experienced them – and how hard she worked. People like to focus on her humor, understandably, but what struck me was how devoted she was to learning the history, philosophy, techniques and rules of la cuisine bourgeoise (delicious, middle-class French cooking). She was able to transmit her enthusiasm for France and its food to Americans in a unique way. Once you learned those lessons, she said, you could apply them to Chinese, Italian, or any other cuisine. Also, Julia treated everyone – from a bum on the street to an official at the G.W. Bush White House – in exactly the same way (peppering them with questions, listening intently to their answers), which was a great life lesson.
What was one of the best things that happened because of this book? The book was published after Julia died, and we didn’t know how well it would sell. Luckily, it sold well, and after “Julie & Julia” came out, it sold well again. The book and movie reignited interest in Julia and her teaching, and extended her legacy beyond what it would have been otherwise. Today, a decade after her death, “Julia’s Kitchen” is one of the most popular exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, and the centrepiece of a new American food hall; in October, the winner of the first-ever Julia Child Award will be announced there. Personally speaking, I am grateful to Julia because her memoir was the most fun I’ve had as a writer, and its success allowed me to continue freelance writing, which is a difficult career in the best of times.
What are you working on next? I am writing a new book about Julia Child in the 1970s, when the world was in turmoil and she reinvented herself while in her sixties. It’s a period of her career that most people don’t know about. The Childs were living in Cambridge, MA, when Julia distanced herself from French cuisine and “The French Chef” in order to focus on America. She used recipes from around the world, wrote in the first person, performed as “Julia Child,” and finally found her voice. She filmed at the White House, investigated Colonial cooking with Jim Beard, was spoofed by Dan Aykroyd on “SNL,” and joined Good Morning America; yet her public success was tinged by private sadness over her and Paul’s health problems. It was the best-of-times and the worst-of-times. The working title of the book is “The French Chef in America,” and it is scheduled to be published by Knopf in the Spring of 2016.
Read my review of ‘My Life in France’ here.