My Life in France

I just finished reading Julia Child’s highly delicious memoir called “My Life in France”. It is a delightful, enticing read and one you must not miss if you are interested in cooking and all things French.

I picked this book on my first trip to Book Excess in PJ not too long ago. It was either this or Agatha Christie’s memoirs.

Meryl Streep as Julia Child in the movie "Julie & Julia"

Image courtesy of Amazon

I decided to buy and read Julia Child first as I had watched the movie “Julie and Julia” last year, thanks to Vern. In the movie though, it was only Julie’s perspective on Julia so I believed that delving into Julia’s life would be a better way to know the American who had practically revolutionized French cuisine in America, teaching American women how to cook French food without being intimidated or scorned by the snooty, artisanal French.

You must watch the movie if only to marvel at what Julie threw herself into.

Based on a true story, Julie gave herself a challenge of cooking 1 recipe a day from Julia Child’s French cookery book, Mastering The Art of French Cooking and blogging about it – her success, her failure and her life/work as she struggles to do what she believes is the impossible.

Along the way, she learns about who she really is (aren’t all journeys like that? We think we are going on a journey but it is the growth that we are craving). While the movie was superb, I felt there wasn’t much closure in the end as Julia Child did not wish to meet Julie at all. I felt disgruntled by the grand old dame of French cookery. Surely she cannot be so snobbish?!

Anyway, that is possibly the second reason I bought this book. If only to satisfy my curiosity about what sort of woman Julia Child was!

You would think that a woman of such calibre must be quite a force in the kitchen in her early days.

Surprisingly no.

When Julia landed in Paris in 1948 with her utterly charming husband, Paul, she did not speak French and knew nothing about the cuisine. What struck her was her first meal off the ship, at a Michelin-starred restaurant called Restaurant La Couronne where she was introduced to her first French meal of the day, a Sole Meuniere, “a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top”. She called it the most exciting meal of her life.

As this book was written together with her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, it sings with Child’s exuberance and love for all things La Belle France.

I was ultimately transported to France from her lively description about food, food preparation, living in Paris and then other places in Europe, learning at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu, moving from apartment to apartment, collaborating with Simca for 10 years on a 750-page French cookery book, and becoming a TV personality on French cooking when she arrives back in the US in the 1960s… all these are perfectly captured. It helped that Paul, her husband, was an avid photographer and this memoir is filled with beautiful black and white images of Paris and Julia Child of the 1950s.

At times serious (when she realizes she isn’t ever going to be a mother or when she realizes her father never really liked her marrying a non-Republican) and at times playful and irreverently funny, the memoir sings with her personality. (The movie captured rather well too – Julia Child is played by Meryl Streep who really does an incredible job of portraying her to her most eccentric!).

Perhaps what made Julia the queen of French cooking in America is her ability to be honest with herself and adapt to changes as they arrive and take things with a twinkle in her eye and a practical no-nonsense approach to life. Her collaborative effort with Simca, her French counterpart, ran to 750-pages which was of course rejected by her American publisher. Although it was a 10-year effort (in those days, there was no email so she and Simca wrote each other via post to write their book, testing the recipes again and again, figuring out if the ingredients can be found in the US and etc. – I cannot image the detail of the tome), Julia decided she would be practical and trim it down without missing a beat.

When she passed on in 2004, Julia had published 3 books in her lifetime – Volumes 1 and 2 of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and From Julia Child’s Kitchen. She did not succumb to the idea of opening her own restaurant although she could’ve because her first love was cooking and sharing this with her audience on TV.

I believe her success was partly due to her husband. Paul supported and indulged his wife’s passion, and his wine hobby spurred her on to pair cuisine with wine. Paul was her confidante and photographer, critic and artistic collaborator. Without him, Julia would have crumbled. With every move, he’d help her set up her kitchen properly so she could quietly test and re-test the recipes she’d learnt.

Reading a memoir is like slipping into someone’s life and home, if only for the briefest moments to experience a world so utterly fascinating and downright pleasing that it leaves me a little breathless. It is a real fantasy (oh what an oxymoron!) that enthralls. I have never been to Paris or even tried my hand at French cooking. But through Julia, I get to see what Paris was like in the years after the war, how inquisitive they are, how madly possessive they are about their cuisine and what lengths they go to for their food.

I leave you with a beautiful quote from the memoir:

“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. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn’t use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture…But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience. Such was the case with the sole meuniere I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.” (p. 332)

As Julia says at the end of her cooking shows, Bon appetit!

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