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The man who made Julia Child famous

"It all comes down to understanding how to recognise the beauty in everything around you." Paul Child

For my recent birthday my lovely son gave me a book he had found in an op shop. (Note to self, I really should visit op shops when they open again - or browse their online catalogues.) The book was called France is a Feast and had this lovely photograph of the young Julia Child on the cover. It was taken by her husband who was such a good photographer that some of his works are exhibited in various noteworthy American galleries. He was never a professional photographer, and spent most of his working life as a diplomat, but he took a camera, sometimes several, with him everywhere on a daily basis, always with an eye out for the right moment and the right thing. But he also had many other talents as his great nephew Alex Prud'homme who wrote this book explains:

"he was a talented artist; a photographer, painter, lithographer, woodworker, metalsmith, stained-glass expert, writer and poet. He was also a world traveler, a linguist, a black belt in judo, a deeply read teacher, a sophisticated diplomat, and a reticent man who trained himself to be an effective visual and verbal communicator. And, of course, he was a food and wine lover who first tutored his wife in the joys of 'la cuisine française'." Alex Prud'homme

And yet, the book is full of Julia. She is there in several very lovely portraits either deliberate portraits or as part of a larger composition, but somehow its focus. There are many more than the three I have chosen here, all of which I love. And they show a different side to her than the exuberant, larger than life personality that we saw in Julie and Julia and that the Americans saw in her televisions shows.

But the main 'story' of the book is of their life as a couple. Paul was ten years older than Julia, in his early forties when they married, and, when they met, still recovering from an earlier long relationship which had ended with the death of his older partner. It doesn't seem to have been love at first sight, it was a friendship that grew into love - rather like my own marriage, but once married they were devoted. He died in 1994 at the age of 92. Julia died in 2004, and sadly, for them, they had no children. Maybe if there had been children there would have been no Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and the marriage may not have been quite as companionable and loving as it so obviously was.

Their years in France together are really the subject of this book and the vast majority of the photographs are of that time. Some were obviously taken by others, as Paul features in them. However there are no direct acknowledgments of the photographers. Their friends included many notable photographers, including Cartier-Bresson and some of them are obviously more than snapshots taken by friends and family. Cartier-Bresson was obviously an influence, as were many other photographers of the time. These three for example are very Cartier-Bresson - well from my very limited knowledge anyway.

Alex Prud'homme mentions that Paul Child was also a writer, and there are a few short pieces and poems in the book. He and Julia travelled widely around France from their bases in Paris and later, Marseilles, and he often wrote about their journeys, as well as taking photographs:

"if it wasn't a beautiful castle then it was bands of mist in the peach-orchards, and if it wasn't a 14th century bridge then it was a deep valley with a brook at the bottom made of quicksilver. We went from cloud to cloud in our 5-day Heaven .... Nougat de Montélimar was as good as ever and so was the smell of sage at Avignon. We sang 'Sur le pont d'Avignon' under the first arch of the bridge itself, and drank Pouilly outside of Aix on a lovely hillside ..." Paul Child

And rather more poignantly at the age of sixty two, in a poem called Everything is Go he wrote:

"Life's rocket streaks toward nothing,

Burning what once were months and days - Now minutes, seconds. ...

Now every look, sound, taste and touch, every sunset,

Brings a hundred others into mind, ...

I place myself in the impact position,

Facing backward,

Hoping my gaze

May still attach me to the dwindling Earth ..."

As I said before, the book is mainly about their time in France, and their love of that place. They loved it so much that later in life they built a small house in Provence on the property of Simone Beck, Julia's co-author (with Louise Bertholle) in the south of France. They were great friends and often dined together. So much so that in Simone Beck's book Simca's Cuisine she has one recipe called Soufflé à la banane pour Paul. Paul being Paul Child. She created it especially for him:

"because he is as fond of bananas as my husband is of chocolate. Just as my husband has a chocolate dessert every night, Paul Child has a banana for breakfast."

Paul had actually taken many photographs of the processes described in the two Mastering the Art books, which were later made into drawings as they were considered to be clearer. This would not have happened today I'm sure. The photographs would be the thing. He pioneered taking photographs of a cook actually cooking I believe, and took many of the photographs in Julia's later books. This photograph, taken by Paul, is of the three authoresses at their cooking school in the Childs' kitchen - Les Trois Gourmandes.

Without Paul, Julia Child maintains that she would not have become so interested in food, and in cooking. The book describes, how, soon after their arrival in France, Paul took Julia to dine in a restaurant in Rouen.

"Julia spoke just a few words of French, but Paul fluently chatted with the waiter, then ordered a lunch of oysters, sole meunière (a Dover sole 'in a sputtering butter sauce'), with a green salad, wine, fromage blanc, and café filtre. The meal was superb, and for Julia it was an epiphany. It altered her preconceptions, defined her raison d'être, and ultimately set in motion her career as a celebrity author, television and live performer." Alex Prud'homme

Paul also was her guide to France, making it his business to take her to all the major sites but also the little-known. Whilst living in Paris, they explored every little piece, on foot, walking and talking, with Paul taking photographs and pointing out details that would otherwise go unnoticed. Which led her to say later in life:

"I loved France so much that I secretly thought I was French, only no one had told me." Julia Child

Which is a little bit how I feel about France. I would love to know that there was even a tiny bit of French in my genes. Alas it appears not.

It's a beautiful book. I read it in an afternoon. I was envious of their relationship - so much calmer than mine I felt. I was envious of their being able to spend so much time together in that beautiful country. The photographs brought back some personal memories as well, as it was only a few years later that I first went there.

As to the photographs. Some of them were wonderful - I think particularly the ones of Julia. Of course he was taking photographs in quite a different time. He was using film, the photographs had to be developed. It was more important to get it exactly right the first time as there were not as many options for correcting mistakes and film and developing it was expensive. Indeed the book includes a few pages of contact prints that show how many were actually discarded. It was an expensive hobby back then. I wonder how he would have reacted to today's digital laissez-faire. Quite well I think because somewhere in the book he stresses the importance of framing the picture, of seeing what would make a good picture. I think he would have seen the possibilities and trained himself in new technology.

The man played a huge part in Julia Child's life. Without him there would have been no Julia Child, and the Americans, in particular, would have taken much longer to come to appreciate French food. So it was interesting to read his life story. There is much more than I have spoken of here.

Thank you Bryn.


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