A DECADE AGO Alex Prud’homme helped his Grand-Aunt Julia write a memoir of the years she and husband Paul spent in France. In that book, My Life in France, we readers watch as Julia Child learns to cook, then begins teaching cooking and then, with French friends Simca and Louisette Bertholle, embarks on the decade-long writing of the canonical Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Capturing Julia’s memories wasn’t an easy task, Alex says: Julia didn’t like to talk about herself, always steering the conversation back to the other person. “I would ask about her house in the South of France and she would say, ‘Oh, it was a lovely little place . . . How are your children?”
Alex found his way in by reading aloud some of the letters Julia and Paul had written to, and received from, Alex’s grandfather Charles, who was Paul’s twin brother. “That triggered stories,” he says. “And soon she was talking,” especially when Alex would get her to describe the Paris apartment, the markets, some of the meals they had. It also didn’t hurt, he suggests, that he looks a bit like the young Paul.
This second book, The French Chef in America, is “a slightly different beast,” Alex explains, a work of research and reporting. It essentially picks up the story in the mid-1960s, when Julia and Paul have come back to the States and moved to Cambridge, Massachusetts. With Paul working with her every step of the way, she becomes public television’s French chef, sharing her skills while wooing her audiences.
Julia’s second act really took place in the 1970s. “It’s a period that most people don’t really know about,” Alex says. “I didn’t, really.” After MyLife in France, published after Julia died, two days short of age 92, Alex went back to his other subjects, mostly energy and the environment. But questions he had while working on the first book made him think perhaps he could circle back to Julia.
In his reporting, Alex discerned the “hidden” history of Julia in the 1970s, how in mid-life and mid-career she got away from the French canon and explored other cultures, other tastes. “She reinvents herself and takes off like a rocket in her 60s.”
Soon she was cooking with American chefs, and she and Paul were pitching TV series that would take readers to other countries. Both Julia and Paul had lived on other places—they met in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka—so it shouldn’t have been a surprise that Julia would be so open to other cuisines.
“Audiences loved her,” says Alex. And now, reading through the nuts and bolts of the grueling “Julia Child” undertaking, we start to understand the grinding amount of work that went into those easy-breezy shows.
“She made it looked fun and easy,” Alex agrees, “but she had spent so many years of practice, practice, practice.
“There was the great duality, of her charisma and charm, and the hard work: She was very competent.”
Alex points out something to those of us who were simply charmed by Julia. “Look at Julia’s hand motions when working, say on a piece of chicken or fish. She can keep up her patter, but if you watch her hands, you can see how practiced she is, how competent.
“[Chef] Jacques Pépin brought something else to my attention: Julia is tasting all the time, correcting the seasonings. And she’s not only tasting, but enjoying.”
The “Save the Liver” skit on Saturday Night Live in 1978, described in our Weekend Reading book excerpt, arguably cemented Julia as a cultural icon. “It helped to define [Dan] Aykroyd’s career, helped to define Saturday Night Live, and helped to define Julia in a way.” In the over-the-top set piece, Julia’s name is never mentioned, and yet everyone knows exactly who it is. Especially Dan Aykroyd. “Aykroyd is a real foodie,” Alex points out. “And his aunt, Helen Gougeon, was widely known as “the Julia Child of Canada.”
Julia worked almost to her last day. Over the decade after Paul died (in 1994), she carried on writing cookbooks, appearing at conferences, chiming in on the “food police” and other contemporary issues. Finally, she retired—if it can be called that—to Casa Dorinda, a stellar assisted-living facility in Montecito, which is where Alex would go to work with her on her memoir.
“All those people she spent time with [at Casa Dorinda] were characters in their own right, all accomplished people who had led interesting lives, had traveled around the world,” says Alex. “They weren’t all that cowed by Julia.
“The repartee at the Breakfast Club [that’s Julia and friends sitting around the morning table] was hilarious.
“That’s certainly the way I would like to end my days,” he continues, “surrounded by friends I’d known since I was 6 or 7 years old. And then, as Julia would say, just slip off the raft.”
But long before he does that, Alex Prud’homme will speak at the Smithsonian’s Second Annual Food History Weekend, on Saturday, October 28, 2016 (free but registration required). He will be in the Warner Bros. Theater of the National Museum of American History, but elsewhere in the museum is the Julia Child’s Kitchen, picked up lock, stock and cherry-pitter from Irving Street in Cambridge and rebuilt in the museum.
“The curator told me there are little banana stickers on the underside of the table,” Alex says. Does he mean those little yellow things pasted on our every banana? “Yup. Paul had a banana every morning and put the sticker on the bottom of the wood table. They’re still there.”
As are some gobs of chewing gum that may or may not have been placed their by Alex and his sisters.