In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs. From them I learned why good French food is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should.
Late in her life, Julia Child finally completed a long-discussed project, sitting down with her nephew Alex Prud’homme to tell the stories of how her career in French cuisine and introducing it to America began. Her life story of those years in France, learning the country’s culinary techniques and writing what would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, is such a wonderfully clear-eyed, joyful and unpretentious memoir.
Julia accompanied her husband Paul Child, an exhibits officer with the US State Department, on assignment to Paris in 1948. An energetic former Office of Strategic Services (the CIA’s precursor) employee herself, she got bored and enrolled in the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu cooking school. The majority of the book describes that pivotal time in Paris as she enthusiastically discovered and honed her passion, but Paul’s work necessitated later moves, so their time in Marseille, Bonn, and Oslo are covered in lighter detail.
She has a remarkable memory, studding her stories with details of meals and places and objects that enhanced the storytelling and left me impressed with what she was able to hold onto over the years.
I admired her dealings with some difficult personalities, and she’s forthright and candid about how sometimes things just don’t work out happily, either in personal or business relationships. There was also something monumentally inspiring in Julia’s staunch conviction that the innovative cookbook she was developing with two French co-authors was going to be successful, and more importantly, that it was necessary. Not to mention their perseverance against rejection and criticisms.
American supermarkets were also full of products labeled “gourmet” that were not: instant cake mixes, TV dinners, frozen vegetables, canned mushrooms, fish sticks, Jell-O salads, marshmallows, spray-can whipped cream, and other horrible glop. This gave me pause. Would there be a place in the U.S.A. for a book like ours? Were we hopelessly out of step with the times?
(But what does she have against marshmallows?!)
Postwar cuisine in America was about convenience, and the book’s mission was to bring complex French cooking to American housewives. As Julia Moskin wrote in a New York Times piece on Child’s most doable recipes for home cooks, it was Child who “started the public conversation about cooking in America that has shaped our cuisine and culture ever since.”
Her cooking style is a bit involved, but I liked learning about her methods, and how she managed her own shortcomings and errors. Her persistence, bordering on obsession, is admirable, like in her dedication to determining the perfect mayonnaise recipe. This book gave me some fresh confidence, understanding where she started and ended up, and it’s impossible not to find her can-do attitude in the face of mistakes and missteps contagious.
She makes clear that this obsession about learning everything she could and finding the best methodology stems from finally realizing her life’s passion of cooking and cookbook writing, even a bit later in life. It feels so happily fitting, you can’t help but be overjoyed alongside her that she discovered this. She had a rocky start, too, as she relates the details of her early cooking attempts, including that the first meal she ever cooked for Paul was brains simmered in red wine, which went over about as well as you might expect.
There’s also the class aspect of her cooking instead of hiring someone, something she touches on but pushed right by – she was unabashedly, unapologetically going to do what she wanted.
My friends, both French and American, considered me some kind of a nut: cooking was far from being a middle-class hobby, and they did not understand how I could possibly enjoy doing all the shopping and cooking and serving by myself.
Seeing Paris through the Childs’ eyes warmed my heart. They’re optimistic and endure their share of troubles, obstacles, and disappointments with aplomb. Julia’s remembrances are complemented by Paul’s photos, and I don’t know another way to describe it except that it made me heart-burstingly happy. I’m happy they had that time, that it meant so much to her, and that she discovered her passion and in so doing, changed what home cooking meant for generations of Americans to come.
Paris was serene and quiet in the moonlight, and seemed to stretch away to infinity.
On a personal level, her expat experience is deeply meaningful. She writes about returning to visit Pasadena and being swept up in social events, “the atmosphere of ease and charm there felt both intimately familiar and strangely foreign.” Learning about her strained relationship with her deeply conservative father, “Big John” McWilliams, was telling, revealing more about her and her convictions than I’d known. She was accused by her family of “riling up” her father with her “liberal views,” seemingly causing a painful emotional rift. There are so many facets to this woman who I only really knew as a slightly goofy TV chef from reruns.
The humor peppered throughout is delightful. It begins with her life-changing first meal on her first day in France, tasting a sole meunière at La Couronne in Rouen.
“Wine?” I said. “At lunch?” I had never drunk much wine other than some $1.19 California Burgundy, and certainly not in the middle of the day.
As she adapts, she’s good-naturedly, even appreciatively, humorous about her observations in her temporary homes. Her adventures in the fish markets and with the fishwives in Marseille were a hoot.
“Is that rigor mortis?” I asked a fish lady, pointing to a stiff silver-and-green fish.
“No,” she replied with a blank face. “It’s a mackerel.”
I felt, like so many others have, somehow close to this quirky, kind, talented lady who’s become a legend in American cuisine. You don’t need me to tell you to read this, and there’s not much to say about it that hasn’t already been said in the decade-plus since its publication. I hope I conveyed something of the delight of it, though. 5/5
“I wandered the city, got lost, found myself again.”
My Life in France
by Julia Child & Alex Prud’homme
published 2006 by Knopf