One of the first things I bought for our new apartment was the picture. It’s a photo of Julia Child in her kitchen in Paris, and I wanted to hang it in my own.
By now, Julia’s story has become the stuff of bestselling memoirs and blockbuster films. But those of us who love Julia are each touched by her story for a different reason: the late bloomers, the kitchen unconfident, the professionally unsatisfied. In honor of Julia’s birthday — she would have turned 100 tomorrow, August 15 — I’d like to share mine.
A month after we got married in 2003, my husband and I moved to China. I left my job in book publishing to become a diplomat’s wife. I loved being married, but in those early days, newly unemployed, I floundered. I missed my job as an editor so much I felt like I’d lost an internal organ. I wept, I worried, I spent weeks alphabetizing our bookshelves. I wondered how I’d ever adjust to life as a trailing spouse, moving around the world for my husband’s career while lacking my own.
It would be disingenuous to say that Julia Child led me to food writing. She was one among a pack of writers whose work inspired me to strive and to despair. But I had read Julia’s biography and I often considered the parallels in our lives: her stint in China, her marriage to a Foreign Service officer, her life as a trailing spouse, her career nurtured throughout multiple international moves. Even now, my mind still turns to them like a set of worry beads. I don’t aspire to be Julia — she remains a true original with that height, and gustatory enthusiasm, and funny, fluting voice. But I look at the loving teamwork of her marriage with Paul — unwavering despite personal and professional disappointments, not to mention multiple untimely overseas relocations. The self-mocking tone of her letters when she became too maudlin over leaving her beloved France. The success that bloomed from hard work and sheer will, despite the upheavals of diplomatic life. And I feel hopeful.
If you read this blog, you’re probably familiar with my story. You know I got my start writing for a local Beijing expat magazine, a free monthly that, though littered with typos, burst with energy. I wanted to write about food but they needed stories about everything else. And so, I wrote about orchid care, Chanel knock-offs, men’s seersucker suits. Eventually, when the dining editor left, I leapt at the chance to take her place. I will be forever grateful to that magazine for giving me a job, a chance, a path in another direction, a new dream to nurture.
Julia and Paul moved to Paris in 1948, when Paul was assigned to a job at the American Embassy. In 2008, my husband began an assignment at the American Embassy in Paris, and, like Julia, I too became a diplomat’s wife in France. In the four years that I’ve lived here, she has never been far from my thoughts. I’ve looked for her in all the usual places — her apartment at 81 rue de l’Université, which she dubbed rue de Loo. Her old haunts like E. Dehilleren or Au Pied de Cochon (I feel sure the latter two must have been more honest and appealing in her time). Lesser known spots, too, like the Hôtel de Talleyrand, home of the Marshall Plan and post-war diplomatic cocktail soirées, or Place de la Concorde, where our husbands worked at the Embassy, albeit separated by fifty years. I’ve tried to replicate her culinary curiosity by remaining open, adventurous, enthusiastic — even when faced with a heaping plate of andouillette. I’ve done my best to honor her in my new book, Mastering the Art of French Eating. And when we decided to buy an apartment, a shoebox pied à terre in Paris, the one that struck us with a thunderclap just happened to be on her old street, rue de Loo.
“It’s fun to get together and have something good to eat at least once a day,” said Julia. “That’s what human life is all about—enjoying things.” Yesterday, a friend came over for lunch and I made a quiche and green salad tossed with Julia’s vinaigrette, the recipe from Mastering the Art of French Cooking. My friend brought bread and honey, traditional gifts to sweeten a new home, and we ate, and talked, and finished the salad, and lingered over Eric Kayser’s amazing pistachio-apricot brioche. “Does the apartment feel more like home?” she asked. It did. It does.
After Paul’s assignment ended in 1952, he and Julia never again lived permanently in France. (Though they kept a small, stone house in Provence, they used it only for vacations.) If I’m being honest, I have to admit that I, too, may never again live permanently in Paris — a hard truth that makes my heart seize up. But thinking of Julia reminded me of the important things in life: the essential humanness of sharing good food with the people you love, even when you’re in a place you may not love so very much. Somehow everything tastes better when eaten with your favorite dining companion. Later, as I washed dishes, I gazed at the photo of Julia in her kitchen on rue de Loo, now hung in my kitchen on rue de Loo. I like to think she’ll be keeping an eye on things while I’m away.
More on Julia Child and her 100th birthday:
Cook for Julia birthday celebration from PBS
Old photos of Julia and Paul Child (I bought mine here!)
Recipe for sauce vinaigrette from Mastering the Art of French Cooking
Fun video mash-up of Julia Child’s best action scenes (thanks, Dad!)