Julia Child’s Cats

Read more about authors Patricia Barey and Therese Burson's inspiration behind "Julia?s Cats: Julia Child?s Life in the Company of Cats."

What was your inspiration behind the book?
Terry: I was reading a biography of Julia Child — I’ve always been a big fan — and saw a black-and-white photo of her, sitting on a sofa in her Paris apartment clutching a perky pussycat. She looks radiantly happy. In Julia’s own delightful memoir, “My Life in France,” the same cat prances on top of her huge coal stove (both photos, taken by husband, Paul, appear in “Julia’s Cats”). Julia gives a few tantalizing details about this saucy French cat, Minette, but I wanted to know more, so Pat and I went off to the Schlesinger Library in Cambridge and combed through Julia’s letters and Paul’s diaries. They were both wonderful letter writers, and it was a thrill to discover a trove of stories — not just about her first cat, but all the pussy cats that wandered through Julia’s life and found a place in her heart.

What was the most rewarding part about writing the book?
It was such a pleasure, an honor really, to get to know this remarkable woman, those who were close to her, and her precious cats. Julia is endlessly fascinating. People still remember that hilarious “Saturday Night Live” caricature by Dan Ayckroyd (by the way, Julia loved it too), but there was more to Julia than being a TV cooking star. She embraced life with gusto, collecting friends and experiences along with recipes. The McWilliams children grew up with dogs, but as a new bride arriving in France, she discovered a passion for cats and for Paris. There she began to follow her bliss, which turned out to be food and cooking, and teaching others how to cook. After that, cats were always a part of her story.

What was the most difficult part about writing the book?
Cats who are fascinated by the cursor and like to help with spelling.

What is your favorite “scene” from the book?
Pat: When Julia and two Parisian friends opened l’Ecole Des Trois Gourmandes (School of the Three Hearty Eaters), Julia was a complete novice at teaching, but her enthusiasm for French food was contagious. Her school was everything the fancy Cordon Bleu wasn’t — “ homey and fun and informal,” like Julia herself, and word got around fast that this was the place to learn French cooking and have fun, too. Included in the $2 fee were lunch (with wine) and a cat for a classmate. Each time Julia called a class to order, Minette would perch on her reserved kitchen stool, watching for edible mistakes to hit the floor. Paul once snapped a picture — one of my favorites in the book — that captures the star pupil.

Terry: I love the scene in Julia’s Cambridge home where they were taping episodes of “In Julia’s Kitchen with Master Chefs,” when a neighborhood cat paced just outside the window, riveted by the sight and smell of chicken legs plunging into boiling oil. The hungry cat howled at the most inopportune moment, requiring take after take. Julia, of course, found this both hilarious and endearing. The TV crew, not so much.

Both: Despite watching all those “French Chef” re-runs and hundreds of other shows Julia starred in well into her 80s, we’d never really noticed the wooden marmalade cat tucked on a bookshelf or leaning against a potted plant on her TV kitchen sets. She brought the faux feline from home and asked the director to put it someplace she could see it. That cat now sits permanently in her re-constructed kitchen at the Smithsonian.

Was it a lucky charm? Her secret muse? Maybe it was just a comforting presence that made her feel at ease when the bright lights went on.

How do you think Julia’s life was changed by cats?
Julia was a late-bloomer who said her life truly began at the age of 36, when she experienced “an opening of the soul and spirit” that changed her life. She was in love with her new husband, French food and her first cat. She’d never really noticed cats much before she was adopted by Minette, but from the moment the mud-colored poussiequette appeared, Julia saw cats everywhere and saw in them kindred spirits — fearless and independent, curious about life and hungry for adventure. Luckily, Paul loved cats as much as Julia and took countless photos of her bending over to touch noses with any cat drawn by her quirky trilling voice.

Do you currently own any pets? Tell us about them.
Terry: I’ve had a succession of cat companions since college days. In my first tiny apartment kitchen, like so many other novice cooks, I plunged enthusiastically into “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.” My tabby “Mousse” enjoyed both my triumphs and disasters and was named after my favorite Julia dessert (chocolate of course).

Pat: I have two chats lunatiques, Ella and Rosie, 2-year-old siblings and the funniest cats I’ve ever known. When I’m gone all day, I often return to what looks like the remains of a “kitty kegger,” and the party-cats sleep it off while I uncurl carpets and straighten lamp shades. I’ve stashed every pretty thing I own, so now my shelves are lined with shoeboxes, and sometimes I wistfully read the labels: Waterford vase, kachina doll, Christmas ornament that once had feathers. I’m trying to persuade them to sleep in past 4:30 a.m. They’re thinking about it. They like chicken. A lot. I love them. A lot. I think they love me, but not as much as chicken.

What is one lesson you’ve learned from cats?
Curiosity and persistence – great habits writers can learn from observing their cats.

What is your favorite cat breed?
Terry: My favorite breed is the Shelter Cat, and I’m partial to tabbies. Julia welcomed strays and wasn’t particular about cat breeds, though she crowed that her Paris veterinaire pronounced her first cat, Minette, to be a rare Spanish breed. Of course, she loved cats with hearty appetites – as she said, “I adore great big poussiequettes!”

Pat: I once cat-sat for two beautiful Burmese with golden eyes and was smitten. But I learned to be careful about making eye contact with Mojo, because that was a signal to leap onto my shoulder and hang there like a live boa. Minette did just that the night Julia made a grand presentation of roasted pigeons, her first Cordon Bleu dinner at home.

Are you planning on writing any more books?
We’re still savoring the delightful experience of writing Julia’ Cats. It will be hard to match the story of her lifelong love affair with cats, but we’re researching some intriguing possibilities.

If you could tell your readers one thing, what would it be?
Julia’s secret to the good life was simple: Find something you love and do it every day. Maybe that’s cooking, or gardening, or photography or hanging out with your cat. For us, it was writing Julia’s Cats. Above all, have a good time.

Article Categories:
Cats · Lifestyle