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Classic book review: My Life in France

One simple, perfect French meal changed the life of Julia Childs.

By Jennifer Wolcott / August 9, 2009

[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.

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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.

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