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Sunday, January 31, 2010

Roo de Loo, Minette, kitchen help, and other items concerning France

Julia Carolyn McWilliams and Paul Cushing Child were married on September 1, 1946 in Washington, D.C. In late 1948, Paul was given a new job as exhibits officer at the United States Information Service (USIS) and transferred to Paris. Julia was thrilled. The story of her first meal in France at La Couronne has been told so many different times and in so many different ways that nothing is sure but one fact-- it was a rapturous meal.

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Paul and Julia spent their first night in Paris at 7 Rue Montalembert, at Hôtel Pont Royal. It took Paul an hour to park their blue Buck station wagon (nicknamed The Flash) and get back to the Hôtel. He couldn't find the parking garage at first, so he parked the car on the street. While walking back to the Hôtel, he found the garage, so he walked back to the car and re-parked it in the garage. Then he got lost walking back, but finally arrived, saying, "Let's eat!" They ate dinner at a place Julia described as "fine, although nothing compared with La Couronne...the standard by which I would now measure every eatery".

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Although Julia had fallen instantly in love with her new home (she thought of Paris as one big family) she was hopeless at speaking French. She'd 'learned' it in school but despite this, she still had a horrible accent, and knew almost nothing about it. "'It's easy to get the feeling that you know the language just because when you order a beer they don't bring you oysters,' Paul said.... [But t]he longer I was in Paris, the worse my French seemed to get." Julia remedied this by signing up for a class at Berlitz. Also, Paul (who loved word games) would make up sentences full of "r"s and "u"s--her worst letters.

Paul and Julia moved out of their Hôtel and into 81 Rue De l'Université on December 4th, 1948, just over a month after Julia's first glimpse of France through her porthole. It was "a bit weird", located on the second and third floors. The furniture was outdated, the electricity faulty, the plumbing froze in the winter, and the sink had no hot water. However, they made do, dubbing the new apartment "Roo de Loo". 

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In 1950's France, kitchen help was standard, and Roo de Loo was no exception. The apartment came with a 22-year-old farm girl named Frieda, who cooked fairly well but had no grasp of the concept that one serves food from the left, or how to arrange a table. This proved a slight difficulty, not to mention that Julia really didn't want to have domestic help-- she wanted to 'keep house' herself. She spent a lot of her early shopping trips buying enormous amounts of pots, cheese graters, frying pans, dishes, and other kitchen accessories. The last piece of their new life was finally put in place when a cat adopted them. Although Julia "had never been much of an animal person", 'Minette' was soon a major part of life in the kitchen-- she liked to sit on laps during meals, and was always twitching her tail while gazing intently at something underneath a radiator. Soon, Julia started seeing cats everywhere, and began to think of them as Paris itself. 

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Partly because she had time on her hands, partly because she was engulfed in wonderful food, and partly because Paul was more than willing to eat meals she prepared, the amount of cooking Julia did went up. She'd meander around Paris, buying a little of this and a bottle of that, coming home to attempt complicated recipes, including "veal with turnips in a special sauce." Her first cooking instructor was a woman named Hélène Balstrusaitis. Friends in the States had given the Childs a lengthy list of people to meet, including Hélène, her husband Jurgis, and their son, Jean. The two families got acquainted one gorgeous day in December with a hike and a picnic. It was Hélène who loaned Julia her first French cookbook-- a giant book, "the size of an unabridged dictionary", by the famous chef Ali-Bab, it was written in Old French. Julia loved her new treasure. She thought it was "very amusingly written", and read it with a passion. She'd spend hours holed up in her room, regardless of the weather, devouring the recipes, chapter by chapter. 

As Julia's French improved, her tastes grew more exotic. She tried things such as escargots, which her conservative father would have balked at, and truffles, rare musky mushrooms that came in a can. She was also discovering little shops tucked away, from olive oil merchants to the excellent crémerie (cheese shop) nearby. The owner, "Madame la Proprietress", was pleasantly plump, rosy cheeked and blonde haired, and she knew her cheeses extremely well. You would wait in line for your turn, and then announce your choice "clearly and succinctly". Your order should includ the time you were serving the cheese as well, because Madame could judge the ripeness of cheese to the hour. Julia has said she used to go and order cheese even when she didn't need it just to watch Madame choose just the right one.

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During this time, the Childs would often take a map and go wandering around Paris. Paul, an avid photographer, always had his camera, and Julia learned to follow his eye to see the hidden surprises he found. She also explored Paris on her own, and loved it whole-heartedly. However, one day Paul said, "I fell it is my... duty to show you the rest of France." And off they went, in February of 1949, accompanied by their friend Hélène. They traveled to Vienne, northwest of Paris, and explored the countryside nearby. Julia loved it, partly because it reminded her of Pasadena, partly because it had it's own lively sturdiness. And so, she became acquainted with France.

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In April, 1949, Julia's sister Dorothy arrived in France. She had written Julia a while earlier that she didn't know what to do with her life, as she had just graduated from Bennington college. Dorothy barged into France happily, not intimidated in the least by the fact that she had an atrocious accent. For the lack of anything else to do, she would call stores on Julia's newly installed telephone. "'Bong-joor!' she honked. ... 'Mair-ci!'"

Late summer in Paris was "la morte-saison" (the dead season), because almost everyone fled for the country. The average temperature was 75°F, and the city was humid. Not to mention that the few cafés and shops brave enough to remain open were overrun with tourists. Julia and Paul stayed in Paris, though. Julia wrote in her biography that when she went to buy some wine, the only person left to mind the store was the deliveryman. He was sitting next to a woman who had been a seamstress for a great couturier twenty-five years earlier, talking about the good old days. "It seemed that in Paris you could discuss classic literature or architecture or great music with everyone from the garbage collector to the mayor."

Julia was falling in love with Paris, and she knew it. It was big and friendly, like a Saint Bernard dog laying at your feet, panting. However, some of the Childs' friends did not think the same way--a woman named Alice who Julia had met a few months ago was miserable, and said she hated the French. Julia had been close to Alice and used to identify with her, but Julia loved Paris now, and that was that. 

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Julia's thirty-seventh birthday came on August 15th, 1949. It was a quiet affair, but marked with a milestone. From Paul she received her first cookbook ever. Larousse Gastronomique was 1,087 pages long, packed with drawing, definitions, recipes, stories, and "sixteen color plates". Julia loved it, reading it faster and even more eagerly than she had Ali-Bab's book.  She was cooking regularly at Roo de Loo, even though all her friends thought she was "some kind of a nut", because cooking wasn't a suitable occupation for a middle-class woman. They didn't understand how she could love shopping for the food, preparing it, and serving it herself instead of letting the maid take care of everything. However, with Paul by her side, Julia stood firm and kept cooking.


Ivy said...

Margarita, your writing about Julia's life is captivating. It's like I feel nostalgia for a time and place I've never been to. It makes me want to cook, but I must say I still don't want to try escargot...ever. Great work.

Flavsi said...

Wow, I love how she says that in Paris one can discuss classic literature with anyone from the mayor to the garbage collector! It sounds like a lovely place! Why did her friend Alice hate France?