Friday, March 28, 2008

A Chat with Julia Child's Nephew

By APRIL LISANTE Philadelphia Daily News

For the Daily News

SHE WAS brining, roasting, kneading and sautéing when Emeril Lagasse was in diapers, and Rachael Ray wasn't even a gleam in her parents' eyes.

At a time when cooking wasn't cool - and certainly not on television - Julia Child single-handedly pioneered a new gastronomic course for the world. But the familiar, larger-than-life persona of her celebrity years had humble beginnings as a shy, awkward, sometimes inept culinary student.

Though she is known mostly for the television fame she gained late in life, her love affair with French cooking began as a lark, a thirtysomething's determination to learn a few dishes to please her new husband.

Some of her most intimate culinary experiences as a young woman are captured in the memoir "My Life in France" (Knopf, $25.95), based on Child's dictations to her great-nephew, Alex Prud'homme, in the days before her 2004 death from kidney failure at age 91.

Prud'homme also used old letters, photos and handwritten recipes from Child and her husband, Paul, that passed through the family for decades to recreate Child's years in France, from 1948 to 1954, when she learned to cook.

She went to France with her worldly husband, a U.S. State Department employee who was 10 years her senior. Child's efforts to remedy her ineptitude in the kitchen and her lack of knowledge of French cuisine sparked an obsession that produced, well, historical results.

Prud'homme's book, published in 2006, has just been optioned by Sony Pictures for a movie starring Meryl Streep as Julia and Stanley Tucci as Paul. Nora Ephron - no slouch in the kitchen herself, and writer/director of films such as "Sleepless in Seattle" and "Heartburn" - will write and direct the film, scheduled for a 2009 release.

We chatted with Prud'homme, a freelance journalist and novelist who lectured at the Free Library of Philadelphia last month about the book, the movie and life with Child.

Q: Julia sort of fell into cooking, and in the book she is almost like an alien landing on another planet when she arrives in France. Tell me about what that was like for her.

A: These are stories she'd always talked about - the five years of her life when she was living in France with Paul after the war. She arrives not speaking French and not able to cook more than pancakes. And in typical Julia fashion, she signs up for French lessons. She becomes obsessed.

After a year, she signs up at the Cordon Bleu [cooking school] and learns to cook and how to teach and how to shop in the French way, which means not just buying a piece of meat wrapped in plastic. It means talking to the butcher and asking him about the weather and his daughter.

This was an important life lesson for her and for me. There are lessons embedded in these stories. We try not to hit the reader over the head with them, but they are simple and they can be applied to life. Take time, do things carefully, and, above all, have fun. It's a simple statement, but profound . . . I think it's going to be one of her enduring legacies, this positive, rigorous approach to life . . .

Q: Why are only the years from '48 to '54 the focus of the book?

A: This was the moment of epiphany for her. She arrives as a blank slate in her mid-'30s, she doesn't know what she wants to be when she grows up. She is with her husband, a sophisticated man, and he takes her to this important place at this moment in history.

Q: In the beginning of the book, she talks about her first meal in France when she arrives. It is bizarre to hear Julia Child talk about not knowing what a shallot is, or hearing about her shock that they drank wine at lunch.

A: She always referred to this meal [in the town of Rouen] in a dreamy way that she'd play in her mind over and over. One thing that was fascinating was how memory works. She was 91 at that point when she was talking about it, and her health was not great. Sometimes she could not remember what she did the day before, but she could remember specifics from 50 years earlier - the texture and taste of food and people and places she had seen.

Q: Did you get to know her well from this book-writing process?

A: I thought I knew her pretty well, but when you spend intense time going over things from 50 years ago . . . yes.

Q: What was it about French cooking in particular that drew her?

A: I could never get her to articulate what it was about French food that rang her bell. She loved Chinese food second best, but there was something about French food. We talked around this question, but she said it is the seriousness with which the French take the food - the ritual, the rules and the great pleasure in it.

Q: In the forward of the book, you mention that she and her husband talked about writing this book for a long time, and that you waited a long time for her to agree to do it. How did you finally convince her? Do you think it was her husband's death [in 1994] that convinced her?

A: The book is dedicated to Paul, and his photos illustrated her book. He had already experienced Paris in the 1920s as an artist. He really encouraged her [to learn to cook]. He pushed her. He was a teacher and important influence on her life. She was hoping to meet his high standards, but she took it and ran for it.

At first, I had a hard time getting her to tell me these stories . . . I'd say, "Julia tell me about your first building in Paris where you stayed." She'd say it was a building. It was odd because here's a person who spent her life on the stage performing, but she was actually a modest person who never talked about herself. She never got around to writing the book because she didn't want to toot her own horn.

Q: You were able to write the book mainly because of the letters Paul sent to your grandfather, his twin brother, during these years in France. How was it having all these letters to work with?

A: Paul was a wonderful writer, very descriptive. It was almost like he'd written these letters for us to use to write this book 50 years later. I felt like a pirate discovering a pile of gold coins. I was able to unlock Julia by reading her sections of Paul's letters and it would sort of transport her. . . . I think it was just luck that we were able to work on this thing together. Paul's stories got her going.

Once we got her ideas down on paper, I would go out to Santa Barbara and we'd do interviews in her little apartment from January 2004 to August for a few days each month. [Julia died two days after she and Prud'homme had met about the book for the last time.]

Then I took another year to finish the book and essentially be a ventriloquist. I had to take off my journalist hat and take on her voice. I just used stories she wanted to use. The tone we wanted to set was you [the readers] are sitting at a café table with Julia, and she is telling stories about her life.

Q: What do you think Julia would want the book to convey?

A: She was always modest and would downplay her evolution in American gastronomy. . . . She wants to inspire people. She wants people to love food and cooking and do it with others - to take food more seriously and to take the time to do it right. And above all, have fun.

Q: Are you excited about the movie?

A: Sony Pictures has optioned it and combined it with a book written by Julie Powell ["Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen," Little, Brown & Co.]. Powell spent a year recreating every recipe from Child's "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." I am happy about that. I think Julia would be pleased. *

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