Thursday, July 18, 2019
Julia Child baking a cake during the episode of The French Chef that inspired the opera. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryJulia Child baking a cake during the episode of The French Chef that inspired the opera. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

In December 1986, chef, cookbook author, and television personality Julia Child received a letter from the actress Jean Stapleton. Stapleton, famous for her role as Edith Bunker on the classic sitcom All in the Family, expressed her admiration for Child's unique talent for sharing the art of fine cuisine with the American public. “Before revealing the purpose of my letter” she wrote, “allow me to congratulate you for the great pleasure, joy, and information you exude in your telecasts. Truly you convince the viewer that cooking is a simple art which everyone can undertake and succeed in with glorious results.”

Stapleton and her friend, American composer Lee Hoiby, wanted to bring Child’s cooking to a new audience: live theater. Specifically, they wanted to develop a short opera, or musical monologue, modeled after Child’s work on her seminal television program, The French Chef. Stapleton would perform the opera as a one-woman show. In her letter to Child, Stapleton asked permission to develop their idea, adding “Your suggestions as to which demonstration you would like to see adapted musically would be most welcome.”

Letter from Julia Child to Jean Stapleton with suggested dishes for the opera, December 10, 1986. Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryLetter from Julia Child to Jean Stapleton with suggested dishes for the opera, December 10, 1986. Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

Child found the idea “intriguing,” suggesting recipes with a lot of “action,” such a bouillabaisse, which would require cleaning a fish and much chopping of vegetables. Or perhaps Chicken Marengo, “which was served to Napoleon after the Battle of Marengo. His chef cut up the chicken with a saber . . .” Ultimately, they settled on a decadent chocolate cake, Gâteau au Chocolat l’Éminence Brune, from two episodes of The French Chef. Lyricist Mark Shulgasser adapted the text from transcripts of the program.

The short opera, Bon Appétit!, featured Stapleton as Child cooking with just a couple of essential props: an industrial stainless steel table and a dish towel tucked into Stapleton’s waist. Stapleton emphasized Child’s spontaneous speaking style and animated gestures as she sang: “When you’re going to do a cake, you really have to have a battle plan.” She also put on a race to see if she could whip egg whites faster by hand than her electric mixer.

Bon Appétit! premiered at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts on March 8, 1989. Lee Hoiby accompanied Stapleton on piano. It was one of four Hoiby compositions performed as part of the Kennedy Center’s American Composers series. Stapleton toured with the show, and although Child was unable to see the premier, she attended the show with her husband Paul a month later when it visited Long Beach, California, not far from the Childs’ home in Santa Barbara. After the show, Stapleton and Child cut a chocolate cake in celebration of the performance.

The Schlesinger Library recently acquired a handwritten draft of Hoiby’s Bon Appétit!; the collection also includes text from The French Chef and correspondence among Child, Stapleton, and Hoiby. The collection complements correspondence, programs, and clippings found in the Additional Papers of Julia Child, 1890–2004. The original recipe for Gâteau au Chocolat l’Éminence Brune can be found in From Julia Child’s Kitchen (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1975).

First page of the handwritten score for Bon Appetit! Courtesy of Schlesinger LibraryFirst page of the handwritten score for Bon Appetit! Courtesy of Schlesinger Library

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By Paula Aloisio