If World War II had never occurred, no one would have heard of Julia Child. I would have undoubtedly married some nice businessman and probably become an alcoholic. Instead, I met Paul Child.
It happened, of all places, in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) on the verandah of a tea planter’s residence. The year was 1944, and the plantation served as headquarters for the OSS, America’s first spy agency. I was, I’m sorry to say, not a spy, just a humdrum office worker. Paul, a gifted artist, was an exhibits officer who made charts and maps for Lord Mountbatten, Supreme Commander for Southeast Asia. While we worked in palm-thatched huts, elephants wandered on the premises. It was all very exotic.
And no one was more exotic to me than Paul, a person unlike anyone I’d ever known – multilingual, worldly and insatiably curious. I saw so much more when I was with him. Never without a camera on his shoulder, he opened my eyes to the hidden beauty of ordinary scenes. Paul viewed life as a continuing series of adventures, and I was a lucky woman indeed to be a participant.
Ten years older and a few centimetres shorter (just right, in my view), Paul grew up in Boston and lived in Paris during the 1920s, where he knew Ernest Hemingway (a selfish, mean man in his opinion) and Gertrude Stein. He was a painter, master photographer, stained-glass cutter, poet and linguist. And he was a lover of good food and could describe in details the preparation of quenelles.
Quenelles? When I met Paul, my interest in cuisine had been limited to sating my huge appetite. I was 187 centimetres and always hungry. Growing up in Pasadena, I’d had a privileged life with public schools, a tennis court in the back yard, and a hired cook in the kitchen – which I considered a dismal place. Our meals were conventional women’s-magazine fare – beef, chicken or lamb. When I attended Smith College, I mostly remember consuming large quantities of jam doughnuts and driving around to sly-grog shops – this was the early 1930s – in my black Ford convertible packed with giggling girls. Upon returning to Pasadena, I harboured some vague idea of becoming a novelist, but like most women of my era I was truly prepared for nothing. Then came the war. I joined the OSS and shipped out to Ceylon.
I was 32 when I met Paul and my life finally got started. Like me, he was an eater, but his was a much more sophisticated palate. Paul was transferred to China late in 1944, and soon after I followed.
In Kunming and Chungking, he was always seeking out new tastes. He’d take me along and we sampled it all. Our growing relationship coincided with my food awakening.
Paul was fond of saying – and with good reason – that he had married me in spite of my dreadful cooking. The first thing I ever cooked for Paul, when he came to visit me in California after the war, was calves’ brains in red wine sauce. Just dreadful!
The brains, which you must handle gently were awful, and the sauce was worse. Why I picked something I’d never tried, I don’t know. Paul was sophisticated, and I thought this would impress him.
After our wedding, we settled in Georgetown, and I took up cooking for the same reason most women do – to please a man. In the beginning, it took me hours and hours – often until 10pm – to get dinner on the table. I used The Joy of Cooking and complicated recipes from Gourmet magazine, and things often went wrong. Paul was encouraging no matter what I did. And I learned an important cooking secret: when something goes wrong, correct it if you can, and if you can’t, bear with it.
In 1948, we moved to Paris, where Paul had been appointed exhibits officer at the US embassy. On our first day in France, we stopped in the city of Rouen for a lunch I still remember in precise detail: oysters and white wine, sole meunière, a great fresh salad, cheeses and delicious little petits fours with a fresh fruit dessert.
It was as if I had never tasted food before. I became determined to master the preparation.
We moved into the top floor of a wonderful old house on the Left Bank, with a pussycat who lived on the roof. I enrolled at the Cordon Bleu with a cluster of former servicemen studying to become chefs, and Paul became our willing guinea pig and an expert on wine.
Our marriage was a partnership in the deepest sense. Paul never cooked, but he’d shell peas if needed, and chop and shop with me. He described himself as “the part of the iceberg that doesn’t show.”
After we returned to the US, he designed the kitchen in our Cambridge home, took pictures and drew wonderful illustrations for my cookbooks. Paul was my entrepreneurial business manager and resident ogre.
Our time together lasted 48 years, until his death in 1994 at the age of 92. Over my bed hangs the Valentine painting Paul did for me one year of a tree laden with hearts.
This article appeared in the November 2002 issue of Reader’s Digest.
Illustration: Getty Images