By Ileana Morales Valentine
Alex Prud'homme, a journalist and the great-nephew of Julia Child, co-wrote his great-aunt's 2007 memoir, My Life in France. Now, Prud'homme has written The French Chef in America, which is described as the story of Child's "second act."
The French Chef in America tells the story of her life after the publication of her classic cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia and Paul Child return to the United States from France and settle in Cambridge, where she reinvents herself as a TV personality and finds her voice. She deals with the success of her cookbooks and her newfound celebrity, as well as some difficult colleagues and challenging health issues for her husband, never losing that infectious optimism that became her signature.
We caught up with Prud'homme during the tour for his latest book; on Nov. 12 he comes to the Tampa Bay Times Festival of Reading. Here is an edited version of our chat.
What can fans of the first book expect from The French Chef in America?
Well, the first book was Julia's memoir so it was written in her voice, and that was about the years when she discovered French food and cooking. It took place in the late 40s and early 50s. And those are the years she felt she discovered her raison d'être in life, which was to be a cooking teacher and all around food enthusiast. Particularly through the lens of cooking bourgeois, which is really good home cooking in France. So this book leaps ahead of that book. That book takes you up to publication of her first book, published in 1961. There were a few stories in that book that really stuck with me, and after I did that memoir and Julie and Julia came out, I ended up writing a bunch of other things. But a few stuck with me. So a decade later, I circled back and started to investigate some of these stories.
I was really intrigued by a series of documentary films Julia made in the 1970s about traditional French food ways. I was intrigued about her life in America after she and Paul moved back to the states. So I started to poke around and found this whole kind of hidden history I didn't know about Julia in the 70s when she was well known and there was a lot going on. And she basically reinvented herself. "Burst out of a straight jacket", as she said. She really found her voice in this period. It was almost like an entirely different career.
What was something surprising you learned about her while writing this book?
In doing my research, I realized, Wow, I wrote her memoir and am her great-nephew and I hadn't heard a lot of these stories. I knew she had gone to the White House in 1976 for the bicentennial when Ford was president and the Queen of England was there, but I didn't know she was there months before when LBJ was president and was the very first person to bring TV cameras into the White House kitchen.
Most people associate Julia with French food, but in the 1970s, she ventured into other cuisines with her more personal cookbook, "From Julia Child's Kitchen." Did she have a favorite cuisine besides French? And did she approach cooking non-French food differently?
During the Second World War, when she met Paul, they lived for a time in China and they always considered Chinese food as their second favorite cuisine after French. But it was always rooted in classical French technique, and she often said it doesn't matter if you're cooking Russian, Egyptian or Japanese, if you have French technique, you can apply it to anything.
What was her cookbook collection like?
Oh my god, she had an amazing cookbook collection. She was the kind of person who liked to stay up late at night reading cookbooks. When she lived in France, she collected originals or very old versions of some of the classics. Escoffier and people like that. Later, when she was here in the states people were constantly giving her cookbooks, or she would buy them. Even at the end of her life when living in a retirement community in Montecito, when we were working on her memoir, she had a giant bookshelf in her living room crammed with most amazing cookbooks. … She wasn't that into jewelry but those books were her jewels.
Why do you think made Julia such a natural for television?
She just had an innate ability to perform on TV unselfconsciously. People think of her kind of as a clown but she kind of was. The Julia you saw was the Julia I knew. She was charismatic, very funny, but also extremely good at what she did. She had spent years training not only at [Le] Cordon Bleu but years after that. Teaching, cooking, almost every day. Her technique was excellent, her historical knowledge excellent, the third element is she had this optimistic view of the world that was very can-do. "Well, if I can do it you can do it," she would say. Constantly encouraging people to take risks, and if you do fail, never to apologize. Have fun. The combination of these things was a very powerful message to people.
Do you cook?
I do. Needless to say, when I was writing the memoir and this one, I did a lot of Julia's recipes. And I've got a couple kids who like to cook, too, and my wife. I never got a real cooking lesson from Julia per se but as a kid you learn by osmosis, as she's making a pie or fish chowder or duck or something. Just by watching and listening to her.
Julia became more outspoken as the years went on, voicing her opinion on nouvelle cuisine, fast food, and feminism. Her public persona in America changed. How did she handle criticism?
The story I tell in this book is it took her until the 70s to find her true voice, and once she found it she used it very loudly. She wrote for Parade and McCall's, and she'd get on TV and question nouvelle cuisine and disparage vegetarians and nutritionists. She provoked people left and right. She didn't like being labeled a feminist even though she inspired many women. She was a proud liberal Democrat. She supported Planned Parenthood. All these things were controversial. Of course, she was paid the ultimate American compliment by being spoofed by Dan Akyroyd on Saturday Night Live. I interviewed him for the book and he said that skit came from a place of total respect for her. He was a big fan.