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Original Essays


by Alex Prud'homme
  1. My Life in France
    $5.50 Used Trade Paper add to wishlist

    My Life in France

    Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme
    "What a joy...charming...inspiring." Entertainment Weekly

    "Child makes everything from house-hunting to finding a publisher seem exciting; reading My Life in France, I felt privileged to glimpse a portion of her wonderful life." Newsday

A few days ago, an old friend handed me a watch that no longer keeps time. It's plain looking, a timepiece from the 1970s, with a solid silver-plated body and a linked wristband. It has a blue face and white arms stopped at 12:04. The date is becoming Monday the 10th (of which month, and which year?). "It was Paul's," my friend said. "I don't know what to do with it. Maybe it will mean something to you."

Paul was Paul Child, my great-uncle, the twin brother of my grandfather, and the husband of Julia McWilliams Child. Paul and Julia had met in Sri Lanka during the Second World War, and married in 1946. Two years later, he whisked her off to Paris, where he worked for the US Information Service. Paul was ten years older than Julia, fluent in French (he had lived in Paris in the 1920s), and a gourmet. Julia was a "rather loud and unserious" 36 year-old Pasadenan, who did not speak French, could cook little more than pancakes, and had no idea what her purpose in life was. "I just tagged along as Paul's extra baggage," she'd say. Peering at the French coast from the deck of the SS America, she felt a mixture of excitement and dread.

Julia arrived in Paris for the first time on November 3, 1948. The city was cold and gray, short on basic goods, and still battle-scarred from the Nazi occupation. Paul started work at the US embassy, while Julia took charge of their odd little apartment on the Left Bank and began to learn the language. In their free moments, Paul and Julia walked and walked around the city — leisurely along the Seine, strenuously up to the sunny reaches of Montmartre, excitedly into the cacophony of the Les Halles marketplace. These excursions built an appetite, and they sampled cafes, brasseries, patisseries, creperies, and old world restaurants in every arrondissement of the city. In this way, Julia's blank palate was exposed to brightly flavored strawberries, deeply pungent cheeses, yeasty baguettes, garlicky escargots drenched in butter, chickeny chickens, and gamey wild boar. Such eating altered her internal circuitry, and, she said, "changed my life for good."

The French viewed cooking as a combination of competitive sport and high art, and Julia responded to both the serious and playful aspects of la cuisine bourgeoise in a deep and instinctive way. "Without realizing it, I was falling in love," she'd recall. "I thought I must really be French, though no one had bothered to tell me."

Frustrated by her struggles in the kitchen, and egged-on by Paul, Julia signed up for classes at le Cordon Bleu, the famous cooking school. She failed the final exam on the first try, but eventually graduated, and she and two French friends — Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle — began a cooking school of their own in Julia's apartment. Many of the recipes they developed for their classes would ultimately be published in Mastering the Art of French Cooking, in 1961.

Julia would test each recipe ten or twelve times, and Paul was her "Guinea Pig Number One." Indeed, he helped her compose the cookbooks in countless ways. He pushed Julia to express herself clearly: although she found writing a difficult and lonely pursuit, she'd build up a head of steam and work her typewriter like "une vache enragee" (a mad cow). Mistrustful of conventional wisdom, Paul challenged Julia to try things for herself: "Submit it to the empirical test!" he'd command. Together, Paul and Julia invented a new way to illustrate a cookbook: he'd take a photograph over her shoulder, showing Julia's hands demonstrating the way to, say, debone a chicken; the photograph was later turned into a line drawing that showed proper technique from the cook's perspective. (Today this is standard, but at the time cookbooks illustrated technique from an audience's perspective.)

"I was so excited that I barely caught my breath," she recalled of the years 1948-1954, when they lived in Paris and Marseille. "I experienced a flowering of the soul."

These were some of the memories that I was trying to extract from Julia when we sat down to write My Life in France, her memoir of those favorite, formative years. But it wasn't always easy.

Memory works in funny ways. Julia was 91 years old in 2004, when we wrote the book. She frequently couldn't remember what had happened the day before, but could recall the tastes and textures of a meal she'd consumed fifty years earlier, often in elaborate detail. It was remarkable. And the longer we worked together, the more her deeply submerged, Proustian associations and emotions bubbled to the surface. I never knew when one of her memories would pop up — driving to the market, sitting in a movie theater, strolling through a cat show — and I always carried a pad and pen with me, to capture them before they vanished.

Our best resource was a large collection of letters that Paul and Julia had written from Paris to my grandparents in Pennsylvania. They wrote every week: Julia's letters were short, typed, full of exclamation points, misspellings, and gossip about her "cookery"; Paul's were long, hand-written epics, with poetic or journalistic descriptions of the weather, the price of wine, his challenges at the US embassy, or the latest machinations of the "wiley Russkies" in the Cold War. Sometimes they wrote a letter together, and signed it "JP," or "Pulia," as if they were two halves of one person. (They never had children.)

When Julia's memory faltered, I would read her excerpts of the letters from France. These dispatches had a dual purpose: they carried Julia back to specific moment in time — she'd slip into a near-trance as she relived her first French meal of sole meuniere in Rouen, or an all-night excursion through the bars and clubs of Paris, or the day the Mistral almost blew her dress off in Marseille — and they allowed modest Julia to talk about herself, indirectly, through stories about friends and food.

One day I was working at Julia's desk while she dozed on the bed. Suddenly she stirred, and mumbled "Where are you? I miss you." I believe she was talking to Paul, who had died a decade earlier, at age 92. His photo stood guard on her bedside table. I began to realize just how integrated "JP" were, and how important each was to the other. As in Pygmalion, or My Fair Lady, Paul was Julia's suave older tutor until Julia flowered into a worldly sophisticate in her own right; as she became a celebrity, Julia became the "senior" member of the couple. But their relationship was always complementary rather than competitive.

Julia and I worked on her memoir for eight months, until she, too, "slipped off the raft," in August 2004, two days shy of her 92nd birthday. I spent another year finishing My Life in France (and had a question for her every day of that year). The book is illustrated with Paul's photographs and it is dedicated to him. In her Introduction, Julia writes, "Oh we had such fun together....Without Paul Child I would not have had my career."

I hold the silver watch in my hand and feel its weight. The arms are still, and the date is perpetually becoming Monday the 10th of some unknown month of some forgotten year. But while the artifact is static, the spirit behind it is not. Thanks to Julia's memories of their gastronomical days and nights in France, Paul remains a restless and ticking presence.

÷ ÷ ÷

Alex Prud'homme is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in the New York Times, the New Yorker, and other publications. He is the author of The Cell Game and the coauthor (with Michael Cherkasky) of Forewarned. He lives with his family in Brooklyn, New York. spacer

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