Julia Child had a passion for cats.
Somehow I find that information about my culinary idol comforting. Being an animal person who is focusing on three house cats and three more who live outdoors, I wonder how I missed Julia’s attraction to cats from 1948 when she and her husband, Paul, moved to Paris until her death in Santa Barbara, Calif., in 2004.
I was far from a close buddy to the chef and TV superstar, but there were a few occasions when our mutual feline affection could have come up in conversation. I met her during dinner at the Greenbrier in White Sulphur Springs, W.Va., and as one of 10 newspaper food writers I once crammed into her TV kitchen in Boston when she and James Beard cooked in tandem.
I know I was speechless when the famous Julia bought my cookbook Aren’t You Going to Taste It, Honey? at a cookbook author meet, also at the Greenbrier. She also asked me to sign it.
I hope I wrote something meaningful and that my hand wasn’t shaking too much. To be sure, I adore her and have a deep-seated respect for bringing French cooking to America in her delightful, entertaining way.
The cats were an unknown chapter in Julia’s fascinating life story until I read the book Julia’s Cats, subtitled Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats, that was published last year and was a gift from a friend.
From the first day she and Paul settled into their apartment in Paris, cats found their way into Julia’s heart and her kitchen. The adopted wild cats never were served commercial canned or dry food, but instead were fattened on Julia’s pate, brioche, and soups as she learned French cooking and tested recipes for Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
When the maid brought the first cat to Julia in a market basket, she explained that every Paris housewife should have a good mouser. Julia welcomed the gift because of the many mice that scurried through the apartment.
But the black and brown cat never ate a mouse in his new home. Instead his first meal consisted of chunks of Roquefort cheese and bread that he scooped from Paul’s soup bowl in one fell swoop of his paw. Julia determined that he should have his own bowl of soup. And a second bowl. And pate, and the cream that rose to the top of the milk. From then on, it was dinner for three.
It was love at first sight between Julia and the feline that was first named Minou, the French word for kitty. It was changed to Minnette when Paul assessed it to be mademoiselle, not a monsieur.
Growing up in Pasadena, Julia’s family had a dog, but she and Paul had said they were not cat people. Minnette, and the many cats that followed, proved them wrong, and made a definite impact on their lifestyle.
She described cats as sly, curious, entertaining, tireless, and indispensable members of the Child household.
Julia’s love affair with Paris was magnified on her long walks during the day, with a stop for authentic food in a café, and with Paul when he returned home from his work at the embassy. They came to believe the reports that since Roman times Paris has been a haven for cats.
No matter what area of the city they pursued, there was a high population of cats, on the street, in the alleys, and on rooftops. Julia listened for the meows and is said to have treated those that crossed her path like long-lost friends, especially the black ones.
Julia and her friend Simone Beck, with whom she co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking, shared more than a love of France and French food. When the Childs returned each year to Cambridge they left their cat with Simone in Provence.
The story of Julia’s cats ends with her life in a Santa Barbara retirement home with her soul mate, a small black cat with white feet, named Minou. When Julia died during her sleep Minou was in her usual place on the side of her pillow. It was four days before her 92nd birthday.
Julia’s Cats, by Patricia Barey and Therese Burson, and Minnette’s Feast, a children’s book by Susanna Reich, were published in 2012 as a tribute to what would have been Julia’s 100th birthday Aug. 15.
Mary Alice Powell is a retired Blade food editor.
Contact her at: email@example.com