NORTHEAST HARBOR —When Julia Child got her first microwave oven “it was this magical space-age thing from NASA,” says her grandnephew Alex Prud’homme. “She was told you could cook everything in it.”
Julia decided to test the machine at her house in Cambridge, Mass. She was throwing a dinner party. “And she put the frozen chicken, the vegetables and the chocolate cake into this magical machine,” says Prud’homme. “She pushed the button and it kind of rumbled and began to smoke. Then they noticed some chocolate leaking out and she opened the door and this big cloud of smoke came out and there was a burnt and still frozen chicken in there, some really horrible looking vegetables and melted chocolate cake.”
On Aug. 15, Prud’homme regaled a rapt audience with stories of his time cooking and eating with his great aunt, America’s “first lady of French food,” at the Northeast Harbor Library. Child also was known in Maine. She and her husband, Paul, spent time summers at a rustic retreat in the Tremont village of Bernard.
“You’ve inspired me to cook!” gushed one woman as Prud’homme signed copies of the two books, “The French Chef in America: Julia Child’s Second Act” and “France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child,” that were the subject of the evening’s discussion.
“There was simply no one like her on television,” says Prud’homme. When Child published her seminal 726-page tome, “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” in 1961, says Prud’homme, “People were eating iceberg lettuce and Jell-O and meals out of a can. It was totally counterintuitive, but it hit a nerve.”
“The French Chef in America” is a follow-up to Child’s autobiography “My Life in France” (the text of which was written by Prud’homme), and chronicles Child’s life after her first book was published. The couple had moved back to the United States and settled in Massachusetts.
Julia, says Prud’homme, found her voice in her 60s and reached “the zenith of her popularity” at age 70. But the waters were not always tranquil, says Prud’homme. The decades at the Cambridge house were “more dramatic, with greater ups and downs.” Navigating the challenges and excesses of fame. Caring for Paul after he was seriously injured in a fall. Adapting to shifting national appetites for French cooking.
“I didn’t realize how much adversity they went through, both personal and professional,” says Prud’homme. “She had to learn when to fight, when to move on and when to play by the rules.”
As Prud’homme spoke, he flipped through a series of mostly black-and-white photographs projected onto the wall behind him. The photographs, from “France is a Feast,” were shot by Paul between 1948 and 1954. He was never without a camera. Paul, says Prud’homme, “liked to say he was ‘the part of the iceberg that doesn’t show above water.’”
The first half of the couple’s marriage was dominated by Paul and his work as a cultural attaché for the United States Information Service, the reason for the Childs’ move to Paris in 1948. The second half was dominated by Julia. “Paul played a key role for her behind the scenes,” says Prud’homme, who says his great uncle called the blossoming of his wife’s career “nature restoring an upset balance.”
The 225 photographs, curated by the Childs’ family friend Katie Pratt with accompanying text by Prud’homme, are a mix of intimate portraits and keen observations. There are scenic shots too — a flock of skiffs in Marseille, misty shots of the Sacré-Coeur.
And then there’s Julia: picnicking on a sunny rooftop of the Rue de l’Université, peering down the stairs, talking on the telephone. Lifting a fingerful of whip cream to her mouth, her eyes nearly closed, bent over the sink.
Prud’homme alternated between reading passages from the books and recounting stories of his great aunt and uncle. He showed photographs of himself as an ungainly teenager, “with bushy blond hair to my shoulders,” sitting next to Julia at a table on the Childs’ patio in Nice, eating grilled chicken. After dinner, the family gathered around a small black-and-white television to watch the summer Olympics while Paul danced about, punching the air.
Did he ever get a cooking lesson from the beloved chef?
“Not a cooking lesson per say,” says Prud’homme. Those who entered Child’s kitchen were simply put to work: chopping onions, peeling potatoes, dicing mushrooms. “She made it fun and natural. She brought you into her orbit.”