Before we had Martha at Skylands, we had Julia at Blue Hill Bay.
“Julia Child’s Maine”
By Judith Gaines
She stayed in Maine periodically for more than 50 years, savoring our seafood, sampling our restaurants, and summering in her beloved family home on Mt. Desert Island. Now Julia Child (as played by Meryl Streep) returns, gracing movie houses across the state in a film made in her honor, Julie and Julia. The film tells the story of the celebrated chef and bon vivant who teaches America how to cook, and a young blogger, Julie Powell, who struggles to make every one of the 524 recipes in Child’s epic tome, Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Julia Child died in California in 2004 at the age of 91. But the new film is reason enough to recall her life in Maine, where she once said, “Life itself is a binge.”
Julia’s base here was a home originally built in the 1940s by her brother-in-law, Charles Child, and his family, with help from her husband, Paul, Charles’s identical twin. The log cabin sat on the shores of Blue Hill Bay and grew over the next 20 years “like a game of dominoes,” according to Charles. It housed him, his wife, their three children, and Julia and Paul as often as they could come, as well as assorted guests. Julia contributed to a major addition by peeling logs and sewing window curtains.
Charles describes her in his family memoir, Roots in the Rock, as “a tall, willowy creature with dark, curly hair and blue, blue eyes, as jolly and gay as Paul was serious….She was a tough, relentless worker at whatever she undertook, immensely systematic, determined to carry through anything she began.” The date was 1947, just after her marriage to Paul, with Julia spending “her free hours every day at the stove, notebook in hand, enthusiastically reeling out miles of cookies, pots full of Boeuf Bourguignon and Tripe à la mode de Caen.”
After she passed the Cordon Bleu school in France, trained under several Parisian chefs, and started a French cooking school, Julia taught her nieces, Rachel and Erica, how to make high-style French cuisine in their rustic Maine kitchen. Rachel responded by creating a hat for Julia with “wild flowers, bed springs, wheat straw, and ribbons,” Charles writes. Later, Julia came to Maine to correct proofs for Mastering the Art of French Cooking. A photo taken then shows her sitting at a desk in a plaid shirt, pants, and topsiders, her hair in her trademark tight short curls, her gaze intently focused on the proofs. Her husband sits bare-chested at her side, also checking proofs. Through an open window with thin gauze curtains, pines rise just outside.
For a chef like Julia, who insisted on the freshest possible ingredients, Maine was a delight. The family caught pollock for her Bouillabaisse à la mode de Blue Hill Bay (which she made with the fish, potatoes, fennel, and saffron). At low tide they gathered fat purple mussels for her to make Moulles Marinères. Local lobsters became her Lobster Archduke and Butter-Poached Maine Lobster. The garden burgeoned with two kinds of sweet corn, turnips, carrots, beets, white onions, potatoes, dill, six varieties of lettuce, summer squash, radishes, and pole beans. The family also planted a small orchard with four types of apples. Raspberries, blueberries, and cranberries grew wild on their 20-acre estate.
The Childs’ land, known as “Old Point,” is a sword-shaped mass of rock and forest jutting out into the sea. Great rocky ledges sweep to the shore, and magnificent old pines somehow manage to take root in the rock. Many of the pines drip with gray-green moss, “which [gives] them the dignity of bearded druids,” Charles writes. The forest is so thick in some places, local kids make “a monkey trail” to pass from branch to branch without ever coming down from the treetops.
Old Point is separated from the rest of Mt. Desert by a low-lying bog. Here the land is so narrow that someone passing over the Childs’ soggy, barely passable road can see the sea shimmering on both sides. When the family finally finished an improved route to the cabin, Julia celebrated by making Gâteau Fourré à la Crème d’Orange, a two-layer sponge cake with orange-butter filling, covered by butter-cream icing, topped with an apricot glaze, and sprinkled with almonds.
With her husband working abroad and the demands of her own career, Julia couldn’t spend as much time in Maine as she might have wished. But she wrote often in what Charles describes as “homesick letters,” asking to be kept apprised of all the latest developments. “Tell us everything!” she writes in one of them. “What are you doing? What building? What new things has Fred (the nickname for Charles’s wife, Fredericka, an innovative cook) invented? How are the gardens?”