My info: The Hungry For Words Podcast: Alex Prud'homme, Great-nephew of the Late Great Julia Child, by sheriwetherell
We're thrilled to feature Hungry For Words: The Podcast starring best-selling author and chef Kathleen Flinn on Foodista. Every other week we'll publish a new episode from Kathleen who will serve up delicious conversations with some of the World's greatest culinarians.
Welcome to episode 1, where Kathleen chats with Alex Prud'homme, the great-nephew of the late great Julia Child. Alex has an amazing background and is a highly regarded journalist and writer in his own right. Get more details about him -- and the recipe for beouf bourgignon - at the official episode web page on host Kathleen's site.
Alex has a new book, FRANCE IS A FEAST: A PHOTOGRAPHIC JOURNEY OF PAUL AND JULIA CHILD (Knopf). It provides a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at their life and times in their adopted country, including the years in which Julia worked on the manuscript for MASTERING THE ART OF FRENCH COOKING. If you're a Julia fan, check it out.
RELATED BOOKS TO PURCHASE
• The French Chef in America by Alex Prud'homme
• My Life in France by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme
• France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child by Alex Prud'homme
Kathleen: I'm Kathleen Flinn, and this is "Hungry for Words," the podcast in which I have lunch with a food writer and you get to listen in. In every episode, I'm gonna make some dish, either from the book of the person that I'm talking to or inspired by that book. My guest today is Alex Prud'homme, the great nephew of Julia Child. Today, I'll be asking him about his inspiration for the book "The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act." We'll be discussing how she found her new narrative voice, and even some insight into that famed Dan Aykroyd impression, and what she really thought about Julie Powell's "Julie & Julia."
This episode of "Hungry for Words" is sponsored by Wolf, encouraging you to reclaim your kitchen starting with one home-cooked family meal per week. Visit reclaimthekitchen.com for tips, techniques, and recipes from Wolf cooking tools. And by our media partner, foodista.com. Join a passionate community of food lovers at foodista.com. And by our partner, Book Larder, Seattle's community cookbook bookstore. Learn more at booklarder.com.
As always, our episode begins where it should, in my kitchen, cooking. So today, for Alex, I have decided to kinda go all out, I'm making a proper French bistro-style lunch. It is starring boeuf bourguignon. I decided to just go back to the source, right back to the "Mastering the Art of French Cooking," page 315. As Julia says, there are many ways to reach final bourguignon. There are a lot of different recipes for it, but I decided, "Well, I'll go back to hers," I hadn't actually read it in a long time because I've been making sort of my own version of boeuf bourguignon. Wow, this is old-school. It's a 6-ounce piece of slab bacon. And so, I did it, I got it, I'm keeping the rind, I'm throwing it in just like she says to. I'm also making some no-knead artisan bread that I'm fashioning into a baguette and also some mashed potatoes with lots of cream and some really good butter.
So, I made boeuf bourguignon because I thought it would just seem like the right thing to do, but you know I realized I haven't made Julia's boeuf bourguignon since I was 12.
Alex: Wow, yeah.
Kathleen: Because I made it to get my Girl Scout cooking badge.
Alex: Oh, that's a good story. She would approve. That's funny.
Kathleen: So, yeah, so give it a try.
Alex: Don't mind if I do. Never say no to boeuf bourguignon. Very nice. Well, boeuf bourguignon was sort of a touchdown for Julia. Her very first "French Chef" show was boeuf bourguignon, and she did it over the years a number of times. She was famous for pointing the camera down into the pot as it softly bubbles away to show what it should look like, but that also had the effect of activating your taste buds as the viewer. I say in the book, it makes you wanna dive to the television and have a bite of the delicious stew. And growing up spending time with her, boeuf bourguignon was always in the background, so, very appropriate.
Kathleen: It's funny, even though it would have been in black and white because the first shows were.
Alex: Yeah, correct.
Kathleen: Yeah, and I had never noticed until I read it in the book that "The French Chef," the recipe start with episode 14.
Alex: Right, well, the episodes 1 through 13 were shot but they were using...they had only so much tape that they could use and they would just reuse it. So, back in those early days, they had no idea that Julia would become, you know, the celebrity that she eventually did, and they had no money, and they were just winging it. And, you know, you wonder what was on those tapes, and Julia was just as happy to not have them because she felt that she wasn't...didn't have her TV chops yet. So, she didn't lament their loss. From my historical perspective, it's a total tragedy. I mean seeing her in her early shows, I tell a story in the book about how this began, which was "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" was published in October of 1961, and in the early '62, she went on to a local Boston TV program called "What I've Been Reading," which was led by a literature professor. It was a book show, local, but Julia being Julia, she didn't just bring her book, she brought a pot, I mean the hotplate and a pan and butter and eggs, and made an omelet. And she got so into making the omelet that she forgot to mention the title of her book, but it didn't seem to matter because something like 27 people wrote in and said, "We want more of that tall lady cooking." So they shot three pilots, three test shows. I think the first was boeuf bourguignon, I think the second was coq au vin, and I forget what the third was, it may have been the omelet again. And they all, each one, she got a little bit better, then she started as "The French Chef" in '63, almost immediately was the focus of attention because she was just doing stuff that no one else was doing on TV.
Kathleen: It's interesting, too, because you pointed out that she was not the first cooking show. There were a number of cooking shows before she had the airwaves.
Alex: Yeah, true. Yeah, many people assume that Julia was the first television cook, but that wasn't the case at all. In fact, there were shows started in the 1940s. James Beard had one in 1946 called "I Love to Eat." And that was the first network show, it was on NBC, but there were local shows all across the country. They usually had titles like "Pot, Pans, and Personalities," and there were a few crazy ones. There was an Italian cook who sang opera, his wife would yell at him, and then he'd produce a meal. And there was a blind Mexican chef named Elena Zelayeta, who "cooked" on air while her son, Billy, actually ran around and did all the actual manual work, but she explained each dish. Then you had Ernie Kovacs did a kind of a funny cooking show.
So Julia was not the first TV chef, but she was the first celebrity TV chef, I think. By 1966, she'd won an Emmy, and she'd won a Peabody, and she was, 1967, she was on the cover of "Time Magazine." And that had never happened before. You know, people thought of her as this tall, funny lady in pearls, but clearly, there was something more than just the caricature there. She was a very sort of layered person. She was able to make it look easy and fun because she had spent so many years working at her craft and had trained at Le Cordon Bleu, had taught cooking with her French friends, Simca Beck and Louisette Bertholle, had written the cookbook, taught classes all over the world, and so, by the time she got on television, she was very well-prepared as a teacher of cookery, as she liked to put it. But what she brought was her special sauce, her great charisma, her natural sense of humor, her unpredictability, and her relatability. People really felt like they knew her, and in fact, they very quickly just referred to her as Julia, as if they actually were friends, which I always thought was remarkable.
Kathleen: Admittedly, all the loveliness with Julia. I mean, when I was a little girl, when I went to get my Girl Scout badge in cooking, it was a Julia Child recipe. [Crosstalk]
Alex: I love that, that's great, yeah.
Kathleen: So, I saw she was gonna be at the Green Barn, had no money, I was working as an obituary writer at "The Sarasota Herald-Tribune."
Kathleen: So, I just got through the first day, and I'd saved all my money for, like, months, and I saw Julia across the room, near the line, which now I've realized that would be a completely natural thing.
Kathleen: And I mean, just sort of seeing her there, I thought that was worth the card's admission, and I was so excited and I called my mom and I told her. And then the next day, I got up, I went, I sat down, and all of a sudden, I hear, "Is this seat taken?" And I saw her, and she sat right next to me. And it was like God sat next to me, I mean I... And she was such a large person physically. That was quintessential, had these bags and put them all down, and she's like, "Oh, I hate to be late, but that [inaudible 00:08:59] breakfast was so delicious." But she was... It was interesting because she took so many notes and asked all these questions.
Alex: Yeah, yeah, she was genuinely interested, yeah, and she always said that... She was a ham so she liked to perform, but she was a modest person. She always thought of herself as a teacher and a pupil, as she put it, of cookery. She cared about that more than being a celebrity. The only time she really used her celebrityhood is if she had a crowd of people and we couldn't get into a restaurant, and then she'd drop her name. But otherwise, you know, she liked to carry her own bags through the airport, and she liked to be a regular person. That's what kept her real, and she was, you know, the Julia you saw on television was the Julia that I knew, that was the genuine person. When we were working on her memoir together in Santa Barbara, she got a call from the White House, the George W. Bush White House, because she had won the Top Civilian Award, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, I think it is. It wasn't Bush calling but it was someone else calling her about that, and then, that night, I took her to the movies. At that point, her knee was shot, and so, she was in a wheelchair. So I had to park her on a corner for like three minutes while I went and get the car. In that time, a homeless guy had come up and started talking to her. And she treated the homeless guy and the White House person exactly the same, and you could just hear it in her voice. She just wanted to know all about these people and she wouldn't let them get a word in edgewise. She was asking them questions and peppering them, and I don't think the homeless guy had any idea who she was. It didn't matter. So, she was just a great people person.
Kathleen: I think there are a couple of things that really come across in the book, too, which was the strategy that she employed, you know, thinking, and then her and Paul working together, coming up with, you know, "How would we do this? How would this play?" And I think that she seemed like she had a really innate, kind of keen sense of, you know, how to proceed and how to make this interesting, you know, like to have like kind of a goofy, you know, kind of take on something. I can remember the chickens lined up in...
Alex: "The Chicken Sisters," yeah. She's flapping their wings and patting them, yeah. "Ms. Fryer, Ms. Broiler," yeah, that's hilarious, yeah, yeah.
Kathleen: And I think that that kind of combination, and also her, you know, she made mistakes, like people loved her for that.
Alex: True, yeah, I never got her to admit this, but I think sometimes she did that on purpose as a teaching moment, but they'd be the most famous one of those, at least in our household, is the "Tarte Tatin" show, which I don't know if you've seen, but is worth a watch. Yeah, I think one of her sort of endearing traits was that she admitted her mistakes, that she made mistakes and that she wasn't perfect, and, you know, she would often say, "Well, you know, you make mistakes, but never apologize," and you know, stiff upper lip, move on. And she's quite entertaining about that. But the "Tarte Tatin" show... So Tarte Tatin, for listeners who don't know, is a beautiful caramelized apple dessert that you make in a frying pan with lots of butter and sugar and then you invert it. So, Julia inverted the frying pan, and instead of this golden caramelized confection, what came out was a pile of brown mush. And she says, "Oh, that's a little loose." And she's scooping it together into a pile, she sifts some powdered sugar over it. Powdered sugar is very, very fine sugar. It's often used in baking. And she ran it under the broiler and the sugar caramelized on top of the brown mush. And then she pulls it out and she had previously made a perfectly good version of the dish. And she holds them up side-by-side, and she was, "Well, I think actually you should try doing it both ways," you know. But frankly, the good one, looked a lot better to eat.
And the coda to that story is that years later, decades later, when she and I were working on her memoir, "My Life in France," together, she was still annoyed by that Tarte Tatin. And one of the things that people don't realize is that Julia was a closet perfectionist. She didn't like to appear unprofessional, and she felt embarrassed by that Tarte Tatin mush, even though she made the best of it and she said, "Oh, you can show your friends how clever you are by fixing it." So, when we were working together, she was kind of muttering under her breath, you know, conspiratorially, that the Cortland apples she'd used must have been mislabeled. But this is years later, so it just shows you that despite the lighthearted tone, she took her work very seriously. I think one of the points I'd like to make when I'm telling people about the real Julia is that she was this combination of personality traits, beneath the great charisma and the fun was a deeply serious cook who really knew her technique, had worked for years, had strong opinions about it. And, you know, if you ever see the Julia Child and Jacques Pepin show, for example, they're our two experts going at it, and they have genuine differences of opinion, and it's hilarious. But it's actually, the creative tension is real, it's not an act really. I mean, they amp it up a little bit but, you know, I've been with them when they're doing their thing, and it's the same thing when there's no cameras around, you know.
Kathleen: So, I went through all your notes and looked at all the research that you did. And, you know, you keep talking about all these different documents and so on, but I also noticed that you interviewed a bunch of different people, including Dan Aykroyd, about that famous skit. I've heard from many people that she loved that skit and she used to keep the tape on top of the TV in the kitchen. And so I have always wondered about how that came about because she was on TV, on a talk show, and talked about licking her finger. And then that said, a lot of writers decided to do a skit about it.
Alex: So, Dan Aykroyd, first of all, came from a foodie family in Canada. His aunt, Helen Gougeon, was considered the Julia Child of Canada. He told me a funny story that Julia and Helen were friends, and Julia gave Helen one of the early Cuisinarts, and they were at their lake house outside of Toronto when Helen decided she wanted to make bouillabaisse. And instead of cutting the fish up and cleaning it, as one generally does, she just stuck the whole thing in the Cuisinart and liquefied it, which traumatized a 12-year-old Dan Aykroyd. And years later, he remembered that and wrote the infamous "Bass-O-Matic '76" skit, which was just hilarious. And we had a good laugh about that. He was a devoted Julia watcher, but he had also been spoofing Tom Snyder, who had his own late night talk show, and he was a totally kind of a bizarre character, who had kind of an abrupt manner, and so he was easy to spoof. And Julia was on a Snyder show one night and nipped her finger with Jacques Pepin and asked Snyder not to mention it on air. So, of course he did, and the camera zoomed in on her finger, and she wanted to keep the focus on the food, but he knew a good TV moment when he saw one. So, Dan Aykroyd saw this and knew right away that he had the makings of something, combining two of his heroes, or two of his subjects I should say, Julia and Snyder.
So, he and Al Franken wrote this script, the skit that is, you know, probably the most indelible impersonation of Julia ever, in which his version of Julia basically gouges her finger, there's blood spurting all over the set, and she sang, "Save the liver!" and attempting to use the chicken liver to stanch the blood, which doesn't work, and then she passes out. And the thing that's so remarkable about that is that skit, which was aired in 1978, defined Dan Aykroyd, it helped to define SNL, and to this day, it helps to define Julia Child. I mean, literally, every time I give a talk, someone asks me about that. And then the follow-up question is always, "What did Julia think?" You know, Julia didn't like it when people were mean-spirited or disrespectful in their humor, but she was really tickled by Dan Aykroyd's impersonation. He told me that he did it out of a place of total respect for her. It was a bit kind of an homage to Julia. I believe it because it really...it's very funny. And Julia thought so, too. And so, there are reports of people being at dinner parties late one night when Julia would tilt her head back and roar out, "Save the liver!" So, I think she took it well.
Kathleen: I love that story.
Alex: If she saw you took food and cooking seriously, then she would give you time and space. If you didn't, then she didn't take you seriously. And she was never mean, but she just kind of moved on. People make much ado about Julie Powell, who wrote the blog and the book "Julie & Julia." In that movie, there's a scene where Julia seemingly disses Julie Powell. And the story, the real story, as I understand it, was that, first of all, Julia was 91 years old at that point, I don't think she really knew what a blog was, but more importantly, Julie Powell like to curse a lot, number one, and number two, didn't seem to be able to make Julia's recipes. And Julia, as people know, would make each recipe 10 or 12 times, so that she could work out all of the kinks and anticipate all of the problems that a cook might have in making it. And then her recipes would be a little long because she would take the time to explain how to save something if it went bad, you know, if the mayonnaise began to separate, or the butter burned, or whatever it was. She would tell you how to save it. And so, once she heard that Julie Powell wasn't really able to make her recipes very well, I think she wasn't that interested really. And, you know, she was, even at the age of 91, she was full of beans, she was a celebrity, and I was with her working on her memoir, and people were coming by and calling all the time. I think that, you know, perhaps Julie Powell and Nora Ephron took a little poetic license with that anecdote. As far as I know, Julia never really paid much attention to Julie Powell. It wasn't that she, you know, got angry with her or dismissed her in any particular way, it was just she just wasn't that interested, so she moved on. But people always ask me about that scene, "Were you there when that happened?" "No, I wasn't, and I don't think it actually did happen."
But back to your point, she was very supportive, and Paul and Julia never had children of their own. They had tried, and she said, "It didn't take." And when we were working on the memoir, I tried to get her to expand on that, but she didn't wanna talk about it, and I don't know if it was a generational issue or a personal thing, but I said, "Well, did you think of in vitro?" "Nope." "What about adoption?" "Nope." But then later, she did say to me that, "Had I had children, I wouldn't have had the career that I did." And I think Paul was also kind of needy. He had grown up in a kind of chaotic family. His father died when he was very young, and his mother was a beautiful but a little bit unmoored. His sister ended up dying young. Paul and his twin brother, Charles Child, who was my grandfather, which is how I'm related to Julia, kind of had to fend for themselves. And I think he liked the fact that Julia attended to him a certain amount.
So, even though they tried, it didn't take, and then she devoted all of her energy to her career, but she always had what I consider surrogate grandchildren or surrogate children, people that she mentored, like Sara Moulton, or to a certain extent, Jacques Pepin. She taught him how to perform on television, which I talk about in the book. He's very funny about learning how to do TV because it's a very particular set of skills, it's not for everybody, it's difficult. I mean people like Jim Beard for example, had a very hard time performing on television. And legions of people, who she helped to a lesser degree, we used to have these raucous dinner parties at their house in Cambridge, where you'd be sitting next to a famous chef on one side and on your other side would be some person she met at the garage that day and just invited them over because she liked them, and she just would throw these parties. It was really fun. And sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't work, but that's, you know...and she didn't let it ruffle her feathers particularly. But my sisters and my cousins and I were very lucky to be sort of of the surrogate grandchildren role. When I was a little kid, we used to watch her on tiny black-and-white TV we had at my parents, and then she'd show up in the flesh at our apartment after taping. And, you know, when you're a little kid, you're like, "Wow, she came out of the TV, that's so cool," you know. And only later do you realize that there's a separation there.
But anyway, she was very generous, but she was also...she wasn't like a nice little old lady. She was tough, and she was, despite her protestations to the contrary, she was quite ambitious and driven. I mean, she had to be to do all the things that she did and to be as revolutionary as she was. She really had to have some spark inside that she called the holy fire that got her going as a cook and kept her and, you know, perpetuated her career through many iterations.
Kathleen: That, I think, is a great point that you make in the book, and I took away when reading it. There's this whole thing how, you know, "The French Chef" the second season, she didn't hear very much. She didn't feel like she was getting response from it. And rather than sort of go, "Well, you know, I'm sure it's all okay," I think, you know, she really internalized that and thought, you know, maybe I need to do something different. And it was also fascinating, some of the things that she wanted to do that she did end up doing, like the bicentennial television show, the "Thirteen Feasts."
Alex: "Thirteen Feasts for Thirteen Colonies," yeah, that's one of my favorite things, yeah. Well, so, the background to this is, in writing this new book, "The French Chef in America" and the subtitle is "Julia Child's Second Act," the whole sort of thesis to my book is that in 1970, Julia finished "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume 2" which she co-wrote with Simca Beck, her French friend, and she shot season two of "The French Chef." They both came out in the fall of 1970. And by the spring of 1971, the book was selling pretty well, but the television show, which she had put a lot of work in, it was shot in color for the first time, there were more episodes than ever, and she had included a series of short documentary films that she had shot in France, that documented traditional French food ways as a way to demonstrate her initial inspiration. And so, those were spliced into season two. And the show didn't generate a whole lot of mail, I mean, people did like the baguette show, for example, and I must say, I wanna compliment you on your baguette that you baked. It's very good. So she was worried. I think she had intimations of professional mortality.
I found a series of letters in her archives which are at the Schlesinger Library at Radcliffe in Cambridge, along with Paul's photographs. I found a series of letters where she's sort of working it out on the page as she writes to her producer and then to her editor saying, "You know, we haven't really engendered any attention at all, and I don't understand why this is. What is going on? We'd better change our act or people are gonna get sick of the same old chef doing the same old thing. We need to reboot this somehow." And it was really interesting to find those letters because I had seen this kind of great switch in her career, but there it was on the page, you could see her mind working and talking to her confidantes about how she should respond to this lack of attention. And so what she did ultimately was to make a break from the past. She and Simca split professionally, although they remained friends for the rest of their lives. Julia was living in the States at that point, so she re-Americanized herself. She got away from classical French cuisine exclusively and started to cook recipes from around the world. She started to write in the first person for the first time, which was a big deal for her because she didn't like to talk about herself. And she reinvented herself as Julia Child.
So, in the course of this, she developed, she wrote a new book, which came out in 1975, called "From Julia Child's Kitchen," which was her most personal book that she ever wrote. She told me it was the hardest book she ever had to write, for many reasons, but in doing that book, her editor at Knopf, Judith Jones, encouraged her very strongly to use the first person voice. As I mentioned, she was a modest person, she didn't like to talk about herself, so she really rejected that right out of hand. But she knew that Judith was right, and eventually, she developed this new voice on the page, which was sort of a translation of her television persona. It was in the first person, she tells personal stories about various dishes and her trials and tribulations with the microwave and the Cuisinart. They're very funny, but they're also instructive. She talks about one of her earliest food memories, which was going down to Tijuana, Mexico and having Caesar salad prepared by Caesar Cardini, the guy who invented it. There's a lot of great stories like that.
That book came out in 1975, and it happened that in the process of writing that, so the year before, 1974, Paul had an emergency bypass operation, open-heart surgery, and it didn't go well. The technique was still new enough then that the oxygen was starved to his brain and left this very erudite, dynamic man much weakened. He lost a lot of his fluent French and his beautiful handwriting. He had been a black belt at Judo. He lost a lot of his mobility, his physical ability, and turned him almost overnight into kind of a doddering old man, which, you know, for a guy who had been a suave, sophisticated world traveler, was a kind of a living hell. And it was very painful for Julia because her career was really taking off at this point, and she had to kind of withdraw from public and take care of him. So, she had a lot of time to sit around and think of some fun projects to do, and this was this whole period that I didn't really know about and I'm assuming that most people didn't know about it. And I discovered some great nuggets that have made their way into the book, some anecdotes about things that were behind the scenes.
So, first of all, Paul's heart operation is one of them, but there was, in 1975, she and James Beard teamed up to do a show that would come out in 1976, which was the nation's bicentennial. Now, Julia described herself as a history nut, and she loved history, and she would always talk about her family history. Her family, the McWilliams, had a classic American story. They came from England to the early colonies. They made a small fortune in the paper business in western Massachusetts. They moved to the Midwest, then they came out to San Francisco following the gold rush, and then settled in Pasadena where they were wealthy landowners, or the little cooking that her mother did. She was sort of New England codballs and things like that. And then Julia went to Smith College in western Massachusetts and proudly referred to her Yankee roots all the time. So, this project with Jim Beard, which they called "Thirteen Feasts for Thirteen Colonies" was about the food that the colonist in the original 13 colonies along the eastern seaboard used and ate. And they had come from the Old World with their recipes and their tools, and they had applied them to indigenous ingredients like cod, and mussels, and wild turkey, and cranberries, and corn, and that was the beginning of a distinctly American cuisine.
So Julia loved this, and she did tons of research. And Jim Beard was a thought of information, he was known as the dean of American cookery. Then they were gonna turn this into a book and television show, but first they shot a pilot to show to potential sponsors. I've seen the pilot, it's never been made public, and here's the reason why, which is that television is hard. They shot it at the Wayside Inn in Sudbury, Massachusetts and they show you a big table full of colonial food cooking in an open hearth fireplace. Jim Beard is wearing a loud mustard yellow shirt and a red bow tie, and he was a large bald guy. And Julia was dressed in kind of a purple shirt, had a frizzy hairdo, and was bombing around the kitchen, making jokes about, you know, "That turkey breast and ho ho ho," you know. She got Jim to grind corn in an old corn grinder and she said, "Well, what'll happen if we take the little cover off?" And of course, corn sprays all over the kitchen, and she just roars with laughter while he kind of looks at her with a worried expression on his face, wondering what she's gonna do next.
Unfortunately, you know, Julia was a natural on television and Jim was not. He was a very accomplished cook, he was deeply knowledgeable about culinary history and American history and had a lot to offer, but he didn't have the natural instincts for TV. So, Julia would look right into the camera and smile, and she demonstrated different cuts of meat on her own body. And Jim, by contrast, would stand there in front of the table, looking down at his food silently for long moments on end, which was just deadly on television. So, it was a really interesting thing to see. It's the kind of story that I had a great time trying to bring to life in this new book. To this day, people haven't seen it, and the show was...it never made it to air and quietly it was cancelled. Julia blamed it on Paul's health and WGBH's lack of money, but from talking to various people, it seems to me that one of the primary reasons that she let it die a quiet death was that Jim Beard was simply not very good on TV, and she wanted to protect him. She was very fond of him, and she just didn't want to embarrass him or to make him look bad any way. I'm not sure she ever told him the real reason or GBH, although they may have guessed.
You know, that bicentennial then led her to return to the White House. She had been there in 1967 with LBJ, where she made a documentary film about a state dinner for the Prime Minister of Japan. And then in 1976, she went back and did a TV program for a public broadcasting. President Ford was in office, and he hosted Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. And that was kind of hilarious because it was this huge fancy event, and they had this giant white tent on the lawn at the White House. And right before the whole party was about to start, a rainstorm came in and flooded the whole place, knocked out all the TV cameras, flooded the tent. Julia had to run back and get a new hairdo and a new dress because she had been soaked. The Ford White House was a little bit bumbling. I mean, the media didn't go well. They got a lot of letters about that, which I found and I've used, they're very funny. But Julia had a great time in the end, even though she wasn't allowed to taste the food or the wine, she kind of made the best of it. She's felt very lucky to be invited to the White House and to talk with the White House chef, Henry Haller, and to see this historical moment, it was really a kind of a dream come true.
Kathleen: One of the things that you brought up in the book was something that I just by chance happen to have heard this story last year, when I went to the Smithsonian and they have this whole, you know, behind the scenes, and you got a private tour of the Julia Kitchen...Julia Child Kitchen and all this stuff. But actually, Paula, one of the curators...
Alex: Paula Johnson, yeah.
Kathleen: Yeah, so she told this whole story about how they ended up acquiring the kitchen that they thought maybe they would go and get a few things, and all of a sudden they...the three of them from the Smithsonian walked to the kitchen and thought, "We need the whole kitchen." But the other thing that I did not know was the day that they packed up all the utensils and everything else was September 11th.
Alex: Yeah, right. It's a fascinating story. So, the backstory is that Julia and Paul had lived in Cambridge for years in this big, old gray clapboard house right behind Harvard Yard. Paul had died in '94, and by the end of that decade, Julia was kind of...her knees were going, she was sick of the cold New England winters, and she was ready to retire to California. So she gave her house to Smith College, her alma mater, with the understanding that they could do whatever they wanted with it. I believe it was a Smithsonian curator named Rayna Green who caught wind of this and thought, "Well, now, what about some of those items in Julia's kitchen?" and called her up. And Julia, in her modest ways, said, "Well, why would you be interested in my kitchen?" You know, I mean, she was really clueless, and everybody else understood why. So, they came up on September 11th, 2001, they happen to be in Julia's actual kitchen in Cambridge, going through many of the items that she obsessively collected in that way, I talked about this a great length in the book, but she was just a kitchen gadget freak, and she couldn't help herself, and she'd go to Dehillerin in Paris and buy all this stuff that she would never use but she just had to have.
On September 11th, she's going through items in the kitchen, from the big dining table, which she and Paul had bought in Norway when they were posted there, there's a fruit bowl that they got in France, and she's talking about these things, and this was all videotaped. But every once in a while, Julia leans over and says, "Now, what's happening in New York? What's happening in Washington?" Because there were these sort of sporadic news reports, and if you recall, all the air traffic that day was completely shut, so it was quiet, it was eerie, it was weird. And it's just... I don't think that videotape has ever been made public, but it's a very moving and interesting kind of slice of time. Anyway, long story short, they took all those items from the kitchen, except for the asbestos tiles that were under the floor, and transported them down to the National Museum of American History, which is a fabulous place. It's right on the mall, and I recommend everybody go there, and they recreated her kitchen, you know, stick by stick, piece by piece, and it was meant to be a temporary exhibit. And they have the kitchen, it's all set up the way it was. It's behind Plexiglas, so you can't just walk into it.
Those of us who spent time there feel like we should be able to walk into it, and have a glass of wine and see what's on the stove. Then there's a display case full of Julia's crazy objects, like a giant rolling pin, and her mortar and pestle, and what she called a fright knife, and a bottle of "wine" that she used on a show which she called "Chateau Gravée Mastere," which was Gravy Master mixed with water to look like wine, and a video loop from some of her old shows. And it was remarkable because people would come in and just get stuck there, looking at the kitchen, looking at the display case, watching the video, and people of all ages, races, creeds, you name it. There's something magnetic about it. And so, the supposedly temporary exhibit is still there, and in fact, is now the entryway to a whole new food hall devoted to the history of American food, which Julia would have loved. I mean that's just perfect, going back to the "Thirteen Feasts for Thirteen Colonies" idea, that her kitchen is kind of the entry point for Americans' understanding of food. And so, it's kind of a metaphoric as well as a physical representation of the food revolution that we've undergone for the last few decades. And it's a great thing to see, but it's funny for my sisters and myself because Paula used to stick banana stickers under the table, at the big Norwegian table, and persons unknown, which who may or may not have been my sisters and myself, would stick chewing gum. And there's, I think, there's some of the stuff still there.
Kathleen: They want it to be authentic.
Alex: That's authentic, exactly.
Kathleen: Is it odd to go back and to see that?
Alex: It is a little odd, yeah, but I've done it enough times now, I was just down there recently, that it's getting less odd. And it's actually, at this point, it's gratifying because it's Julia's legacy, and the fact that people still get stuck there and that it's now this great portal into a display on American food, that it's just...I think she would just be thrilled. So, that makes me happy.
So, this is, from the very end of the book, it's a section called "Child's Play," and we say here, "Throughout her career, journalists often like to note how childlike Julia Child could be and how she loved to play with food, and it was true. Her audience laughed when she dropped a potato pancake on the stove, then scooped it back into the pan saying, 'When you're alone in the kitchen, who's to know?' She flirted with David Letterman while blowtorching a raw hamburger, made winking double entendre on "Good Morning America," and summoned Jacques Pepin to the stove with a honking duck call. She encouraged this vision of childlike play to a point, but it could be misleading, as Paul knowingly observed, practically every article on Julia has concentrated on the clown instead of the woman, the cook, the expert, or the revolutionary. There was another Julia, one who saw something deeper, more profound, and mysterious in her ability to turn raw ingredients into something delicious to eat, and how life-altering that experience can be. I was reminded of this when I happened to glance at a postscript at the end of the 'VIP Lunch' chapter in 'Julia Child & Company.' It was a short, easily overlooked aside titled 'On Playing With Your Food.' I read it expecting to laugh, yet something about it, the tone, the celebration of cooking as art, the encouragement and inclusiveness of its message, caught my attention. I read it again and then again. I realized that Julia's lighthearted title masked a heartfelt cri de coeur, one that makes a fitting epithet. Some children like to make castles out of their rice pudding, or faces with raisins for eyes. It is forbidden, so sternly, that when they grow up, they take a horrid revenge by dying meringues pale blue or baking birthday cakes in the form of horseshoes or lyres or whatnot. That is not playing with food, that is trifling. Play to me means freedom and delight, as in the phrase 'play of imagination.' If cooks did not enjoy speculating about new possibilities in every method and each raw material, their art would stagnate, and they would become rote performers, not creators. True cooks love to set one flavor against another in the imagination to experiment with the great wealth of fresh produce in the supermarkets, to bake what previously they braised, to try new devices. We all have flops, of course, but we learn from them. And when an invention or a variation works out at last, it is an enormous pleasure to propose it to our fellows. Let's all play with our food, I say, and in so doing, let us advance the state-of-the-art together. Voila."
Alex: Love that, yeah. And the fact that nobody...she tucked it away in this little thing that it was so easy to overlook. I wish she were around. I wanted...I would love to have asked her about that, but I only found it when I was writing this book.
Kathleen: Well, thank you so much for coming into my kitchen and thanks for this wonderful book. It's interesting. With so much that has been written about Julia Child, you would think there is nothing more to say, it's all been covered. And I have read every book, yeah. And I was delighted and surprised.
Alex: Well, that's great. I love to hear that.
Kathleen: [Crosstalk] so much about her.
Alex: I mean, I'm so glad just to hear you say that because I, too, felt that everything had been written, and I didn't really intend to write this book, but there were a few questions that had lingered in my mind years after we did the memoir, and I had gone on and written about many other things in the meantime. So, I went back and looked around, and then it was one door, opened and led to another door, which, you know, I suddenly realized, there was a picture emerging of this whole second career that she had, and I had never heard about that, never thought about that, nobody else had really noticed it, and I just felt I had no choice but I had to kind of dig in and write the book. So, I'm very pleased that you like it, and I hope other people do, too. Thank you, merci, for this delicious boeuf bourguignon, and baguette, and mashed potatoes, and lovely wine. And bon appétit
Kathleen: Thanks to Alex for sitting down with me today to discuss my hero, his great aunt, the fabulous, iconic, Julia Child. His book is "The French Chef in America: Julia Child's Second Act" published by Knopf. Check out Alex's newest book, "France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child," debuting on October 10th, 2017, also from Knopf.
You can find recipes from this episode including the boeuf bourguignon, the no-knead baguette, and even perfect mashed potatoes, and other things we discussed in this conversation, including that famed Dan Aykroyd skit at hungryforwords.kathleenflinn.com. Today's show is produced by [inaudible 00:42:01]. Music for our show is by audionautix.com. We'd love to hear your feedback so leave us a review on iTunes, or you can even send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org. This episode of "Hungry for Words" is sponsored by Wolf cooking tools and their Reclaim the Kitchen initiative. Wolf invites you to reclaim your kitchen and your family time by preparing your own version of boeuf bourguignon tonight. Visit reclaimthekitchen.com to learn more. And to our partner, Book Larder, Seattle's community cookbook bookstore. And one last note that I thought I would say, just because Julia would understand, if I sounded a little distant in my conversation with Alex, it's because I forgot to turn on my mic. There you go, I'm standing behind my conviction, letting it go, as she would want us to do. So, come back for another episode of "Hungry for Words" and I promise I'll turn on the mic.
Jean-Christophe’s 67 friends:
- Goldie Chung
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- Janelle Chung
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