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Peek into Julia Child's Life Before She Was Famous

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Before she was the renegade chef, maven of the kitchen, and beloved culinary icon, Julia Child was simply… herself. It’s easy to forget that the woman who brought French cooking into the homes of Americans wasn’t always the vivacious TV persona that we now know. Instead, she was a budding cook, a curious traveler, and a woman on the precipice of a storied career.

France is Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child, a photo book compiled by Katie Pratt and Alex Prud’homme, Julia’s great-nephew and coauthor of her renowned memoir My Life in France, offers an intimate insight into the chef’s time in the country she came to love. I talked with Prud’homme about his great-uncle’s masterful photography and the side of his great-aunt not often seen. The photography collection is 225 images deep and follows the couple’s travels across the country from Paris to Marseille and into the countryside. The following was told to me by Alex Prud'homme and has been formatted and condensed for clarity:

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It's important for people to understand that France is a Feast is a book of Paul Child's photographs, a visual extension of Julia's memoir from his perspective—that's what makes it new and unique. Julia is, of course, an integral part of the narrative, but this book tells his story and showcases his talent as a visual artist. I mention this because people tend to focus on Julia, for obvious reasons. But Paul deserves a great deal of credit—as Julia herself acknowledged, saying "Without Paul Child I would not have had my career."

Rooftops of Sancerre from tower just before the snow, 1951
Rooftops of Sancerre from tower just before the snow, 1951 Photo by Paul Child ​​© The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
​Julia, Cassis, 1950
​Julia, Cassis, 1950 Photo by Paul Child ​​© The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

At the time these photos were taken (1948-54), Paul was a cultural attaché in the U.S. embassy in Paris and at the U.S. consulate in Marseille. He was ten years older than Julia, and the "senior" member of their marriage. She was an anonymous diplomatic wife, who trained at the Cordon Bleu, taught cooking classes in her apartment, and was working—with her French friends Simca Beck and Louisette Bertholle—on the book that would be published in 1961 as Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

The photos in this book record Julia a decade before she became famous, when she was in her gestational period, and experiencing what she called a "flowering of the soul" after falling in love with France and its cuisine. Not surprisingly, she was one of Paul's favorite subjects, and his photographs of her in France is a Feast range from quickly-taken snapshots to carefully composed portraits. Some are intimate, others are documentary, or funny, and a few qualify as works of art. In each case, Paul's aesthetic intelligence, humor, and deep love of Julia shines through.

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​Paul and Julia, Marseille, 1950
​Paul and Julia, Marseille, 1950 Photo by Paul Child ​​© The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
​“Yum,” 1950s
​“Yum,” 1950s Photo by Paul Child ​​© The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Les Trois Gourmandes, (aka “The School of Hearty Eaters”), Julia, Simca, and Louisette, 81 Rue de l’Université, 1953
Les Trois Gourmandes, (aka “The School of Hearty Eaters”), Julia, Simca, and Louisette, 81 Rue de l’Université, 1953 Photo by Paul Child ​​© The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
Julia at the top of the stairs, 1955
Julia at the top of the stairs, 1955 Photo by Photography by Paul Child © The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University
​Julia on the telephone, Aubazine, 1952
​Julia on the telephone, Aubazine, 1952 Photo by ​Photography by Paul Child ​​© The Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University

The above text in italics are the words of Alex Prud'homme regarding his great-uncle's photography and his great-aunt's career as told to Valerio Farris. France is a Feast: The Photographic Journey of Paul and Julia Child will be available starting October 24. For more information visit the site here.

Tags: julia child, photography