May 25, 2006

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My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme (Alfred A. Knopf, 2006, 315 pages)

The most fascinating period of Julia Child’s fascinating life was the dozen or so years before she became famous.

Child had a California upbringing, a blueblood education, a surprisingly modern post-collegiate experience slacking from one job to another, an exciting wartime job in China and Sri Lanka — all experiences that could make for interesting stories, both as a window into the person and a study of the history. And yet all these periods of her life as well as the years when she was America’s most famous TV chef pale in comparison to the six years she spent in Paris plus another six spent in various European locales. During these years, her husband Paul worked for the U.S. government and they spent time exploring. Julia also spent these years learning to cook, first at the Cordon Bleu and then independently with chefs and fellow foodies. She almost immediately saw her niche — as the ambassador of French eating to American home cooks. She wasn’t sure how this niche would play out (she considered starting her own cooking school or opening a restaurant), but her approach to this time in her life was one of excitement and optimism — though she was 30 when she married Paul, she felt like she was finally beginning to bloom.

The story begins when the couple leaves Washington and arrives in Paris in 1948. In some ways, they are lucky to be in a Paris still struggling with the effects of World War II. The American dollar is strong against the franc and all the luxuries of Paris are more or less available to them, including meals at the best French restaurants (and by “best” the Childs mean restaurants where the food is the most transcendent and authentic — they try to avoid the restaurants that are full of Americans) and the ability to take weekend trips.

A relative newbie to the world of food — especially French cuisine — Child discovers the delights of classical cooking and offers us a bit of introduction to this world of gourmet eating. We read about her relationship (at times a difficult one) with the two women (Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle) who are her coauthors on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the book that launches Child into American stardom. It takes them nearly 10 years of testing recipes, going over techniques, arguing about what to include and updating French cooking styles for American kitchens and ingredients before the book is born. The process (which is the bulk of the story told here) is one that Child agonizes over, attempting to balance American life (her readers wouldn’t have kitchen help and would be used to a frozen-food-based cuisine) with the authenticity of classical French cuisine.

It’s fascinating to hear Child (someone who eventually becomes one of the giants in her field) talk about being a late bloomer and unsure of exactly what she wants to do with her life (and this is even after she decides that her future is in food). The book is written in Child’s voice and is as frank and funny as you would imagine a story told by a 90something Child would be. (She died in 2004 at 91.) My Life in France is sweet and surprisingly inspiring with Child painting a portrait of a life full of excitement and fulfillment. A

— Amy Diaz


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