Aug. 15 marked the 100th anniversary of the birth of Julia Child, who, until her death in 2004, was the long-standing ambassador of French cooking in America. The irrepressible Child is still adored by a multitude of fans, and in recent weeks, the country has witnessed a cavalcade of commemorative events.
In addition to a recently released biography, there have been celebratory dinners, bookstore tributes, rebroadcasts of memorable television programs and, undoubtedly, innumerable wine glasses raised by food connoisseurs in honor of her culinary achievements.
A new book by Therese Burson and Tucsonan Patricia Barey may have cat-fanciers raising toasts to Child as well. Julia's Cats: Julia Child's Life in the Company of Cats, tells, as the title implies, the story of Child's abiding love for cats. Set within the context of her midlife metamorphosis into one of the world's most-celebrated cooks (despite the name of Child's long-running PBS show, she never thought of herself as a chef), this tale of feline devotion brings to light a not-so-widely-known side of Child, which began to find expression at about the same time she discovered French cooking.
Child's introduction to French cuisine occurred in 1948. In the fall of that year, her husband, Paul, a U.S. Foreign Service employee, was reassigned to Paris. Traveling with him to the French capital, Child experienced her first authentic French meal in the medieval town of Rouen. A simple lunch of oysters, sole meunière, salad and a cold bottle of Pouilly-Fuissé was an almost-mystical experience for Child, who later described the meal as having awakened her soul.
Not long after arriving in Paris, as the Childs were settling into their new apartment, Julia had another serendipitous experience, crossing paths with a rambunctious green-eyed cat. Until that encounter, she had never thought of herself as a "cat person." However, there was something about the playful kitty that had, much like the meal in Rouen, a significant impact on Child, turning her almost instantly into a confirmed cat-lover. Minette Mimosa McWilliams Child, as the purring parvenu was christened, soon became an integral part of the household.
This short but engaging volume, which outlines the major stages of Child's transformation into a cultural icon, is sure to delight most cat aficionados. Containing numerous photographs of cats at rest and play, the book is full of the kinds of stories that cat devotees never grow tired of. In addition to the usual run of feline escapades involving mice, birds and trees, we read about cats dozing in dumbwaiters; amusing themselves with potatoes, Brussels sprouts and brassieres; café sightings of illustrious cat fanatics such as Colette and Albert Camus; over-the-top cat shows; frantic trips to the vet; the unfortunate consequences of cat suppositories; and the poignant story of Julia's last cat, who was curled up on a pillow beside her when she died.
These cats are certainly photogenic and mischievous, but they're not quite distinctive enough to carry off a book by themselves. (The exception would be Child's first cat, Minette, the plucky subject of Minette's Feast, a beautifully illustrated children's book.) It is Child's personality, bubbling over with a seemingly endless supply of joie de vivre, that really brings this work to life.
Child is truly a role model for late bloomers. Noting her unflagging determination to always "charge ahead," Barey and Burson follow her, nearing 40 and increasingly obsessed with French food, as she enrolls in the famous Le Cordon Bleu culinary academy, starts her own cooking school, co-authors the ground-breaking Mastering the Art of French Cooking and launches a television career that lasted nearly four decades.
This book, in addition to spotlighting her seemingly perfect marriage, also serves up obscure biographical tidbits, including a visit by Alice B. Toklas to Child's Paris apartment during a wedding party for Ernest Hemingway's son, her surprising passion for fast food—Child was mad about McDonald's french fries, Costco hot dogs, and In-N-Out Burger—and the outlandishly elaborate menu she once planned for her final meal. (Her actual last meal was a steaming bowl of French onion soup.)
Those who want a wider, more-detailed view of Child's life would do well to read Bob Spitz's definitive biography, Dearie. However, Barey and Burson provide readers with an affectionate and revealing glimpse of an inspiring woman who, whether making boeuf bourguignon or cuddling a cat, relentlessly followed her bliss.
"Her secret to the good life," they write, "was simple: Find something you love, and do it every day."