Skip to main content

Paul Child retouches Julia Child's makeup on the set of her television show The French Chef.Photo courtesy of Paul Child

Editor's note: This is the second instalment in a three-part blog entry about Julia Child. Part 1 is here; part 3 will appear tomorrow.

So there was Julia Child, "flashing" through the French countryside in the blue Buick station wagon with Paul (seen above with Julia on the set of her TV cooking show, The French Chef). She had never been to Europe before and didn't know what to expect. France was "a misty abstraction." Not only that, "in Pasadena, California, where I was raised, France did not have a good reputation."

Her tall and taciturn father had a prejudice against the French, and though Julia herself had met a couple of French people, these were "cranky spinster schoolteachers." She had learned French by rote and could neither speak nor understand a word of the language. Thanks to Vogue magazine articles and movies she "suspected that France was a nation of icky-picky people where the women were all dainty, exquisitely coiffed, nasty little creatures, the men all Adolphe Menjou-like dandies who twirled their moustaches, pinched girls and schemed against American rubes."

She herself was "a six-foot-two-inch, thirty-six-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian" when she stepped into Restaurant La Couronne in Rouen that November day in 1948, worried that she wouldn't look chic enough, that she wouldn't be able to communicate, and that the waiters would "look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists."

The building itself was a medieval quarter-timbered house dating from 1345. It was warm inside, and the dining room was comfortably old-fashioned, neither humble nor luxurious, with an enormous fireplace. Julia had never drunk wine other than $1.19 California Burgundy, and certainly not in the middle of the day. She smelled something good, which Paul said was shallot cooking in butter. Julia did not know what a shallot was.

They started with oysters portugaises on the half shell, more briny and smooth-textured than any she had ever eaten, and followed that with sole meunière. "It arrived whole, perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said, 'Bon appetit!'"

Julia closed her eyes and inhaled, then lifted a forkful to her mouth. "It was a morsel of perfection." She and Paul happily downed a whole bottle of Pouilly-Fumé. "Another revelation." She ate her first real baguette, a salade verte, and finished up her first French meal with a leisurely dessert of fromage blanc and café filtre. When they stood up to go, Paul chatted amicably with the waiter in French, and Julia managed, "Mairci, monsoor." Then they floated out the door into the brilliant sunshine and cool air. "Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life."

This was the beginning of the love affair with France, the French and French cuisine that would transform Julia Child from a rather gauche tourist into one of the most sophisticated American cooks of her generation. She learned French and started experimenting as a cook, so that by the summer of 1949, "I knew that French food was it for me. I couldn't get over how absolutely delicious it was." Their friends, both French and American, thought she was a nutcase: Cooking was not a middle-class hobby at the time, and they could not imagine how she could enjoy all the prepping and shopping and serving. "Well, I did."

For her birthday that summer, Paul bought her a copy of the 1,017-page Larousse gastronomique. Julia signed up for an intensive course at the École du Cordon bleu starting in October.

The rest is pretty much history, and it's a history well worth reading about in the pages of My Life in France.