Classic book review: My Life in France
One simple, perfect French meal changed the life of Julia Childs.
[The Monitor occasionally reprints material from its archives. This review originally ran on June 20, 2006.] Julia Child hadn't a clue how to cook until she was 34 and about to become a new bride. Her first attempts at cooking were fairly disastrous, which only made her more determined.It wasn't until two years later, in 1948, when her husband, Paul, took a job in Paris with the United States Information Service that Child found the inspiration for what would become a brilliant culinary career.
Julia was instantly smitten with France - the people, the gentle way of life, and especially the food. She couldn't speak a word of French, and at 6-foot-2-inches tall, she towered above just about everyone. But any self-consciousness was forgotten when she tasted her first meal on French soil: a lunch of smooth, briny oysters on the half shell and a sole meunière browned in butter, which she adored for its simple perfection.
She couldn't get enough of Parisian farmers' markets with their fresh ingredients and beautiful displays, and she was awed by artisanal methods practiced by French butchers, olive oileries, and confectioners. Eventually her appetite to learn all there was to know about French home cooking became so insatiable that she signed up for a lengthy course at the venerable Cordon Bleu Cooking School in Paris. There she learned to cook everything from snails to wild boar.
In My Life in France, a delightful and ebulliently written new memoir Julia Child collaborated on with her grandnephew, Alex Prud'homme, in the last year of her life (2004), Child describes this six-year stint (1948-1954) in France as the most influential years in her career as well as the happiest of her life.
"This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child, la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating," she writes in the book's introduction.
Mr. Prud'homme, although a professional writer, was more of a facilitator than the book's author. "My job was simply to help Julia tell her story," he writes. "Almost all of the words in these pages are Julia's or Paul's."
Research for "My Life in France" was greatly helped by hundreds of letters Julia and Paul had written from France to his brother, Charlie Child (Prud'homme's grandfather), as well as by Paul's photographs, sketches, poems, and their own Valentine's Day cards.
The result is a tone that is pure Julia. One can almost hear her unforgettably fluty voice uttering such Julia-isms as "ta-da!" "ouf!" and "phooey!" throughout the book. Her joy just about jumps off the book's pages.
Child's love affair with La Belle France, as she calls it, was clearly heightened by the fact that she was experiencing those days abroad with the love of her life. In fact, one gets the impression from 'My Life in France" that Paul was the perfect match for Julia. They were intellectual equals - whip-smart, opinionated, and well read. They also shared a clever sense of humor and a joie de vivre, both of which came in handy when their overseas adventure had its challenging moments.
When Julia fell hard for France and got serious about cooking its cuisine, Paul was thrilled and supportive, even if it meant his wife had to stay late at school night after night. Of course, her progress as a cook also meant he'd enjoy better meals - and he relished his role as Guinea Pig No. 1, as she called him.
In addition to offering a generous glimpse at their affectionate union, "My Life in France" touches on the important milestones in Julia Child's life, including her schooling at the Cordon Bleu with Chef Max Bugnard; the launching of her own cooking school, "Les Trois Gourmandes," with Louisette Bertholle and her "French sister," Simone Beck Fischbacher; her move with Paul to Marseille, where she conquered a true Bouillabaisse à la Marseillaise; the difficult birthing of "Mastering the Art of French Cooking;" the successful debut of "The French Chef" on public television in 1962; and finally, Paul's illness, which led her to give up their Provençal house, although she forever considered France her "spiritual home."
Perhaps one of the most striking impressions one takes from "My Life in France" is of Child's indefatigable attention to detail and insistence on an exact, careful approach to cooking. She would investigate ingredients to learn all she could about them, and test and retest recipes for as long as it took to get them just right.
"When I wasn't at school," she wrote, "I was experimenting at home, and became a bit of a Mad Scientist. I did hours of research on mayonnaise, for instance, and although no one else seemed to care about it, I thought it was utterly fascinating."
Child was by no means a casual cook; any mistakes she made on national television were not shown out of sloppiness but rather to demonstrate that cooks are human and mistakes can be rectified.
Julia Child was a natural teacher, and "My Life in France" makes that abundantly clear. Even on its final page, she can't resist closing with a bit of instruction: "Good results require that one take time and care.... A careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience."
• Jennifer Wolcott is a former Monitor staff writer who once had the pleasure of interviewing Julia Child over lunch.