25 November 2007...7:34 pm

Lipstick On My Belly Button And Music In The Air

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A nice friend gave me a copy of of Julia Child’s My Life In France a few weeks back, because I asked for it.

Paul Cushing Child, 1948

And now it’s mine! I read it hard, in a matter of days, in subways and at kitchen tables and in other shockingly alternative venues like class. I tend to slow down right before I reach the ends of books I love, so the other weekend I brought My Life In France over to Fred & Thessaly’s with the expectation that we’d drink wine and cook dinner while Julia sat idly in my bag.

Mama, I say, Julia is always writing things like “we began with a half-carafe of Médoc 1929 and then finished a lovely bottle of Pouilly Fumé 1942 with dinner” and I want to know how does she even remember that dinner? My mother laughs not entirely approvingly. She would pour several glasses of wine during the course of one PBS episode, my mother tells me, and I regard her with the awe of one bearing witness to history.

The book did not sit idly in my bag. Thessaly had invited us over because she had a domestic potato surplus; to cope with them, she thought we should make Alice Waters’s garlic mayonnaise.

Alice was going to demand that we emulsify two different kinds of oil and act out other obscure verbs too. I wasn’t sure if that was necessary. I had just read about Julia’s manic efforts to keep her first real culinary victories from prying eyes while still getting them tested by her little sister, Dorothy, back in the U.S.

With the letter I included a number of ‘regular’ recipes, but also a special batch of three recipes that were hidden between pink cover sheets and labeled ‘DOROTHY COUSINS– EYES ALONE– CONFIDENTIAL– to be kept under lock and key and never mentioned.’

These were the Top Secret Confidential Censored pages; our revolutionary recipes for hollandaise, mayonnaise, and buerre blanc. We’d never seen those recipes in print before, and the methods for making the first two were revolutionary.

typed on a Royal Portable, 1952

It was the age of Hoover and McCarthy, and a 6′2″ graduate of Smith College could perhaps not be too careful, nor use the word “revolutionary” too many times.

Thessaly! I said. We can make Julia Child’s mayonnaise legere!

Lily looked skeptical.

What does ‘legere’ mean?

I said I was sure it didn’t mean anything. As it happened, “legere” meant “exceptionally drippy” but we didn’t very much care because it tasted like olive oil and garlic and we’d beat it with the hand mixer ourselves.

L’École des Gourmettes, 1951

My Life In France inspired only a middling amount of cooking in my life–there was the mayonnaise, and a quiche that tasted just like any other quiches I’ve made–but it did reinvigorate a desire to expatriate myself in dapper company.

Julia and her husband, Paul, arrived in France on Wednesday, November 3rd, 1948, after Paul had been posted there as a cultural liaison for the U.S. Information Agency, the USIA.

The Scheelds–as they were called by Francophones and as I have come to call them in my head–were essentially propagandists, but bohemian ones. Paul was a painter and photographer, and the couple entertained figures like Sylvia Beach, Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Alice B. Toklas. Gertrude must have been caught up in an unending sentence that rendered her unable to join her wife at the dinner table.

Alice was a cookbook author, and Julia doesn’t seem to have taken her very much. She describes the mustachioed bottom as an odd little bird in a muslin dress and a big floppy hat.

Toklas (or Stein?) once wrote:

In the menu, there should be a climax and a culmination. Come to it gently. One will suffice.

Young Julia, however, doesn’t seem to have been much interested in climaxing at all. She and Paul never had children, and they slept in separate beds. I am willing to bet that our girl Julie was the one who snored.

Maine, 1955

Rumors of dual gayness followed Julia and Paul throughout their lives; they were like the European version of my favorite sexless union, that of Paul and Jane Bowles. The principle difference between the two pairs other than their respective sides of the Straights of Gibraltar is that John Ashbery wrote an obituary for Jane and William Grimes wrote one for Julia.

In April 1955, Paul was suddenly called back to Washington from France. When he arrived in D.C. and realized that he was not there to be given an anticipated promotion after all he sent a telegram to Julia:

Situation here like Kafka story.

He spent an entire day being interviewed by USIA agents associated with J. Edgar Hoover. Julia writes:

The investigators had a fat dossier on Paul Cushing Child. They attacked him with questions about his patriotism, his liberal friends, the books he read, and his association with Communists. When they asked if he was a homosexual, Paul laughed.

Paul was ten years older than Julia; by 1974, after they had begun living part-time in Cambridge, Paul had moved to a nursing home. His character appears less and less in Julia’s narrative as her celebrity grows; he is occasionally mentioned as kind of a book-tour roadie:

In between shows, we signed books, sat for interviews, and made the right noises to dozens of VIPs. Meanwhile, the esteemed former American cultural attaché…crouched behind some old scenery flats trying to wash out egg- and chocolate-covered bowls in a bucket of cold water.

I started to feel very sorry for Paul Child, especially because I’d completely swooned for an early photograph of him with sunshine on his chest.

Maine, 1946

I showed Christina. Emma, she said, him? You are hard up.

Christina! I gasped at her irreverence. Whatever! She is gay and so was Julia and clearly neither of them would understand. In a last-ditch attempt at cross cultural communication, I chose the verbal over the visual and referred her to a letter Paul had sent to his twin brother soon after arriving in France.

What follows is my favorite part of the book and also the most translucent prose to be found anywhere in it:

Lipstick on my belly-button and music in the air–thaat’s Paris, son.

What a lovely city! What grenouilles à la provençale. What Chateauneuf-du-Pape, what white poodles and and white chimneys, what charming waiters, and poules de luxe, and maitres d’hôtel what gardens and bridges and streets! How fascinating the crowds before one’s café table, how quaint and charming and hidden the little courtyards with their wells and statues.

Those garlic-filled belches! Those silk-stockinged legs! Those mascara’d eyelashes! Those electric switches and toilet chains that never work! Holà! Dites donc! Bouillbase! Au revoir!

Bonn, Germany, 1956


  • “L’entrecôte?”
    “Ouais, s’il vous plaît”
    “Bien sûr!”

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  • Robert C. Child III

    How interesting about Paul and Julia.He, his twin brother Charles and my father, Robert C. Child Jr. were first cousins. I met Paul and Julia only four times.
    She was always verey gracious and he distant.

  • I was struck by your reference to Gertrude Stein as the “mustachioed bottom.”

  • It might have been universal!

    The old Julia Child program on (as it was called then) educational station was the original television drinking game. I well remember that my dam, who despised most television as soul and brain destroying poison, watched it regularly.

    And every time Mrs. Child took a drink, my sainted parent took one too…

  • Loved your remarks and thoughts on reading My Life in France. I don’t know if Paul and Julia’s union was sexless or not, but it is obvious there was much love shared.

    You quoted from the book, “In between shows, we signed books, sat for interviews, and made the right noises to dozens of VIPs.” I can testify to the truth of that because I went to one of her demonstrations and booksignings.

    I homed in on Julia for an autograph in my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and she insisted that I acknowledge the quiet unassuming man beside her and have his autograph, too, as she “couldn’t have done it without him”.

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