Early on the morning of Wednesday 3 November 1948 a tall Californian woman looked out from the S.S. America to see her first view of France. As the ship was carefully tugged around rusting war wrecks into the harbour she saw the twinkly lights of Le Havre and heaps of bricks, ready to rebuild this still shattered town.
Julia was accompanying her husband Paul, who had been assigned as exhibits officer with the United States Information Agency in Paris. They had married in Washington in 1946 but had not found time for a proper honeymoon. She hoped their stay in France would make up for that.
The daughter of a wealthy Californian landowner, Julia’s upbringing was conservative and cautious. Her disapproving father had explained that the French were many things and none of them good, so it was with some trepidation that she stepped onto dry French land.
Then a large man in rich blue overalls unloading the boat shouted out cheerfully and caught her attention. His face was open and jovial, his hair a little wild but Julia was instantly impressed by his open friendly manner, so much like her own. Reassured, Julia relaxed a little while she waited with Paul for their car to be unloaded.
They were heading for Paris but would first stop in Rouen for lunch.
As Paul drove their blue Buick station wagon, nicknamed The Blue Flash, through pretty Normandy countryside Julia saw with delight how every little town and village was different. Surprisingly the bright crops of cabbages growing in a patchwork of fields reminded them a little of the Chinese countryside they had known during the war.
A chance meeting and a lifetime of love
Paul Child and Julia McWilliams met in Sri Lanka in 1945 while working for the Offices of Strategic Services, the forerunner of the CIA. Paul was heading a chart making unit and Julia was in the next door office. A clerk-typist, she was sometimes assigned to secret projects—one included her first known recipe, for shark repellent.
Paul was creative, sophisticated, multilingual and ten years older than Julia, who stood a little over 6ft and revealed her well-do-do background the moment she spoke with loud clear tones. But she was also warm, kind and enchanted with life. Neither was over impressed with the other when they first met, but after a time as friends they fell deeply in love. A passionate love that would last for the rest of their lives.
Lunch at La Couronne, in Rouen
They arrived in Rouen at 12.30pm. Today it is impossible to imagine driving into the centre of Rouen without battling through lines of cars and endless traffic lights. For Paul and Julia it was more straightforward. The motored in past the cathedral, beautiful but still damaged by the war, under the old Horloge arch and straight into the Place du Vieux Marché.
Following a Michelin guide they chose Restaurant La Couronne, The Crown, for their first lunch together in France. And here in one of the oldest Auberge in the country, history was made.
La Couronne has served meals to grateful Rouen visitors since 1343. Inside ancient beams frame rooms decorated with warm colours in an unfussy, traditional way. The essence of the place has changed very little since Julia and Paul visited all those years ago.
The nervous guest
Paul strode in confidently, but Julia felt self-conscious “concerned that I didn’t look chic enough, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses as us Yankee tourists”.
Of course they were warmly welcomed by the maître d’hôtel who took them to a good table near the fire. Julia noticed they were treated with exactly the same courtesy as the French customers, none of whom ”stuck their noses in the air” at them, as she was afraid they would.
Julia enjoyed “heavenly aromas” coming from a rotary spit by the wide fire, while Paul discussed their meal with the maître d’. She was amused to learn a conversation at the next table with the waiter was describing exactly how the chicken they ordered had been raised and how it would be cooked. Julia was shocked to learn they were also discussing which wine should be drunk with their meal. At lunchtime!
Paul explained that in France good cooking was “a combination of national sport and high art” and included wine with lunch and dinner. He asked the waiter for a bottle of crisp Loire Pouilly-Fume. Then their meal began. Julia couldn’t identify the first oniony smell and when told it was shallots sautéed in fresh butter had to ask just what a shallot was. She would later recognise other smells as a wine reduction for a delectable sauce and the sharp scent of simple lemon, oil and vinegar salad dressing.
The meal Paul chose has become part of gastronomy history and can still be ordered at La Coronne; they began with half a dozen briny oysters in half shells served with rye bread and Normandy silky Isigny butter. Julia was struck by the strength of flavour, so much more intense than the bland oysters she knew from back home.
A morsel of perfection
Next Sole Meunière delivered by their charming waiter as a whole Dover sole, browned in a still sputtering pan of butter…
“I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite, and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvellously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.”
The Sole Meunière was followed by a green salad with vinaigrette and her first baguette; “a crisp brown crust giving away to a slightly chewy, rather loose-textured pale-yellow interior, with a faint reminder of wheat and yeast in the odour and taste. Yum!”
Paul and Julia finished their meal with fromage blanc and dark filter coffee. Braving the language Julia said “mairci, Monsoor” to a friendly nod from the waiter.
Julia would say in her memoir “at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I’d ever had before’.
It had been, she reflected “absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life”.
A passion ignited
That first meal at La Couronne spoke to Julia Child’s very soul. A food lover, but previously a disinterested and not particularly successful cook, she would go on to study at the Paris Cordon Bleu. This was followed by ten years writing, with two co-writers Simca Beck and Louisette Bertholle “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” a book of delicious French recipes written in an accessible style for American cooks. American food had become bland and increasingly processed but ‘Mastering the Art’ published in 1961 was a huge success, changing cooking in the USA forever.
The book’s success led to a TV interview in 1962. Julia arrived with a hot plate, eggs and a giant whisk, enthusiastically rustling up an omelette on live television as she talked in her upper class trill about food and France. She was engaging and somehow inspired in her viewers the confidence to ‘have a go’. Twenty seven people wrote in wanting to see more and soon Julia was star of ‘The French Chef’, broadcasting nearly 200 programmes on 96 PBS stations between 1963 and 1966. She became a household name and won an Emmy.
A life well lived
More books, hard work and considerable fame followed. People loved Julia’s effervescent personality but in the background always was Paul. Julia was fortunate to be beloved; he encouraged and supported his wife, never questioning her enthusiasm and basking, never envious, in her success. They were together until his death after too long an illness in 1994.
Julia Child was awarded the Légion d’Honneur in 2000 but if it wasn’t for a film in 2009 ‘Julie and Julia’ she would be hardly known in France. In an interview in Le Figaro, Meryl Streep, who played Julia in the film said: “What surprises me is that the French don’t know her at all. While for Americans, she was one of the best ambassadors of France … since Lafayette!”
The judgement of chefs
Some French chefs have been a little sniffy about Julia’s abilities; “Julia Child’s cuisine is academic and bourgeois,” says Julie Andrieu, a television personality and cookbook author. “It shows that in America, the cliché of beef, baguette and canard farci remains.”
Others are kinder; “She explains her recipes like a housewife, but she knows how to do it and she does it genuinely,” said Guy Savoy, owner of the Paris Savoy restaurant. He met Julia in 1981 and remembered her as “a real character, gentle and affable.”
In America Julia Child is a queen, known to her fans as their ‘Jooolia’ and her turquoise kitchen and copper pans are protected forever in the Smithsonian museum and “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is still in print.
Julia died ten years after Paul, leaving a legacy of excellent recipes, good cooks and a busy charitable foundation. We leave the final words to her.
“I think careful cooking is love, don’t you? The loveliest thing you can cook for someone who’s close to you is about as nice a valentine as you can give” – Julia Child
Some sources and information
My Life in France; autobiography compiled by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
La Couronne restaurant in Rouen
Paul Child’s wonderful photographs of Julia in Time magazine