Julia Child taught America how to cook. Did she also invent a new way to travel? T+L rents her vacation house in the south of France to find out.
Julia Child’s kitchen in Provence is a square room with pale yellow walls, unusually tall counters, and dark emerald-green and brick-red tiles. The walls are covered with Peg-Board, upon which hangs an armory of cooking equipment: saucepans and frying pans of all sizes, ladles, spoons, sieves, and springform cake pans, whisks, mallets, can openers, corkscrews, and measuring cups, knives, scissors, colanders, potato ricers, and a hand-cranked meat grinder. Each object is outlined in black, so when you take something down, you know exactly where to put it back.
The kitchen was designed by Julia’s husband, Paul, and modeled on the one in their house in Cambridge, Massachusetts. It has the same high countertops—Julia was six foot two—the same vast array of tools, and the same Peg-Board walls. Paul and his twin brother, Charlie, had painted the outlines of all the tools. It is an entirely professional kitchen, a place where one might test recipes in the dizzyingly rigorous manner Child did in Cambridge in the 1960’s and 70’s. (When she set out to develop a recipe for baguettes, for example, she had Paul bake close to 60 loaves before deciding they had it right.)
But even though it looked quite the same, the kitchen in Provence was profoundly different. This was Julia’s vacation kitchen. This was where “The French Chef” cooked in France—at the very heart of her communion with the place that had most defined her. And indeed, although we think of Child as a cook and teacher, she was also a pioneer and champion of a particular kind of immersive travel, showing us how food and cooking can open up the world.
I rented the Childs’ house in France while I was researching my book, Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste. The house is called La Pitchoune, and the Childs built it in the mid 1960’s, on the estate of Simone Beck, her co-author of the Mastering the Art of French Cooking volumes. It is set on a hillside not far from Grasse, about a half-hour’s drive from Cannes and the Côte d’Azur. There are olive trees and rosemary bushes all around, and a stone terrace overlooking the valley. The Childs came here frequently—it was a place to relax and recuperate, far removed from her American celebrity.
The kitchen at La Pitchoune—“La Peetch,” as the Childs and their friends called it—soon became a central character in my book, a meeting place for the seminal American food people who found themselves together on vacation in the south of France for a few weeks in November and December of 1970. In addition to Fisher, Child, Beard, and Beck, there was also Richard Olney and Knopf editor Judith Jones—all gathered more or less coincidentally in the country that had inspired them to cook to begin with.
They prepared elaborate meals and they ate and talked. The mood was freewheeling and a little tipsy. When I interviewed Jones many years later (she had published books by Child, Fisher, and Beard, and was the only one of the group still alive), she asked me, “Do you know about the kitchen?” She meant, of course, that kitchen at La Pitchoune.
Jones described Child’s Cambridge kitchen as a place with recipes and notes hanging on the walls, alternate cooking methods tried out side by side, and carefully organized refrigerators and shopping lists. It was a working kitchen—a test kitchen.
“Provence, on the other hand, was a free-for-all,” Jones said. “No one was self-conscious—will Julia approve of these potatoes or this vinaigrette? Everyone pitched in.”
There were countless meals at La Pitchoune in 1970, comings and goings of guests, lunches and dinners, Child presiding in the kitchen and undertaking excursions to the many local shops and purveyors. “I have never in my life seen such a big smoked salmon as we got—almost three feet long—but it is not at all too much,” Child wrote in a letter to Beard that Christmas. “Everyone has been wonderful in the kitchen and with the wash uppery, so it has all been fun, having ‘made’ food also, and certainly has eased the cookery.”
As I read the letters and journals of these seminal cooks and writers, tracing their changing attitudes about France and food, noting the meals they ate and what they gossiped about, and how they continued to travel and visit and cook together—at Fisher’s house in Sonoma County, California, for example—I came to realize how elemental these experiences in the holiday kitchen were, and still are.
For that generation of Americans, France was the touchstone: it was here they had come to discover food as something transcendent. The existence of decent, crusty bread, of sublime butter, of earthy ratatouille and the perfect sole meunière. They had all had life-changing experiences on the Continent—Fisher and Beard in the 1920’s, Child and Jones in the late 40’s, Olney in the 50’s. They had found in French restaurants and supermarkets and home kitchens a quality of food, an art of cooking, and living, that they were determined to bring back home.
And so they did: they taught Americans how to cook. Child in particular was revolutionary, going on television starting in the early 1960’s and showing her audience classic French techniques, ingredients, and recipes; showing the way forward, an escape from the overprocessed, frozen, and convenience-driven food of the American 50’s.
But Child, Beard, Fisher, and the others had also, along the way, discovered a new way of traveling, and this is what struck me first when I arrived at La Pitchoune: that cooking and eating in a foreign country may be the surest, truest way to its soul.
It is an indirect path, of course, strewn with trivial information and accidental, insignificant discoveries. How does this French stove work? Which days is the butcher open and what is the word for tenderloin? Is there a good bakery within walking distance? Where in the world do you park on the day of the farmers’ market, when there is no parking to be had? All of these questions and many more will be answered in time, as the days go by, as total immersion in a place takes on a pleasurable rhythm, knowledge is accrued, and you become, in some small but not insignificant way, at least for a little while, a local.
The Childs helped visitors to La Pitchoune speed this process along by handing them the “Black Book,” a binder full of extremely detailed information about the house and kitchen, including Paul’s beautiful drawings of the heating and septic systems and instructions on how to use the fickle La Cornue oven without blowing out the gas. It also contained a comprehensive list of all the local shops, along with Julia’s succinct opinion about each one.
The book was long out of date when I arrived at the house, but it was inspiring nonetheless. We learned to navigate the local towns and markets, found our own favorite shops, and proceeded to re-create the casual, communal atmosphere of the Childs’ vacation kitchen, everyone helping out.
It is the kitchen, and cooking, that are at the heart of this process of immersion. In the mid 1960’s, M.F.K. Fisher (who was my great-aunt, and my way into this story to begin with) wrote an article for The New Yorker called “Two Kitchens in Provence,” describing her experiences living outside Aix-en-Provence in the late 1950’s with her children, learning to navigate, learning France. The story is a seminal evocation of this kind of travel:
“At the markets, we would fill the two string bags we carried with us, and the two or three woven baskets, all bulging with hard vegetables at the bottom and things like wood strawberries on top, and head for our favorite taxi at the top of the Cours Mirabeau, picking up packages along the way—a square of Dijon gingerbread and a pot of the Alpine honey at the little ‘health food store’ on the Place Forbin, an onion tart for a treat at the pastry shop on the Rue Thiers, a bottle of vermouth at the Caves Phocéennes. We would be loaded to the gunwales, full of hope that we had purchased enough for another week.”
It was just the same for us, decades later: our shopping expeditions were epic, and there was no pleasure greater than the dawning sense of routine, the glimmer of expertise, however narrow, the smallest nod of recognition at the boulangerie. In the kitchen, we unpacked our bonanza—including those very same tiny wood strawberries—and began the daily feast, hours of cooking and talking, a celebration of the moment, of friendship, of Provence,
T+L news director Luke Barr’s book, Provence, 1970: M.F.K. Fisher, Julia Child, James Beard, and the Reinvention of American Taste (Clarkson Potter), is out now. For more information, visit lukebarr.net.