Lifestyle & Culture

Weekend Reading: The French Chef in America

Alex Prud’homme’s new book, The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act, details the life of Alex’s grand-aunt, Julia Child, after she and husband Paul Child returned to the United States following years spent in public diplomacy (and cooking!) abroad. It shows us how Julia Child expanded from “the French chef” on public television to a modern American cook who retained a keen interest in technique and taste while expanding to other cuisines.

Our excerpt from the book, published earlier this month by Knopf, tells the back story to two iconic Saturday Night Live skits, the “Bass-O-Matic” skit and the “Save the Liver” skit in which Dan Aykroyd plays Julia Child. In a way, Alex points out, the “Save the Liver” skit helped to define Aykroyd’s career, helped to define SNL and helped to define Child herself,  establishing her as a national icon whose name need not be mentioned to be recognized. And when Alex hears someone say they “have Julia’s voice” in their head, “I have to say, ‘You have Dan Aykroyd’s version of her in your head!’ ” 

Alex Prud’homme will discuss The French Chef in America as part of the Smithsonian’s Second Annual Food History Weekend, Saturday, October 29, 2016. Tickets for the 3:30pm talk, at the Smithsonian’s Warner Bros. Theater, are free,  but registration is required. Books will be available for purchase at the event; you can also find it at local booksellers and online. Please also read MyLittleBird’s chat with Alex.

‘JULIA CHILD WAS directly responsible for the Bass-O-Matic,” [Saturday Night Live‘s Dan] Aykroyd told me. He was referring to one of his most famous SNL sketches, which aired in April 1976 (and reprised, word for word, on the show’s fortieth-anniversary show in 2015). In it, Aykroyd appears as an intense, motormouthed salesman with manicured hairprudhomme3web and mustache, dressed in a loud checked jacket and wide maroon tie.

“How many times has this happened to you? You have a bass. You’re trying to find an exciting new way to prepare it for dinner. You could scale the bass, remove the bass’s tail, head and bones, and serve the fish as you would any other fish dinner,” he exhorts at maximum speed. “But why bother—now that you can use Ronco’s amazing new kitchen tool, the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76!”

The skit was inspired by the real infomercial pitchman Ron Popeil, who hawked items such as the Veg-O-Matic (“It slices! It dices!”), GLH (Great Looking Hair) spray-on hair, the Pocket Fisherman, Smokeless Ashtray, and the tagline “But wait, there’s more!”

Aykroyd channeled Popeil’s manic energy and ratcheted it into the absurd: “The days of troublesome scaling, cutting, and gutting are over. Because the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76 is the tool that lets you use the whole bass, with no fish waste, without scaling, cutting, or gutting. Here’s how it works: catch a bass, remove the hook, and drop the bass—that’s the whole bass—into the Super Bass-O-Matic ’76. Now adjust the control dial so that that bass is blended just the way you like it.”

With that, he drops a “bass” (the fish looks more like a porgy) into a standard blender, turns it on high, and liquefies it into pale brown goop. “Yes, it’s just that simple!” he exhorts. “The Bass-O-Matic ’76 works great on sunfish, perch, sole, and other small aquatic creatures . . . it’s clean, simple, and after five or ten fish it gets to be quite a rush!”

Although Julia’s name is never uttered, Aykroyd credits her with inspiring the skit, via a semitraumatic piscatorial experience of his own.

Both his mother and aunt were excellent cooks, and devotees of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. In fact, his aunt,

Alex Prud'homme

Author Alex Prud’homme. / Photo by Michael Lionstar.

Helen Gougeon, was “a Canadian clone of Julia Child, if you will,” said Aykroyd. She was a French Canadian who ran a cookware store in Montreal, wrote books like Cooking . . . with an Accent, and hosted a radio and TV show on the CBC called Bon Appétit. 

Julia befriended Helen Gougeon and gave her an early version of the Cuisinart food processor before it had arrived in North American stores. Gougeon immediately took to the machine. When Aykroyd was visiting Gougeon at her lake house, she decided to make bouillabaisse, the famed fish stew of Marseille. Instead of chopping her freshly caught trout into chunks and stewing them first, Gougeon simply dropped the entire uncooked fish—head, tail, fins, gills, and all—into her new Cuisinart and blended it to a pulp.

“My eyes went wide, and I was stammering, ‘Wh-wha-what just happened to the fish?!’” Aykroyd recalled. “Years later, I remembered that for the Bass-O-Matic.”

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In the seventies, Aykroyd was fascinated by Julia as “a go-to cultural figure,” and would rush home from SNL rehearsals to watch her on PBS. It was this devotion to Julia that inspired one of the most iconic skits in SNL’s history, one that defined his career and cemented Julia’s celebrity status.

It was Thanksgiving 1978 when Julia and Jacques Pépin appeared on The Tomorrow Show with Tom Snyder. The show aired at 1:00 a.m., and was billed as a “conversational chat show” with Snyder, an idiosyncratic, six-foot four-inch, cigarette-smoking host. Moments before airtime, Child and Pépin were backstage, rushing through their preparations for volaille demi-désossée—a chicken that has had the backbone removed, is stuffed, and then sewn back together again.

Julia borrowed Jacques’s razor-sharp knife, and as she surgically sliced the chicken, she lopped off a fingertip. Blood gushed, and her finger clearly needed stitches. But the producer was already counting down the final seconds before they were to go on air. Julia was a seasoned performer and, in “the show must go on” spirit, pushed the flap of skin back onto her fingertip, stanched the blood with a clean kitchen towel, and bound her finger with a bandage.

“Don’t worry, Jacques will cook, I will explain, and it will all work out fine,” Julia told a worried Snyder. She asked him not to mention the accident on air because she wanted to focus on the chicken.

They walked onstage, and within minutes Snyder blurted out, “Julia, do you mind if I tell people you just cut your finger?” As the camera zoomed in for a close-up of her bandaged hand, there was little she could do but smile. After the show, Julia, Paul, and Jacques went to a hospital, where she was given eight stitches. (Julia then led a late-night charge to L’Ermitage, a French restaurant in Los Angeles.)

Julia considered the finger cut a minor incident, but thanks to Snyder, news of her julienned digit quickly spread. When she appeared on The Tonight Show a week later, Johnny Carson asked about the injury; and when she made an omelet on The Kathryn Crosby Show in San Francisco, she was mostly asked about her mishap.

Dan Aykroyd, meanwhile, had parodied Tom Snyder on SNL for years: the host’s honking laugh, occasionally brusque manner, awkward questions, and contrasting gray hair and jet-black eyebrows made him an easy target. “We saw Julia cut herself on Snyder,” Aykroyd explained, “and thought it could be something funny.”

Within days, SNL writers Al Franken and Tom Davis cobbled together a sketch based on the incident. Although SNL had women such as Gilda Radner, Jane Curtin, and Laraine Newman in the cast, “for some reason they asked me to read the part,” Aykroyd recalled.

In the skit, Aykroyd’s “Julia Child” was dressed in a curly brown wig, pearls, earrings, a pink shirt, and a blue apron. (“I look like a busty version of my mother,” he said to me with a laugh.) As he demonstrated how to make a holiday poularde with a demi-désossée—“a fine, fat roasting chicken” that has been partly deboned—he narrated in a high-pitched warble: “You can save the liver and fry it up with some onions for a little snack. Or, if you have a number of livers, you can make a lovely liver pâté. Or a delicious liverwurst, which you can spread on a cracker—a Ritz cracker, a sa-a-hhaa-ltiiine—or on a bread, a rye bread . . . Or, if you have a pet cat or a dog, they love liver. Save the liver. Don’t throw it away. I hope I’ve made my point: don’t throw the liver away!”

As he prepares to bone the chicken, Aykroyd’s Julia says, “For this you need a very sharp knife—you can’t do nothin’ without a sharp knife!” Operating on the chicken, he adds, “You cut along the backbone to the pope’s nose, like so—rrrrrraaAHHH! Oh! Oho! Now I’ve done it. I’ve cut the dickens out of my finger!”

Blood begins to squirt vigorously from his hand onto the chicken, and pools on the countertop.

“Well, I’m glad, in a way, this has happened. We have never really discussed what to do. First, we must stop the bleeding.” As blood spurts across his chest and runs down his arms, “Julia” attempts to stanch the flow with his apron while attempting to smile and keep things upbeat. “You want to raise your hand over your head . . .”

As blood arcs through the air, the audience’s squeals and nervous laughter grow louder and louder. Aykroyd carries on: “I recommend natural coagulants, such as chicken liver. Another reason not to throw away the liver . . . Oh, God, it’s throbbing!” he wheezes.

Pink blood sprays across the counter in great jets.

He suggests making a tourniquet from cheesecloth and a chicken bone. When that doesn’t stop the torrent, “Julia” grows woozier and says, “I’m remembering a time when I was a little girl and I had a dog named Amber . . . I used to give him liver. And my mother gave me a doll . . . Why are you all spinning? Uhhh, I think I’m going to go to sleep now . . . Bon appétit.

He falls face-first across the bloody counter. With a final twitch, he raises his head to cry, “Save the liver!”

The audience laughed hysterically, unaware that the skit had almost failed.

In order to pump the fake blood through Aykroyd’s hand, the SNL prop department had filled an old, brass fire extinguisher with stage blood, and rigged a long black rubber hose down Aykroyd’s arm. “We had to get the rhythm of the blood perfectly timed, but it wasn’t working at dress [rehearsal],” he remembered. When it came time to perform the show live, the script’s writer, Al Franken (now the Democratic junior U.S. senator from Minnesota), was determined to make it work: he hid under the counter and enthusiastically pumped the blood himself.

The skit was a silly “blood joke, a fluid joke,” Aykroyd admits, and he had “no idea it would become a classic.” But then he makes sure to add, “It came from a place of total respect for Julia Child. I was a huge fan of hers, of course. It was a tribute.”

The SNL sketch aired on December 9, 1978. It happened that Julia and Paul had been out to dinner in Cambridge that night. They returned home to 103 Irving Street, switched on the little television in the kitchen—“just so that it would make a noise,” she’d recall—and there was Aykroyd’s Julia, spraying blood and warbling about livers.

The Childs settled in to watch. While Julia loved a good laugh, she didn’t like mean-spirited comedy. As the skit ended, the phone began to ring: it was friends and family members from across the country calling to ask if Julia had seen the send-up and what she thought of it. “We thought it was terribly funny,” she replied.

The Childs kept a videotaped copy of the SNL skit by their TV, and would occasionally break it out for friends. Dorie Greenspan, who co- authored Baking with Julia in 1996, recalled one high-spirited evening when Julia acted out the Aykroyd skit, crying, “Save the liver!” at the top of her lungs.

—Alex Prud’homme

Excerpted from The French Chef in America by Alex Prud’homme. Copyright © 2016 by Random House. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.



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