Julia at Rest
A cabin on Mount Desert Island served as Julia Child’s home away from home.
- By: Kathleen Fleury
Photo by Paul Child. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.
When Julia McWilliams first came to Maine one summer after World War II it was to meet the family of her then boyfriend Paul Child. The Childs resided in a partially constructed rustic cabin on the quiet side of Mount Desert Island. There was no indoor plumbing. No electricity. Only the most rudimentary of kitchens.
But that didn’t bother Pasadena native Julia McWilliams — because Julia McWilliams barely knew how to fry an egg.
On that trip to Maine, the woman who was to become the most famous cook of her time didn’t learn to use a whisk — but she did learn to wield a hammer and saw.
“We were still in the process of building that log cabin,” recalls Erica Prud’homme, the daughter of Paul Child’s twin brother Charles. Then a teenager, Prud’homme remembers that Julia “pitched right in. She learned how to use a saw and an axe. And she helped strip trees that we then shaped to make the log cabin. She was enthusiastic about everything, and she got right into it.”
Paul and Julia had met in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka), where they had both worked for the Office of Strategic Services. According to Prud’homme, the visit to Maine “was a meet the family, everyone looking at everyone” kind of trip. Luckily for French food lovers everywhere, it went well.
“We adored her immediately,” says Prud’homme. “She adored the Child family, too. Then she went back to her family in California, and learned how to make coffee, fry an egg, do all those things that wives were supposed to do.”
Julia McWilliams became Julia Child on September 1, 1946. But it would take fifteen years for her masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, to be published. In the meantime, Julia attended Le Cordon Bleu cooking school in Paris, where she lived with her husband who was stationed on a diplomatic assignment. Soon Julia became an avid cook and began teaching cooking classes and working on the manuscript of the revolutionary cookbook with co-authors Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck.
All the while, their small family compound in Maine held a very special place in their hearts — they visited for weeks at a time in the summer when their schedule permitted. When it didn’t, regular correspondence to the family on Mount Desert Island had to suffice.
One such letter written by Julia on August 3, 1949, from Paris and sent to “Dearest Les Childes” reads: “Really we think of you all up there in with the greatest imaginable envy; and how you can even BE THERE WITHOUT US, how can you bear it. We are naturally bursting to know just exactly how every single detail of everything is . . . How sad, too, not to have nice old Paulo, I can’t imagine Maine without him. We read in the papers that your heat spell has broken out there on the East Coast and there were heavy rains Saturday.”
Another letter sent from Paul to his family a few weeks later references a piece of balsam fir that had been mailed from MDI to the couple in Paris: “The balsam . . . was as fresh as a young colt — only the very tips of the needles were brown, but it smelled (still does) of the forest + the wind + the fog + the moss. I could damn near hear the bell tolling off the point — a real wild odor in this old European town.”
Maine was the place where Paul and Julia came to be with family, to enjoy the outdoors, and to rest. Prud’homme describes the state’s allure as a “gravitational pull for and everybody else. She loved the place. She loved being there.”
While in Maine the couple would fish on the wharf at Bass Harbor, take hikes on the island’s winding paths and carriage trails, go for boat rides and sails, and take in movies at the Southwest Harbor cinema. Brian Worcester, whose father bought Sawyer’s Market in Southwest Harbor in 1959, recalls that “she used to come in on a regular basis,” up until the mid-nineties. “I can remember my dad preparing lamb legs for her and various other things. Julia being Julia, if you didn’t see her in the store, you knew she was there if you heard her speak.”
Of course, Julia also enjoyed the bounty of the abundant local seafood. “She loved lobsters, and all the fresh fish,” says Prud’homme. “My parents always had a big vegetable garden. She got into that. And she loved going fishing — she’d go out in a little dinghy and fish for mackerel and flounder.” This exposure influenced her cooking, says Julia’s longtime editor from Knopf, Judith Jones. “She draws on it quite a bit in later books . . . in headnotes for lobster and shrimps and the way to cook them,” says Jones, who reiterates that Maine and
everything it represented “was a very important part of their life.”
And her death. In 2004, when Julia passed away at the age of ninety-one, some of her ashes were spread near the family cabin on Mount Desert Island, the very cabin that her hands had helped construct more than half a century before.
If You Go
Judith Jones speaks about her new book and her relationship with Julia Child on March 9 at 6 p.m. $15. Holiday Inn by the Bay, 88 Spring St., Portland. 207-775-6148. www.portlandmuseum.org
- By: Kathleen Fleury