Howard Chua-Eoan talks about Julia Child with her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme
Alex Prud’homme and I became friends after I stole a lamp for him back around 1990. To be fair to myself, I was playing Robin Hood, sort of. Alex was a newly hired writer at TIME magazine and had been given an office with a stunning modernist lamp, the kind that used to be common issue at the company at the height of its powers but which, by the time Alex joined, was already rare. A senior reporter saw the lamp and, when Alex had stepped away, took it from his office. It wasn’t because she didn’t have a lamp. She had an identical one. She just wanted a pair. Alex was flabbergasted. I was incensed as well, especially because Alex’s supervisor shrugged away the grab. So, over the weekend, when everyone was away, I walked into the offending reporter’s office, took the lamp and restored it to Alex. She fumed when she discovered that she was once again single-lamped—but how could she complain?
In any case, Alex didn’t stay too long at TIME. He followed me over to People magazine—also a TIME Inc. publication—after I moved over in late 1991 to become a senior editor. When I moved back to TIME in 1993, however, he moved on. He’s since written several books, including The Ripple Effect, a deeply observant and critically acclaimed book about America’s water crisis in the 21st century, even making an appearance on The Daily Show to promote it. His next book, on hydro-fracking, is due out in November. But his most fruitfully popular writing has been about family—specifically on the subject of one relative, his great-aunt Julia Child.
She said “Hello,” in that aspirated accent—like the air captured in pâte feuilletée.
The only time I met Julia Child was at a party at the penthouse apartment of Alex’s parents, which is one block down the street from where I live in Manhattan. She must have been in her mid-80s by then but still the center of attention, even with her wig slightly askew. When Alex walked me up to make the introduction, she was busy networking the room, the voice as recognizable as ever, audible above the din. She said “Hello,” in that aspirated accent—like the air captured in pâte feuilletée–smiled and flashed her blue eyes at me. I was thrilled. I can’t remember what else she said. The encounter was brief. Everyone wanted to meet her.
She died in 2004, two years before the autobiography she wrote with Alex, My Life in France, was published. The book was the basis for half of Nora Ephron’s movie Julie & Julia (with Meryl Streep playing the always imitable Julia). I had been at the book launch, again at Alex’s parents’ house. But I hadn’t seen him much since.
We remedied that with a lunch recently at Marea, and, over grilled octopus and malloreddus pasta with sea urchin, and agnolotti with sweetbreads, we talked about a lot of things (about his kids who were growing up at alarming rates; about his wife Sarah who used to work with me as the photo editor of TIME’s People section). But we kept coming back to Julia.
I told him that I had included the 1966 cover about her in a book I had just edited on the history of the last 90 years told through the covers of TIME. That story had been a celebration of Julia’s “verve and insouciance” domesticating French cooking for Americans—literally, by taking the cuisine straight into their homes via television.
I asked Alex if he remembered when he realized that the Julia Child on television was Julia Child his relative. (Her husband Paul Child was the twin brother of Alex’s maternal grandfather). Alex said that at first he thought that the real Julia was an emanation of the TV set—but soon enough, certainly by the time he was five, he concluded that she was flesh and blood—and very much the same personality as the television Julia, albeit less amped up while seated across the kitchen table at home. She and Paul never had children and so she doted on the kids of others.
He remembers one incident in particular: While driving down from Massachusetts for Thanksgiving at the Prud’hommes’ Connecticut country house, Julia, who never had a good sense of direction, got lost. She meandered around in her car on small roads trying to figure which way was the right way to go. At about that time, a near neighbor of Alex’s family was having trouble getting her turkey dinner ready when loud knocks came from her front door. She opened it to find Julia Child standing there. “Would you be able to tell me where to find the Prud’homme residence?” she asked politely in that voice. The woman was stunned to find the famous TV cook at her doorstep but not too astonished to strike a bargain. “I’ll tell you how to get there if you’ll help me with my turkey.” Julia did, of course. The woman had a successful Thanksgiving and Julia found her way to her destination.
Alex is writing another book about Julia, about her second life transformation from French chef to cosmopolitan cook. (The first had been from U.S. intelligence worker to chef.) It was the period in her professional career when she began to look beyond the cuisine of France, where she moved in 1948 with Paul. And yet her heart belonged to la belle France—and perhaps in the trove of material Alex has, there will still be something to re-spark the world’s interest in French cuisine, which has been eclipsed in recent decades by more innovative kitchens in Spain, Scandinavia, Britain, Japan and America.
Alex says he has a lot of material that he could not use in My Life in France that will find its way into the new book. It was all quite difficult to come by. For though Julia Child was the author of more than 20 books and the star of several TV cooking shows with her name loudly in the title, Aunt Julia in real life did not like to talk about herself. She was 90 when she was finally convinced to put My Life in France down on paper. Alex says she had the book in her head but every time he tried to coax the details out of her, she’d find some way to divert the focus of the conversation to something else.
The words of Paul, the love of her life, did more than anything to inspire her.
But then he started reading out the letters she and her husband wrote home from France. And then she began to add in more details, remember specific episodes with greater clarity. The words of Paul, the love of her life, did more than anything to inspire her—though Alex fondly remembers the numerous typewritten exclamation points in Julia’s own letters, graphic representation of her voice, perhaps.
I know I should be interested in Alex’s book in hydro-fracking. But I can’t wait to read his next book on Julia. No other American celebrity has embodied the joy of living and cooking and eating as she did. In a way, the fact that sea urchin and sweetbreads and octopus were on our menu at Marea reflects the fearless fun she had in her television kitchen (I still remember her dragging an entire, ugly monkfish onto the set) and how echoes of that adventurousness reverberate to this day. There she is in my mind, on the perpetual video screen, raising her glass, looking into the camera with her blue eyes, and wishing us all, “bon appétit.”