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The First French Meals of Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher, and James Beard

Julia Child, at her vacation home in Grasse, France, in 1978.

Julia Child, at her vacation home in Grasse, France, in 1978.Photo: AP/Corbis

In late 1970, James Beard, M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, Richard Olney, Simone Beck, and Judith Jones all happened — more or less coincidentally — to be in the south of France. The new book Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste, written by M.F.K. Fisher's great-nephew Luke Barr, recounts that time and how the group helped shaped America's love of French cuisine. The following excerpt tracks how each would arrive in France — and the foods that compelled them to return again and again.

The view from the airplane window was thrilling, the horizon tilting this way and that as the pilot aimed for a runway somewhere below, in Nice. The glinting Mediterranean stretched off in the blue distance, and now the palm trees, beaches, and overbuilt coastline of the Côte d’Azur loomed suddenly into view: Cannes . . . Juan-les-Pins . . . Antibes . . . and then Nice. The airport was right on the water, at the western end of the Promenade des Anglais, the two-mile-long boardwalk fronting the sea. The plane sank ever lower, picking up speed along the way—at least that’s how it felt. There was always something a little disconcerting about these last few minutes in the air, the changes in speed and air pressure. The Childs did not much like flying, but the landscape outside the plane windows was undeniably glamorous. Here was the Riviera, in all its seductive glory, spread out before them on a clear December day.

They were nearly there.

Once the small plane had landed and Julia had extracted her six-foot-two-inch frame from the too-small seat and Paul had exhaled a sigh of relief at the safe landing (he suffered from vertigo), the couple made their way through the terminal to the airport restaurant. This was where they always went when they arrived in Nice. “This has become our ritual gear-shift from the USA,” Paul wrote of the Childs’ airport lunch in a letter to M.F., “because the difference between that kind of meal and anything even remotely like it in the USA is immense, and we only then realize we are in our second culture.”

The restaurant was on the second floor of the passenger terminal, and had large windows overlooking the runways and sea, and in the other direction, views of the Alpes-Maritimes rising up in the distance. Some of the waiters recognized the Childs from their frequent previous visits, and greeted them like old friends. It wasn’t a fancy place, but it was decent, upstanding in every way. The seafood was fresh, the bread was crusty, and the wine was a far cry from what they’d have been served at the bar at Logan, where their trip had begun.

There was no better cure for incipient jet lag than a glass of Riesling. They were finally free of the never-ending stress of travel: “While we are in the grip of airplanes, information booths, ticket counters, moving stairways, public address systems, money changing booths, surging, harried people pushing luggage strollers, and nine different languages bouncing off our eardrums, we could be anywhere, from Hamburg to Heathrow,” Paul noted. But no longer.

“France—we are here!” he exclaimed.

They always ordered the same thing—this was part of the ritual. It was a meal that symbolized not only their arrival in France but every arrival, and all the memories of arrivals past.

Cover

Oysters

Filet de sole

Green salad

Fromage blanc

It was more or less exactly what the two of them had ordered the first time they arrived in France together more than twenty years earlier, in 1948. They’d come over on the SS America, waited for their sky-blue Buick station wagon to be lifted off the ship by crane, and then driven from Le Havre toward Paris through the Norman countryside. They’d stopped for lunch at La Couronne, in Rouen. They’d eaten oysters, and sole meunière. They’d ordered wine—a Pouilly-Fumé, from the Loire Valley.

That first meal would eventually take on near-mystical qualities— a key entry in the Julia Child canon, which she described many times over the years, though not always consistently; sometimes the sole was a duck in the telling. But it didn’t matter: it wasn’t the fish or the duck; it was their experience, the fragrance in their memories, fleeting and indelible. Sitting in the dining room at La Couronne, Paul explained how butters from various regions in France had different flavors—the full-bodied Beurre de Charentes, or the fine, light Beurre d’Isigny. The sole was otherworldly, the salad vinegary, the coffee very dark. It had been the most exciting meal of Julia’s life.

•••

It was food that signaled one’s arrival in France, not only for the Childs, but for M.F. and her sister, for James Beard, for Judith Jones, and for Richard Olney. They had all experienced that seminal mid-century American-in-France moment at some point during the preceding decades, the first epiphany of taste and promise of European pleasure. Something new, and better . . . and with lots of butter (or butters).

•••

M.F. had eaten her first meal in France on the five-hour “boat train” from Cherbourg to Paris with her first husband, Al Fisher. The transatlantic crossing had taken them to the port town some two hundred miles east of the capital, and the train took them the rest of the way. On the train, they had eaten the best bread she’d ever tasted, green salad, Petit Suisse cheese, gnarled apples, crude wine, and bitter coffee. “It sounds almost disrespectful to say it,” she wrote years later, “but even the astonishing events of the past several weeks or so seemed but a logical preparation for this moment!” Falling in love for the first time, then getting married, crossing the Atlantic for the first time—“they all led irrevocably to 1:43 p.m., September 25, 1929, when I picked up a last delicious crust-crumb from the table, smiled dazedly at my love, peered incredulously at a great cathedral on the horizon, and recognized myself as a new-born sentient human being, ready at last to live.”

Norah rode the same train a couple of years later, in 1931, when she was a teenager and had come to France to stay with M.F. and Al. She had eaten an unforgettable meal of roast chicken. Forty years later, in November 1970, when she and M.F. took the train again, they ordered the familiar poulet rôti and Petits Suisses with fresh fruit. Nothing, though, could equal that very first meal in France, they agreed. The first taste of French butter, the demi-liters of white wine.

•••

As an aspiring opera singer in the 1920s, James Beard had moved to London for a year, and from there made his first trip to France in 1923. He stayed at a pension on the rue Jacob in Paris, not far from the Hôtel d’Angleterre, where Ernest and Hadley Hemingway were living at the time. The food at the pension was simple and good: pot-au-feu, blanquette de veau—boiled beef, veal stews, and so on. He soon discovered excellent hors d’oeuvres at a nearby boarding house, and a few months later, he took an elegant acquaintance visiting from his hometown of Portland, Oregon, to the exceedingly chic Au Caneton restaurant. They drank champagne and ate caviar and blinis, among many other things. (Caneton was run by Russian émigrés.) “It was a dinner I have never forgotten,” he later wrote. “Nor have I forgotten the bill. It was a hundred francs—the largest restaurant bill that ever was, I thought at that time.”

It wasn’t until much later, during World War II, that Beard became familiar with the food of Provence: In 1943 he was stationed in Marseille for the United Seamen’s Service. The USS was a nonprofit organization providing recreation, food, communications facilities, and other services to sailors, and the then-forty-year-old Beard volunteered to do his part for the war effort. Marseille was in bad shape at the time, having been bombed by the Germans, and provisions were in relatively short supply. But the city’s food markets and vendors were still worth exploring, as was the food at Beard’s hotel. He was staying at the Hôtel Continental, by the port, where the chef made stuffed eggplant with garlic and fresh rosemary and whatever small amount of meat he could find. Beard also ate bouillabaisse and brandade, garlicky poulet aux senteurs de Provence. These were the flavors that had stayed with him ever since.

•••

Like Beard, Richard Olney’s first meal in France was in Paris. He’d been twenty-four years old. It was the summer of 1951, he had recently arrived from Iowa via New York, and he was eating in “a glum little dining room for boarders, in the Hôtel de l’Académie.” He ordered the plat du jour: gibelotte, pommes mousseline—rabbit and white wine fricassee with mashed potatoes.

The gibelotte was all right, the mashed potatoes the best I had ever eaten, pushed through a sieve, buttered and moistened with enough of their hot cooking water to bring them to a supple, not quite pourable consistency—no milk, no cream, no beating. I had never dreamt of mashing potatoes without milk, and in Iowa, everyone believed that the more you beat them, the better they were.

The first few weeks, my days were spent mostly in museums and, for lunch, I ate as cheaply as possible. Good food was everywhere.

•••

A few years earlier, during the summer of 1948, Judith Jones had embarked on her own life-changing Parisian adventure—finding a job, renting an apartment, eating at inexpensive places. She ’d grown up in New York City and had recently graduated from Bennington College, in Vermont. In Paris, no one drank much, except red wine, she recalled, and her appetite was fantastic: “I am no longer content with a fish or meat course; it has to be both.” She soon met a Frenchman named Pierre Ceria, a journalist and former member of the Resistance who taught her to make pan-fried sole meunière, and with whom she opened a salle à manger in the living room of her apartment. This impromptu restaurant was an immediate hit, but wouldn’t last: the large apartment belonged to Princess Marguerite Caetani, an American married to an Italian aristocrat and living in Rome, where she published Botteghe Oscure, a literary journal. When she found out about the “restaurant” on the second floor, she very politely asked Jones and Ceria to leave. (The other tenant at the time was the painter Balthus, who didn’t seem to mind all the cooking and entertaining.)

•••

Simone Beck was from Normandy, so the food of France was no source of astonishment to her. But she had always taken a more than casual interest in it. As a teenager in the late 1910s, she began to experiment in the kitchen, “mostly with cakes,” she recalled, “for as a girl I had a very special fondness for sweets.” She kept track of these experiments in a series of notebooks, the first of many over the years.

•••

These first meals and flavors were never forgotten—they became figments of Proustian memory that drew each of the Americans back to France again and again. They were idealized memories, certainly, but also a true record of a time when most great cooking was French cooking, simple as that, and when you could not easily find decent bread, fresh butter, let alone a transcendent sole meunière in the States. French food was a revelation, and they were going to bring it home. Which is exactly what they did, each in his or her own way.

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