I always seem to be on the lookout for something new to create in the kitchen, and there’s one natural choice that always inspires.
Her raison d’être emerged in Rouen over a memorable meal at France’s oldest restaurant, La Couronne. It was 1948, and Julia Child had never been to Europe and had little knowledge of French cuisine. Her husband Paul was far more cosmopolitan, fluent in French and apparently had exceptional taste in restaurants. He was en route to take up his position with the American Embassy in Paris, when he and Julia stopped for that life-changing lunch. Later, Julia would recall that meal with precision, ultimately concluding, “It was the most exciting meal of my life.”
In reading about her memoir, My Life in France, I realize how much I have in common with Julia Child. Well, there are a few disparities. I’m five feet tall, have only mastered a rather grand cheese soufflé and quiche Lorraine and first visited France far later than Julia.
She was a rather awkward looking 6-foot-2-inch woman of 36 who wrote in her diary, “I am sadly an ordinary person . . . with talents I do not use.” Her husband Paul and France changed all of that, and as we all know, she would become America’s grande dame of French cooking and reach such iconic fame, that she would leave her entire Cambridge kitchen to the Smithsonian.
Written with her husband’s great-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, Julia’s memoir sheds particular light on her all-encompassing love of France; in fact one reviewer describes her book as “an affectionate merci for all that France gave her.”
Through her experiences in France, she evolved from that “ordinary” woman with unused talents to one who embraced life, who loved France, who relished French cuisine. “Oh, how I adored sweet and natural France, with its human warmth, wonderful smells, graciousness, coziness and freedom of spirit.” And that is precisely what I have in common with Madame Child.
From her Left Bank apartment, Paul guided her to grocers, butchers and markets; so she could begin to explore French cooking. We have gathered our colorful vegetables in the Mouffetard market, purchased cheese and flowers in Amboise, gathered our rôti chicken and potatoes for a delightful meal “at home” in France. Of course, Julia would go on to graduate from the École du Cordon Bleu, while I would dabble at my first Soupe à L’oignon Gratinée in our vacation rental kitchen in the Loire Valley.
The Childs built a stone house, “La Pitchoune” (The Little Thing) in the quiet Provençal hamlet of Plascassier, a typical village with a school, post office, bakery and a church – the 17th-century Church of Saint-Pancrace and Saint-Donat. It held other surprises, though, with a great collection of wine at the local garage and succulent roast chickens sold out of a tiny “broom cupboard”.
Just as we have walked among the sweet scents of Provence, have picked up our morning croissants at a village patisserie about the size of our guest room; I can imagine Julia enjoying the smell of jasmine, produced locally for the perfume industry in Grasse. I can imagine her chatting with the postmaster and travelling to local markets to find all of the fresh ingredients for her next repast.
Julia referred to France as her spiritual homeland, and about the memory of that first special lunch, she said, “And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite — toujours bon appétit!”
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