"My Life In France"

My Life In France by Julia Child

This wasn't just a book, it was a  time machine transporting me back through time to mid-twentieth century France. I loved every minute of it. I have long wanted to see France and this is the closest thing to being there that I've found since Peter Mayles' "Provence" books. Those books were set in peaceful rural Provence; this one takes you into the heart of a radiant Paris and let's you meet it's people, see it's sights, hear it's sounds and smell it's smells. Other cities are part of the story, but Paris shines the brightest and will, in my memory, always be the setting for this book.

I confess I have not been a fan of Julia Child. Watching her just a few times on television, I found her somewhat intimidating. She seemed pushy to me, bombastic, unlikeable even. "My Life In France" discloses far more of who she was and how she related to people than I was able to glean from a few half-hour cooking shows. What I found was that like the rest of us she wasn't perfect, but there was a wonderful and infectious exuberance in her every day living. She celebrated life, seeing beauty and finding joy in the every day things the rest of us might overlook. I think she must have laughed a lot, and the older I get the more convinced I am of the part laughing plays in keeping us sane. I like her better after this book, and even more after watching Merryl Streep play her in the movie "Julie and Julia".

I was intrigued with Julia's relationship with her husband, Paul Child. They seem eminently suited to one another, both unflinching romantics. The book gives us more of Julia's personality than it does Paul's but you come away with the feeling that they were both intelligent, straightforward people with a truly committed love and admiration for each other. They stayed fast friends as well as lovers, refreshing in this capricious world where marriages often don't last beyond the first serious disagreement.

This book is primarily the story of how Julia Child learned to cook and how her book "Mastering The Art Of French Cooking" was written. I think we tend to believe that chefs are born, not made, but Julia blows that theory out of the water. She begins, begins, at the Cordon Bleu school in Paris when she was in her thirties. I understand it was a different and probably simpler time, but today the Cordon Bleu is the very epitome of all things culinary. Can you imagine anybody even thinking of enrolling there to take the first steps in cooking? But then Julia lived her life based on it's possibilities, not on it's limitations. She was in Paris and wanted to cook; why not the Cordon Bleu?

The process of learning, and then putting what she learned into a book for American women was long and arduous; her goal was to teach the everyday woman how to cook in the French style. Julia prepared the same foods time after time until she was satisfied the recipe was absolutely foolproof, which meant finding ingredients and methods that would work in America as well as in France. She worked with two French women, friends who had begun the book before meeting her, but only one of whom was really committed to doing the work required. The three very unique personalities, facing first the difficulties of writing the book and then dealing with the whims of the publishing world, make for a story that is funny, poignant and completely engaging.

The preparation and eating of food play a big role in this story. Julia's attention to detail, her insistence on careful measuring, selection of ingredients and adherence to French techniques bring cooking to the level of a science with her kitchen as the lab. She conducted fascinating experiments with poultry, fish, eggs, flour, sugar, chocolate, cream and lots and lots of butter. The result is that the reader is torn between wanting to keep reading and wanting to rush to the kitchen to try some of her experiments. Beware: whatever you're having for dinner while you're reading this book is going to pale sadly in comparison to what Julia's having.

I found it curious that Julia seemed to divide people into two groups: intellectuals and non-intellectuals. It comes up often enough that it stands out. Then in one chapter she says that her father and his wife want her to be "nice and amenable and dumb, with no thoughts or feelings about anything." Her preference for "intellectuals" may have been a result of a natural desire to freely hold and express opinions, but it struck me as odd that in describing her deceased mother she said, "She was a warm and very human person, though not intellectual." It's difficult to tell what she means by that exactly, but it seems to indicate she saw it as a flaw. In different chapters she refers to groups of intellectuals she felt comfortable with, and groups of non-intellectuals she dismissed as not worth her time. Was she a snob? Nothing else in the book suggests that, so I hope not. I prefer to think of it as just one of the little idiosyncrasies that, woven all together, made her such an interesting personality.

One particular aspect of of Julia Child's personality that I first saw in these pages and greatly admire was her self-acceptance. She was 6'2" in a country of petite women. She found it hard to get clothes that fit her. At one point she and her even taller sister appraise themselves in a mirror and decide "not bad....but not great", then they laugh together and get back to living their lives. She didn't let her unusual height define her or give her any self-doubt. She was never afraid to be herself, even when she failed at something. She accepted what was and moved on, expecting success to come eventually. I love that confidence.

My favorite line from this book?  Describing a scene in England she said, "The countryside was poetic, filled with such great trees, cows, hedges and thatch-roofed cottages that I felt compelled to read Wordsworth." I enjoy that quirky humour. My one small disappointment with the book was that there were no recipes in it. It was never meant to be a cookbook, but I thought there might be a recipe or two tucked into the narrative somewhere.

If you have an interest in cooking, read this book. If you don't, read it anyway because it's such a good story and it's a free trip to Paris. Paris! It is a wonderful book, but enough about that. I'm off to the kitchen to try an experiment of my own.


Logan Tanner said...

Thank you for you comment on my blog. As someone who clearly enjoys many a good book, I am even more appreciative of your compliment on my ability to write.
Keep reviewing good books!


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