Book Report: Revealing Julia Child in photos
The late world famous chef Julia Child's 2004 memoir "My Life in France" is about the years she and husband Paul Child spent soaking up food, art and culture in Paris, Marseille and Provence.
Paul Child's job as a cultural attaché for the U.S. Embassy brought them to France, a time they described as a "flowering of the soul." Paul Child's great nephew, Alex Prud'homme, co-wrote "My Life in France" and many people remarked, after seeing Paul Child's illustrations, that there should one day be a book about Paul's life as an artist.
"France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child" ($35, Thames and Hudson USA), is that book, a photographic companion to "My Life in France," in which readers both see his work and glimpse the young diplomat's wife changing into one of America's most beloved food celebrities.
The Tribune caught up with authors Prud'homme and Katie Pratt, a photography curator who grew up around the Childs, during a stop on their book tour. (Of note, they ate at Imperial and "it was very good!" Pratt says. They also recommended Tasty & Alder and Shalom Y'All).
Here's what else they had to say:
Tribune: What motivated you to produce this book?
Pratt: I started thinking about this after Paul died, and I had talked to Julia about doing it. Paul was a wonderful artist, but he didn't really promote his work much in his life, and I wanted to do a tribute to him (he passed away in 1994). I researched thousands of negatives, and the letters he wrote to his family back in the States. I spoke to Julia about it, and she was 200 percent behind it because she believed he was a photographer of note.
Pratt: Some had been published in Julia's books, and some shown in smaller art shows and exhibits in Santa Barbara and in magazines. And, there are six photos of Paul Child's in the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.
Prud'homme: There are 225 photos in the book, double what we planned, and the vast majority have not been seen before. He was very prolific. When I helped Julia write "My Life in France" and we used Paul's photos to illustrate that book, everybody said "Wow, have you ever thought of publishing his photos?" Katie asked if I liked to help with the text and it was that it was too much material, so we decided to focus on the years in France. So, it's similar to the memoir, but it's told from Paul's perspective.
I knew them both well, but there was a lot I didn't know about his background. They wrote every week to my grandparents while he was working as a cultural attaché during the Cold War — so he would talk about the geopolitics of the time and the price of wine on a Wednesday.
Tribune: Was he a spy?
Prud'homme: In Sri Lanka, he was working with spies and designing maps and charts, but he was hired for his graphic abilities. And, in Paris and Marseille, his job was to promote art shows by American artists like Edward Weston and Moses to prove to France that we had culture, and really, to back The Marshall Plan.
Pratt: What impressed me over and over was how he was such a deep thinker, and he was very very involved in the moment. He recorded everything in great detail. His world was very rich in ideas. He was very organized and he recorded everything. He noted film speed and titled each photograph, and that information was in his letters, too, so it was easy to recreate his story through the trail he left.
Prud'homme: I didn't know much about his life pre-Julia. I knew he'd lived in Paris, and that he was there in the roaring '20s. I learned that he knew Gertrude Stein and Ernest Hemingway and he became a gourmet and wine expert before Americans knew much about that stuff. And then, when he came back to the U.S., he befriended this divorced woman — Edith Kennedy — and she brought him into her world, and it was a real awakening for him, and she ended up dying of heart disease in 1942, just as we were entering the war. She was the light of his life at that time and he joined the OSS (Office of Strategic Services) as a kind of escape. Ironically, Paul and Julia had a really great time during this period. He was sophisticated and she was not — she was this 6-foot-2 girl from Pasadena, and he became a mentor to her. They went to France in 1948. So, in these photos you're seeing Julia in the process of her becoming Julia Child. She was essentially a diplomatic wife but one who went on to become the famous French chef.
Tribune: What interested Paul Child as a photographer?
Pratt: Recurring themes that he repeated over the years were: rivers, architecture, fishermen, boats — and Julia! Julia relaxing, working, playing. And, photos and kids and cats and laundry. He loved to photograph laundry on the lines because it made you wonder about the lives behind it.
Prud'homme: He said it's like peeking through a keyhole into someone's life, and it was graphically striking so it worked on various levels. And, he loved graphic design — storefronts and signage — and he was very influenced by photographers of the day. And, just working people, old people and fishermen. And, of course, a primary subject was Julia.
Prud'homme: She was happy to cooperate. There isn't a photo where she's not smiling. There wasn't much else going on then, no distractions like Instagram and TV, so when they went out it was just the camera and their surroundings. She always called herself a ham. She was modest, but she liked to light up a room and have some fun.
Pratt: But, she told me, 'I was just a prop.'
Prud'homme: Paul used her as a sun shade because she was four inches taller than him!
Tribune: They partner in this amazing adventure. Did they ever quarrel or compete?
Prud'homme: They were human, yes. They never had kids; they tried, but it didn't work out for them. She told me that was probably why her career could take off, that if she had kids she would have devoted all her energies to them. They were both driven and strong-willed, but it's just that creative tension, so small things (bothered them). She did have some huge fights with her French collaborator — they were very similar — both very tall, crazy drivers, both loved to cook. They called each other the "Crazy Cow." They were like sisters, and they loved and fought like sisters.
Prud'homme: The year 1961 is a dividing line. Until then, he mentored her on food, culture and the ways of the world, and she was a willing sponge, but basically she was a diplomatic wife, one who was curiously obsessed with food. When they moved to Cambridge, Mass., her book was published soon after. Paul pushed her forward and said, "It's your turn now," and she was ready to have her moment in the sun. She did the first TV pilots in 1962 and it started out really bad — she was knocking things over and garbling her words. And, she was on a show called "I've Been Reading" and she brought all these things to make an omelet, but she forgot to even mention her book. But, all 12 people who watched it told the station, "We want more of that tall lady cooking!"
Tribune: Did Paul Child change how cookbooks looked?
Prud'homme: Yes, he did. Together they came up with innovations, and they had this love story and they would spend hours together playing in the kitchen. Until then all cookbooks were from the audience perspective, and she said 'Let's photograph from the cook's perspective.' It was an intuitive leap they took together.
Tribune: What would she think of today's food shows?
Prud'homme: She would love the fact that more people are talking about food and cooking ever than before and how Instagram and TV have fed that information, but even in the '70s the glitz and glam and fake melodrama of cooking shows was getting to her. The competitiveness was not it for her. Cooking was camaraderie and friends and family and all about the food, not the personalities. So, I think she'd be a little dismissive of the 24/7 culinary machine.
Pratt: But, she was also a modern woman (who passed away in 2004) and she enjoyed being on Johnny Carson and David Letterman. She thought Dan Aykroyd's impersonation of her on "Saturday Night Live" was hilarious.