July 6, 2018
Winter book preview: Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
by Melville House
As summer gets going in earnest, we’re taking a look at some of the books we have forthcoming in the next few months. Honestly, we’re getting pretty excited. Right now, let’s have a look at Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations, which hits shelves December 4th.
This delightful collection of interviews with “The French Chef” Julia Child traces her life from her first stab at a writing career fresh out of college; to D.C., Sri Lanka, and Kunming where she worked for the Office of Strategic Services (now the CIA); to Paris where she and her husband Paul, then a member of the State Department, lived after World War II, and where Child attended the famous cooking school Le Cordon Bleu. From there, Child catapulted to fame — first with the publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in 1961 and the launch of her home cooking show, “The French Chef,” in 1963. In this volume of carefully selected interviews, Child’s charm, guile, and no-nonsense advice are on full, irresistibly delicious display.
Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations hits stores on December 4th. Here, as an amuse-bouche, is the start of Child’s 1991 interview with Jewell Fenzi for the Foreign Affairs Oral History Project.
CHILD: When I was in the Foreign Service, they didn’t really pay attention to wives at all. A lot of them never learned the language, or did anything.
FENZI: And that was 1944?
CHILD: [My husband Paul and I] were in World War II, we were in the OSS and we met in Ceylon, or Sri Lanka, it was Ceylon then. Then we went up to China and we were there when the [atom] bomb dropped. Then we came back to Washington and Paul’s OSS Department—they called it visual presentation, maps, diagrams, war rooms and things like that—became the US Information Agency.
So we were there in Washington. Paul had spent a lot of his young manhood in France and spoke beautiful French, really practically bilingual. When they were setting up the [United States Information Service] in Paris he was asked to go over which was of course wonderful for us. Outside of the Far East, I had only been to Tijuana.
And I had had French all of my life, but when I got over there I could neither speak it nor understand it. So I went to Berlitz two hours every day. And then we had some friends from New Haven who were medieval art historians, and they introduced us to their colleagues in France. They were called the Group Focillon, and there was Henri Focillon, who was the great medievalist, and his son-in-law was a Lithuanian, Jurgis Baltrušaitis, and his wife, Hélène, was the stepdaughter of Focillon and her mother, who was known as Tante Guiguitte, was partially American, I am not quite sure. Anyway, we met Hélène because Jurgis at that point was giving some lectures in the States for about six months, and Hélène became really my best friend. We said that we would meet every Monday for an exchange of lessons, but of course it turned out to be entirely French. They had medieval Wednesday evenings and Paul and I always went to them and everything was in French which was good. There would be long, long discussions about whether the false transepts had been built in 1123 or 1131, and things like that.
But that was wonderful just to be drowned in French. And then, I had never had French food before. I loved the Chinese food, it was just delicious. And I just fell in love with French food from the first bite. We came over I think it was on the SS America with our old blue Buick, and our first French meal, or my French meal was in Rouen and I never, never turned back after that. After we had gotten settled, I enrolled in the Cordon Bleu and I was fortunately able to join a group of GIs on the Bill of Rights and we had a wonderful old chef who had trained under Escoffier and was a real classicist and a wonderful man. We would start at seven in the morning and cook until about eleven. Then I would rush home and cook Paul a fancy lunch and go back again. I think it was the Cordon Bleu that helped me a great deal also because that was all in French.
FENZI: And you were the only woman in the class?
CHILD: I was the only woman in that class with the men. I just became passionate, I had been looking for a career all my life. I wanted to be on The New Yorker or something like that. Well, this was it. I was passionately interested in it, the tremendous care that all the chefs and teachers took. It was art for art’s sake. It made no difference how long it took. If it came out beautifully, that was it. That was very appealing. After I had been to the Cordon Bleu, heavens, [after] about six or eight months, it began repeating. You can just do a chaud-froid. Well, about the third time you feel that, you have had it.
Luckily at that time I had met my French colleague, Simone Beck. Of course that was ’48-’49 and all of the Americans could hire servants for practically nothing. And the French bourgeoisie all had their little femmes de ménage, and I was so enthusiastic about this profession, but there wasn’t anyone to talk to of my own type. We had mutual friends who introduced me to Simca, as she was known, and Jean at a cocktail party and we literally embraced each other immediately because she felt the same way about, “Whom can I talk to!” She had a colleague, Louisette Bertholle, and the two of them were working together on a book on French cooking for Americans. They had a collaborator who died. I was delighted with that. That was after we had started our little cooking school. We had some American friends who knew what I was doing and they said, “Well, we don’t speak any French, so why don’t you teach us?”
I felt that I didn’t know nearly enough. But Simca, who had been cooking all of her life, and had worked with Henri Pellaprat and so forth, said, “Well, why not.” So we started our cooking school about the next day and we called it the École des Trois Gourmandes, the School of the Three Hearty Eaters. That really started us seriously. Then their collaborator died, and that pleased me very much. I never knew him. Good timing. So we started in on our book together, and that took a long gestation period. It wasn’t done until our last post in Norway which was in ‘59.
FENZI: I think it’s extraordinary that you carried that on via correspondence for how many years?
CHILD: Yes, but we kept meeting each other all the time.
FENZI: Well, you weren’t really too far away in Marseilles, Bonn, and Oslo.
CHILD: No, and Simca came down and visited us [in Marseilles]. And you can do so much by correspondence anyway.
FENZI: This was before the days of fax.
CHILD: Yes, it certainly was. And computers. And when I think that I would make six copies on my old standard typewriter. Then correcting those six copies. It was terrible. Just awful.
FENZI: It’s the type of thing you can’t believe you did.
CHILD: Well, but everybody did it. And when I think of living here in Washington with no air conditioning. It was horrible, but that was the way everybody lived. So that’s my career. [Pause] It was very nice having a hobby and profession at the same time because you met all kinds of people and it was a very good introduction to the French as well. And, I gave cooking lessons.
I guess I didn’t do any in Germany, but when we got to Oslo there was an American Women’s Club and I remember the first luncheon I went to, which would have been in probably ‘59. It was a typical ladies’ luncheon. They had a salad made out of Jell-O, I guess, and it had bananas and grapes and marshmallows and it was shaped . . . and really it looked like a phallic symbol. It was sitting on a little piece of lettuce, you couldn’t hide it under anything. Then it [the luncheon] ended with one of those cake mix cakes with a white mountain of coconut frosting. Horrible! And some of us got together and said, “Never again!” So we had a cooking committee so we couldn’t end up with anything like that again.
I gave cooking lessons there in Norway with a mixed … Norway was an awfully nice post. Oslo, we just loved it. So many nice people and then of course they all spoke English. Even though you were learning Norwegian, so it was very easy to get along with them, and they are such nice people anyway. So we loved our last post. After Norway, Paul had said that when he was sixty he was going to retire because he never really liked the bureaucracy at all. And so we left when he was sixty, and that’s when my book [Mastering the Art of French Cooking] came out. And he helped me with all of that. He helped me with proof reading and the index. He’s a wonderful photographer, so he did photographs from which we had a sketch artist do drawings. So it was wonderful having him.
FENZI: He was very supportive, wasn’t he?
CHILD: Oh, very, in everything. He was a prime dishwasher and baggage carrier. And then he was good intellectually for me, for I was rather messy intellectually. But he would always talk about the operational proof, and things like that. We had a very good time together.
FENZI: I guess I am just a half generation later, and, you see, it never occurred to me before Mastering the Art came out that there was not a step-by-step French cookbook. So, what was your jumping off point? You had to go and observe the chefs at the Cordon Bleu and then make notes, or what?
CHILD: No, I think you learn an awful lot from teaching, because at that point I had had the classical background. I was always learning. And we also had our wonderful … the man on the back [of Mastering the Art], chef Max Bugnard. He came and taught at our school, and also another wonderful one, a pastry chef, Thillmont, and he would come and teach. And then there was a man who was very good at demonstrating, Pierre Mangelatte, and he also was chef at a wonderful little restaurant up in Montmartre. The wonderful thing about that profession is that you are always learning. I remember talking to an old chef, even Bugnard, who said, “Just about every day I learn something new.” It’s a very wonderfully creative profession.
FENZI: And also, to be able to go from your lessons to all of the delightful little restaurants around Paris.
CHILD: Yes, and what was wonderful: Those were the days of the classic cuisine, and it was so good. It was delicious. Just a plain roast chicken was so good. That was before they had learned to do battery raised chicken. They really tasted like chicken. And delicious vegetables and salads and cheeses, and so forth.
FENZI: While you were learning at class, you must have gone to little restaurants.
CHILD: Oh, in the old days, I think Paul’s salary was $6,000.00 and I got $100.00 a month from my family. But we had envelopes, and we each had $2.00 a week allowance, and we had everything budgeted out and we very carefully saved everything for going out. But even so we could go out two or three times a week, and even a great restaurant like the Grand Véfour was only about $3.50. Or was it $10.00. I think maybe it was $10.00. But you could eat beautifully for a reasonable price. But we had to watch every penny.
FENZI: I am also interested in the McCarthy era. Because you were in Paris.
CHILD: When it broke, we were in Marseilles. During the McCarthy thing we were in Marseille, and when [Roy] Cohn and [David] Schine came through, I think we were still there. We went up to Paris shortly afterwards and I remember our cultural attaché, Larry Morris — he was an older man, I guess he was in his fifties. They [Cohn and Schine] had arrived in Paris and of course they went out to all the nightclubs and so forth, and it happened to be during Easter, and on Easter Sunday they had called a meeting that everyone was to get there at eight o’clock AM, at the USIS office.
Of course, they didn’t appear. It turned out that when they finally got hold of them, they were sleeping off a night at Montmartre. They had ruined everyone’s weekend. I remember they were charging though the USIS and Larry Morris came in and saw Cohn sitting at his desk with his feet on his desk. Larry Morris said, “Get out of that chair. Get your feet off my desk.” But most people were scared to do anything. They were also the kind of people that if you really came at them, they would back right off. But most people didn’t dare.
Julia Child: The Last Interview and Other Conversations
ON SALE: December 4, 2018