Life, heaped on her plate

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

JULIA CHILD was a big-boned girl with a size 12 foot from a "WASPy," well-to-do family in "non-intellectual" Pasadena. She was enrolled in her mother's alma mater, Smith College, at birth. "Good breeding," she remembered with horror after the publication of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" in 1961 and the advent of her television show, "The French Chef," "meant never having one's name in print."

She was a relentless autodidact, a bit of a self-named "Mad Scientist" when it came to recipes for mayonnaise and buerre blanc and other fundamentals of French cuisine. She felt for most of her life that her biggest problem was her "continuing lack of worldliness," which she compensated for by stripping things to their essentials and teaching herself to build them again. When it came to French cooking, this took enormous patience and research and a stubborn insistence on the perfect way to do things.

It also took a lot of confidence: An American housewife dares to think she can master French cooking? The reward was immortality. Men and women in their late 30s may be the last who can immediately imitate Child's rich, horsy accent as she plays fast and loose with her own recipes, but the recipes themselves and the cookbooks, stained and dog-eared, cursed and adored, live on. "Anyone," the foreword to "Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I" assures the intimidated reader, "can cook in the French manner anywhere, with the right instruction."

Child wrote "My Life in France" with Alex Prud'homme, her grandnephew. They began the project in 2003, when Child was 91. Prud'homme, an unobtrusive presence in the text, finished it in the year after her death of kidney failure in August 2004. Child thought of it as a tribute to the memory of her husband, Paul, who introduced her to France in 1948. (He died in 1994, at 92.)

Julia Child's love affair with France was hard and fast and immediate. From that first meal at La Couronne in Rouen with Paul, who had taken a job with the U.S. Information Service (later USIA) in Paris, "I felt a lift of pure happiness every time I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life." Could a love of French cooking be far behind?

After that first unassuming meal ("What's a shallot?" she remembers asking Paul) of oysters on rye bread with beurre d'Isigny, sole meuniere and a Pouilly-Fume (it was the first time Julia had ever had wine with lunch), she was smitten. "The best way to describe it is to say that I fell in love with French food -- the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals."

She read famed chef Ali-Bab's 8-pound wonder, "Gastronomie Pratique," cover to cover as if it were a detective novel. Then she devoured the 1,087-page "Larousse Gastronomique." She spent hours in the markets of Paris. She signed up for a cooking course at Le Cordon Bleu, where her classmates were 11 former GIs eager to open their own restaurants. From oeufs brouilles (scrambled eggs) she moved quickly to pate en croute, boeuf en daube, terrine de lapin de garenne.

Julia and Paul set up their household in Paris at 81 Rue de l'Universite (which they called "Roo de Loo"), with a kitchen, a batterie de cuisine (pots and pans and utensils) and a femme de menage (a housekeeper). On family money and Paul's salary, the two ate at such classic restaurants as Le Grand Vefour and La Tour d'Argent. They drank Moselle on picnics in the countryside, Chateau d'Yquem '29 on New Year's Eves and countless other now-unaffordable wines. French cuisine worked its magic: Not only could Julia, at 91, remember each meal, but as the young wife just learning to cook, she found that "deeply sunk" childhood memories began to bubble to the surface. Everything she had ever eaten came back to her "in vivid detail."

The two never had children (although at one point, a liver attack made Julia think she was pregnant), but they had cats and friends and shared interests. In 1952 Julia started to teach cooking with two friends who were already at work on a cookbook. The three -- Louisette Bertholle, Simone Beck and Julia -- called themselves "L'ecole des Trois Gourmandes." Julia joined the cookbook project, which would take the next nine years to complete. All the while, she was on the road: Paul was transferred to Marseille in 1953, back to Washington, D.C., in 1956 and then to Norway in 1959. Their next stop was back in the United States, but by then Julia was irritated with American life. Not only could she not find true creme fraiche, she also found too many Americans "blissfully unaware of world politics or culture and ... exclusively interested in business and their own comfort."

The book, tentatively titled "French Home Cooking," grew and grew and grew to more than 750 pages. Houghton Mifflin, not surprisingly, wanted it trimmed to better suit impatient American cooks. Julia's long relationship with Simone (Simca), a severe and aristocratic cook from Normandy, suffered numerous ups and downs, with Simca repeatedly insulting Julia's interpretations of the recipes. It's not French, she would write or scream at the result, it's American! A friend gave the book to Judith Jones, an editor at Knopf, who shared Julia's passion for France and French cooking and asked to take it on in its full length but with a new title. It received a rave review from Craig Claiborne in the New York Times.

After several cooking demonstrations on the still-young "Today" show and on "I've Been Reading," a Julia-dubbed "egghead" television show on WGBH Boston, she was asked to film several cooking show pilots, which aired in 1963 as "The French Chef," the first cooking show of its kind. (By its first birthday, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking" had sold 10,000 copies and was in its third printing.)

"How magnificent to find my life's calling, at long last!" wrote Julia after her first year in France. She had, at the time, already decided that she had three main faults: She was "confused," she suffered from a "lack of confidence" and she was "overly emotional at the expense of careful, 'scientific' thought." "I was thirty seven years old," she wrote, "and still discovering who I was."

By 49, when "Mastering" was published, Julia had grown into herself, becoming a fully realized, completely happy and very sophisticated woman of the world. It is, of course, possible that "My Life in France" was written through rose-colored glasses, but the memories are too sharp, too clear; the chicken, as she told Prud'homme fondly, still "chickeny." "Mastering" has a reassuring tone that inspires the ordinary cook to stop whining and, well, cook: "Keep your knives sharp," the authors advise American housewives, "Pay close attention to what you are doing while you work," "Allow yourself plenty of time" and "Clean up after yourself frequently to avoid confusion."

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