Destination: France (Paris & Provence), Cambridge, Massachusetts
Book: Julia’s Cats: Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats (2012)
By Pamela Douglas Webster
If you grew up watching television in America, you know Julia Child had a passion for cooking. If you’ve seen a documentary of her life or the feature film, Julie and Julia, you know of her passion for her husband, Paul.
But did you know about her passion for cats? I thought not.
Documentary filmmakers Patricia Barey and Therese Burson thought that was a shame. After all, as chef and close friend Jim Dodge said, “If you don’t know how much Julia loved cats, you didn’t know Julia.”
Julia’s Cats begins in Paris. Paul Child worked for the Foreign Service and had pulled the plum assignment of designing cultural exhibits for the American embassy.
While exploring her new home and improving her language skills, Julia noticed the cats who ruled the city. Much has been made of Paris restaurants and shops catering to dogs and their doting people. But the markets, rooftops, and alleyways are ruled by cats.
It didn’t take long for Julia and Paul to realize their apartment would only become a home when it hosted its own feline. They adopted Minette.
Minette’s escapades were the subject of JuPaul’s (one of the many combined names they used) frequent correspondence with family. Paul even entered into a friendly rivalry with his twin brother over whose cat played the more inventive games.
While reading the imaginative messages— “Minette wants everyone to know she caught a bird on the roof.”—I start to wonder if Julia and Paul Child weren’t the first pet bloggers, simply lacking the technology to share their love with a wider audience.
After Julia enrolled in le Cordon Bleu to learn the techniques that produced the exquisite French food she had fallen in love with, Minette watched every experiment. And when Julia prepared her first Cordon Bleu meal for her husband and sister, Minette arrived in the dining room resting like a stole around the chef’s neck.
When Paul’s new posting took the couple to Marseilles, Julia had to leave her beloved Minette behind. Luckily, Julia’s friendship with the local fishmonger and fellow cat lover led her to the owner of a charcuterie who was inconsolable after losing her beloved cat.
Julia was sorry to say goodbye to little Minette. But she knew that no one could provide a more loving (and delicious) home for the wee cat.
For many years, Julia was unable to have her own, full time cat.
After leaving France, Paul’s work took them to Germany, Washington, DC, Norway, and eventually, Cambridge, Massachusetts. And, by the time they landed in Cambridge, the success of Julia’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking had led first to book tours and eventually to her own cooking show. The frequent travel meant that Julia would have to fill her love for cats with her regular attendance of cat shows and her greeting of every cat she met in her travels.
The success of Julia’s television show and the exhaustion that resulted from all the work involved drew the couple to look for a place to recover their energy. They found it in Provence.
With a small home near her collaborator and friend, Simone Beck, Julia was again able to adopt a cat of her own. And, when she returned to Massachusetts for the television season, Julia was able to leave her kitty in her friend’s capable care.
The authors detail the various cats the Childs befriended, in Provence, in Cambridge, and in their eventual retirement home (although even two weeks before her death, Julia Child could hardly be called retired) of Santa Barbara, California.
The book ends with two lovely portraits of Julia Child. Paul Child took one of her and her kitty Minette in Paris as a young newlywed. The other was taken a week before her death at 92, holding her cat Minou.
Julia Child was an unlikely television star. But people responded to her passion and lack of pretension. I did too.
I find enthusiasts irresistible. Even when I don’t share their enthusiasm.
But Julia Child’s love of food, of France, and of her meowing poussiquettes are all enthusiasms I can relate to.
I loved the way Barey’s and Burson’s research brought the cat angle to a biography already quite familiar to me. And their inclusion of dozens of photographs taken by Paul Child brought Julia, her charming cats, and the stunning landscapes to life.
I’m even tempted to believe, as Julia Child did, that “Une maison sans chat, c’est la vie sans soleil.” (A house without a cat is life without sunshine.)
Note: Don’t miss Pamela’s other take on this book at her blog, Something Wagging This Way Comes, with more cute cat pictures.
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