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From Awkward Tourist to French Cooking Fame!
on 25 September 2006
My Life in France is the most entertaining memoir I've read in 2006! It's a winner.
I first met Julia Child under unusual circumstances. My consulting firm was located down the street from where she got her hair done. Every Friday night, she would be seen peering into the windows to look at our art collection. After a few weeks of this, I walked outside and invited her in to tour the work up close. She was immediately studying everything from about three inches away. She thanked me politely and charged out the door. There was no hint of the slightly tipsy person filled with laughter who hosted The French Chef. Ah . . . I felt like I had met the real woman beneath the persona.
From that meeting, I gathered that she was a woman moved more than most by curiosity. I found myself also being curious about how she learned enough about French cooking to help co-author that masterwork, Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Most French people in those days would not choose working with an American as a way to produce a work about France. That would be like putting salty Virginia ham into Quiche Lorraine.
My Life in France nicely filled in all the blanks for me. The book was lovingly finished by her grand-nephew, Paul Prud'homme, after Julia's death and is filled with lovely photographs produced by Julia's husband, Paul Child.
Here's the short version of the book. Julia had been in Asia for World War II as part of the OSS and met her husband there. He was ten years older than she was and well traveled . . . especially in France. After World War II, he joined the USIS (predecessor to the USIA) which played a friendly sort of propaganda function promoting American values and ways of doing things. In November 1948, Paul landed a posting in Paris and Julia, the Pasadena, California bred daughter of a conservative businessman, was in for the surprises of her life. She fell in love with French food at her first meal! With no job in France, she began working on her language skills and learning how to cook (a new task for her!). Soon, she decided she wanted to go to Cordon Bleu. After some misadventures, she finally passed with some modest skills designed to help a homemaker rather than a chef. But she made friends with others who loved French food and eventually became acquainted with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. The latter two had an informal agreement to publish a book on French cooking for Americans. But they had just lost their American collaborator. Julia stepped in.
From there, much of the book recounts the decades of painstaking work that went into creating that first book and its follow-ons in which Julia played the role of making the recipes work in American kitchens with American ingredients and utensils. It's truly mind-boggling. My respect for her work is unlimited!
The book finishes with explaining how Mastering became a best seller and Julia became a television star.
Along the way, you'll meet her favorite food vendors, tutors, chefs and guests. She'll also delight you with her mouth-watering menus and how dishes turned out under different circumstances.
The title of the book is a little misleading. The material also covers time spent in Germany, Norway and the United States. You also get a full look at her marriage and the great joy that both Childs brought to their love.
Throughout, the book is filled with little Julia-isms in that humorous self-deprecating style that we all came to love on The French Chef. She lards the text with some piquant French phrases and quotes (which are usually translated more mildly into English).
As an author, I found her process of finding a publisher and working with publishers to be quite fascinating.
In her last decades, the book is a picture of grace as she devoted herself to her husband, her old friends and to French cooking.