`Julia stories' abound for fans of beloved chef

November 08, 2006|By ROB KASPER

As Alex Prud'homme travels around the country, he is still hearing "Julia stories" -- tales of encounters with Julia Child, his grand aunt and co-author, who died in August 2004.

"Whether they met her or not, people feel their knew her," said Prud'homme, who collaborated with Child to write My Life in France, an account of her early career published after her death. Everyone, he said, calls her by her first name.

A woman told him how Julia accidentally rammed into her with a shopping cart in a grocery store in Cambridge, Mass. Rather than being angry, the woman then followed the famed cook around the store, buying everything Julia did.

A now-successful chef recalled that when he was uncertain about how to pursue a career in cooking, Julia steered him straight. She told him, "Well, dear, you just take it one recipe at a time," Prud'homme said.

Prud'homme is likely to hear more such stories when he reads from the book this Saturday afternoon at the Beaux Arts Fair in North Baltimore. The 2006 work tells of Child's formative years in France with her husband, Paul. It was then that Child, a California-born bride unfamiliar with shallots and fine wine, was transformed into a skilled cook, teacher and cookbook author.

The intense loyalty of "Julia's" fans has surprised him, Prud'homme said in a recent telephone interview. "I understood her celebrity, but I did not understand the emotional impact she had on people. On quite a few occasions as I have gone around the country, reading from the book, people have burst into tears. They have said, `I really miss her,' or `She really changed my life,' " Prud'homme said.

"For people like her, who came to cooking a little bit later in life, she was a warm, reassuring presence. She was also funny and smart."

Now 45 and a writer living in Brooklyn, N.Y., Prud'homme recalled his earliest encounters with Child. "I remember watching her on television [The French Chef series] with my parents in New York and then an hour later she would stroll into our apartment. When you are a little kid, you think: Oh cool! She just walked out of the TV," he said.

"Then we could go out to dinner, and at the restaurant they would always seat us in the middle of the dining room at the biggest table. People would start lining up and talking to her.

"She would always go back into the kitchen after the meal and thank literally every person in the kitchen. She would start with the head chef and the carrot peeler and work her way down to the dishwasher. She would pepper them with questions, where they came from, how they learned to cook. She would chat up anybody," Prud'homme said. "That was a great example to me."

She was also curious, Prud'homme said, "the eternal pupil. She was always pushing the world to see what kind of information she could get out of it."

Working on the book also gave him fresh insights into Paul, the twin brother of Prud'homme's grandfather, Charles.

"It was amazing that they found each other. Paul was 10 years older than Julia. But it was not love at first sight. When they first met, she thought he was too bald with a big nose and ugly mustache," Prud'homme said.

"He thought she was too tall and made too much noise. But love blooms ... and he takes her to France." There, he encourages her cooking and teaches her about wine. Later in her life, she says she "could not have had her career without him," Prud- 'homme said.

The couple was childless, a topic Prud'homme broached without much success when he and Child were working on the book. "I don't know if it was a generational thing or just an issue of personality, but she just didn't want to talk about it," he said.

"She said, `We tried, and it didn't take.' I asked if she had considered adoption, and she said, `Nope.' But later on, in some of her letters, I found her saying there are times when I wish I had a daughter or someone to share things with but, if I had, I probably would not have had my career," Prud'homme said.

"I like to think that she had a lot of surrogate children. Not just people like me in the family, but all the cooks across the world that she helped."

Among the "embedded lessons" of Child's life, he said, is her perseverance. She failed the Cordon Bleu cooking school final exam the first time she took it, but bounced back and passed it on the second attempt.

The cookbook that launched her publishing career, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, was rejected twice by Houghton Mifflin before being published by Knopf.

She worked hard, often trying a recipe 10 to 12 times to get it right. She believed, Prud'homme said, "in bringing high art to home cooking, and that nothing takes too much time if it turns out the way it should."

Washing over all these endeavors was her optimistic, encouraging outlook, her philosophy that fun could be had in trying new things. "She used to say that Coq au Vin was just chicken stew," Prud'homme said, "and if she could make it, so could you."

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

Podcasts featuring Rob Kasper are available at baltimoresun.com/kasper.

If you go ...

Author Alex Prud'homme will read and sign copies of My Life in France at 2 p.m. Saturday as part of the Beaux Arts Fair benefiting the Baltimore Choral Arts Society at the Scottish Rite Masonic Center, 39th and Charles streets. Tickets to the festival that day are $10 in advance, $15 at the door. Children are free. Tickets can be purchased at baltimore choralarts.org or by calling 410-523-7070.

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