I have had the pleasure of knowing Erin for the last few years through our husbands and was so excited last year when she shared news of her planned Julia Child autobiography geared for children. I love to cook and try to involve my four year old as much as possible so the idea that our friend was writing a children’s book about Julia Child with gorgeous illustrations sounded fascinating. I quickly drove to the Ivy Bookstore on Falls Road and picked up my copy.

julia-child-book-cover

Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures is a 160-page illustrated biography of the famous television chef. The illustrations by Joanna Gorham, are lovely and several key moments of Julia’s life are told in illustrated sequences. The book spans her childhood and adolescence, her wartime service, her time in Paris and studying at the famous Le Cordon Bleu and her successful cookbook and television career. It is perfect for children ages 9-13.

So, Erin, why a children’s book about Julia? Are you a longtime Julia fan?

Given how much I love and respect Julia Child now, it’s hard to believe how little I knew about her when I started. This book actually started with the structure. The publisher of Duopress had the great idea to adapt the visual format of Brian Selznick’s amazing The Invention of Hugo Cabret (Scholastic, 2007) to a biography, with several key moments in the subject’s life represented in visual sequences to balance out the text. It’s an amazing concept. We brainstormed possible subjects, and I suggested Gordon Ramsay because my family loves Master Chef, Jr. After discussing it a bit, we thought, “Why not the television cook who started it all?” Voila–Julia it was!

When did you start cooking? So much tradition is passed down by cooking – how are you doing this with your daughter, Hannah? Does she take an interest in cooking?

I really don’t call myself a cook, honestly. I can put simple meals together if I have clear instructions and the techniques are basic. I started when I had to–in my twenties, probably. I studied in Spain in college and came back desperate to recreate those meals at home because I loved them so much. Some worked, some didn’t.

I think it’s great for boys and girls to see themselves as home cooks. My son is nine and he’s the designated scrambled egg guy in our house. But my eleven-year-old daughter is on a whole other level. She’s always been interested in food and cooking. She’d sit on the counter when she was one and help me bake, and she’ll taste just about anything. She ate (and loved) escargot when she was five! We do cook together a lot, but she takes the lead now. She did a “Chopped” challenge last year and put together a dinner with seared scallops crusted in potato chips with this amazing papaya sauce. It blew me away. I think food and cooking are going to play a big role in her future. 

Culinary tradition is getting harder to carry on in this day and age of take out, fast food and processed foods. In your opinion what can families do to keep the tradition (and ritual) of the home cooked meal going? All while juggling careers, sports and other extra-curricular activities?

This was exactly the cultural shift that Julia was up against when her first cookbook came out in the 1960’s–not because of two-career families, but because the marketing culture idealized the fast, easy meal. Today, I think the conflict comes because we understand the importance of home-cooked meals for a family’s health, budget, and togetherness, but we’re so busy that it’s hard to do.  My tips are philosophical and practical. First, don’t worry about perfect. During our busiest times of year, I’m lucky to get 2 or 3 actual dinners on the table in a week. Crockpots, one-pot dinners, and doubling meals for leftovers save me. So does meal planning. Thinking out the week’s meals ahead of time keeps you from standing in front of the fridge wondering, “What am I going to do with that?”

What about Julia’s life most resonated with you?

Julia didn’t find her true passion until she was almost forty. She worked hard at all the other jobs she had, but it took a long time to find the job that didn’t feel like work. I worry that today’s kids are pressured to excel at such a young age. I hope Julia’s experience resonates with them.

What do you consider to be the most exciting meal of your life so far?

I studied abroad in Spain when I was 19, and I was treated to lots of exciting meals there. Of course paella and jamón serrano (which hung in the family’s laundry room, with a few slices shaved off for special occasions) were incredible treats. But even the everyday dishes opened me up to new ways of eating. One of my favorites, that I tried my best to recreate when I got home was a lentil stew filled with all kinds of vegetables and loaded with cumin. So rich and hearty and healthy!

Part of your research involved accessing The Julia Child Papers at the Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University. What was that like?

This was my favorite part of the writing this book. I could have lived in that little research room for weeks and weeks–and honestly, it would have taken that long to go through everything, because it’s an amazingly robust and well-curated collection! I loved seeing the letters that she and her friend Avis deVoto wrote each other, because they chronicle the ups and downs of writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking (among lots and lots of other things.) I also got to see her recipes, revised over and over again. Oh, and Julia’s handwritten notes on the typed-up scripts for her earliest TV shows. You really get a sense for how thorough she was in everything she did.

baking + chatting julia child with erin hagar

So as part of the research process you discovered children wrote to Julia. What were these letters like? Do you think kids back then had as keen an interest in cooking as they do now?

Oh, those letters from kids! I think I might have squealed when I opened those. They were all handwritten in that wonderful kid handwriting. One girl talked about earning her cooking badge for Girl Scouts, and one boy asked about studying at Le Cordon Bleu. My favorite was from a 7th grade girl who told Julia that she’d been the only one in her Biology class to successfully dissect a crawfish because she cut it the way Julia had cut her lobster on TV the night before.

Kids are naturally scientific and creative, and cooking is both those things. So I do think there was a natural interest in cooking at that time, but not nearly as pronounced as it is today. Most adults in the 1960’s didn’t have the interest in cooking that we do today. That was one of Julia’s biggest challenges–here she was, writing a 700 page cookbook all about slow, deliberate French cooking when American food culture at the time was all about fast and easy, convenient and prepackaged. But it’s safe to say that the interest in food that Julia helped spark has lasted for generations, and she’s a big reason why today’s kids see so much cooking on television and have such a big interest in it themselves.

What was the most surprising fact you learned about Julia Child while writing this book?

One thing that surprised me was how scientific Julia was in her approach to cooking and teaching others. Because she herself struggled to learn to cook, she made sure that every single recipe–every single instruction– in her cookbook was tested countless times and described in the clearest possible terms. Unlike her partner, Simca, who was much more a “pinch of this and dash of that” kind of cook, Julia assumed nothing and tested everything.

What makes Julia Child special?

Julia Child was fun and funny and filled with life. But beyond that, there’s this: Somehow, our society has come to expect young children to have very specific talents, and to develop those talents from an early age. Of course, lots of kids do have talents and interests that are evident early in their lives, and that’s great. But many are still figuring out what they like to do, and that’s okay, too! Julia is a wonderful example of someone who wasn’t sure what she wanted to do or be. She didn’t know until she was almost 40! And then she went on to become one of the very best.

Channeling Julia, Making Clafoutis

“The moment for a child to be in the kitchen is from the moment they are born.” – Jacques Pepin

baking + chatting julia child with erin hagar

Jacques Pepin, Julia’s co-host for a number of years once said “the moment for a child to be in the kitchen is from the moment they are born.” As most know, I’ve always encouraged my daughter Grace in the kitchen. From the age of two and up, she’s been a helper in a variety of ways and now she can pour, dice (under supervision), mix, and even crack an egg. She can make a mean banana bread as my neighbors can attest. She just loves it. Inspired by Erin’s book, Grace and I tried our hand at one of Jacques Pepin’s recipes – Claufoutis, from Kids Cook French: Les Enfants Cuisinent À la Française by Claudine Pepin.  Fresh from the market with a few heaping pints of bing cherries, we set out to make this classic baked French dessert.

baking + chatting julia child with erin hagar

Claufoutis
Serves 8
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Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
40 min
Total Time
50 min
Prep Time
10 min
Cook Time
40 min
Total Time
50 min
Ingredients
  1. 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
  2. 2 eggs
  3. 2 egg yolks
  4. ½ cup all purpose flour
  5. 4 TBSP sugar
  6. 1/8 tsp kosher salt
  7. 1 ½ cups heavy cream, divided equally
  8. 1 tsp vanilla extract
  9. 8 oz pitted cherries, fresh or frozen
Instructions
  1. Preheat the oven to 375 degrees. Coat a 9-inch glass pie pan with butter.
  2. Beat together the 2 eggs and 2 egg yolks as you would for an omelette. Combine the flour, sugar, and salt in a medium sized mixing bowl. Add ¾ cup of the cream to the dry mix and whisk until smooth. Add the remaining cream and continue to mix.
  3. Stir the eggs, egg yolks, and vanilla. Whisk until smooth.
  4. Pour the batter into the buttered pie dish and arrange the cherries evenly into the batter. Place the pie dish onto a cookie sheet and bake for approximately 40 minutes or until puffy and golden brown on the edges. Finish with sprinkled powder sugar or serve with homemade whipped cream or ice cream.
  5. {Store in refrigerator.}
Notes
  1. (cool) tip: This classic dessert can also be made with any other berries as well as figs and pears. Delicious and not at all too sweet.
Adapted from Kids Cook French: Les Enfants Cuisinent À la Française
Adapted from Kids Cook French: Les Enfants Cuisinent À la Française
(cool) progeny http://coolprogeny.com/
 

About Erin Hagar

baking + chatting julia child with erin hagar

Erin Hagar is the author of Julia Child: An Extraordinary Life in Words and Pictures. She writes fiction and nonfiction for children and teens. Her picture book manuscript There Was a War On was awarded first prize in the Hunger Mountain Literary Journal’s competition and will be published under another title by Charlesbridge in 2016. Erin is a member of the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators and holds an M.F.A. in Writing for Children from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.