I’ve been inspired by recent Julia Child celebrations, the anniversaries of her birth and death and the release of the Julie & Julia movie to learn more about the life of “The French Chef.” I ordered a copy of Mastering The Art of French Cooking, Volume One (1) (Vol 1) (for some reason, all of the volume 2’s, which we cooked from for our Julia Child party at John’s place, were on back order on Barnes and Noble’s website) and I just finished the delightful My Life in France, co-written by Julia Child and her great nephew (?) Alex Prud’homme. Actually I rather believe that he was the lead author on the book, particularly since the publication date is the same month as Ms. Child’s death and she’d been in a nursing home for some time before that. But whatever, my point is that the book rocks!
I knew that Julia Child had lived in France and attended Le Cordon Bleu in Paris but reading all of the details of her life with Paul in post-World War 2 Europe during the McCarthy era, or perhaps “error” would be the better term, dazzled me!
In some ways, Paul and Julia seem like the epitome of the typical 1950’s American couple: she stopped working after they got married; they brought a gigantic American car across the Atlantic with them to France; he worked for the US government in a diplomatic area yet the book never really explores the implications of this work beyond simple statements that they were democrats and that they didn’t like McCarthy. I get the sense that they had more very strong opinions; these just never get put into print. I guess it’s safer to hide. Other than that, comparisons to the ‘typical’ go out the window.
The couple never had children, which I think is a little unusual for that time. I had the sense when Julia is reflecting on her sister’s pregnancy early in the text, that this is something that troubled her. She is delighted for her sister, who she finds now suddenly is a “full-fledged woman.” Paul was a struggling artist and photographer, it seems. I wonder if there was tension between them towards the later parts of their lives over Julia’s tremendous commercial success and his more modest achievements in the creative arts? Julia spends a lot of time writing about how wonderful Paul was as an assistant. I don’t have the impression that the supporting role was really Paul’s vision for himself and his work.
“My Life in France” takes you through her time in Paris; struggling to learn the French language until finally mastering it; attending culinary school; meeting Simone Beck, aka Simca, and Louisette Bertholle, the two who ultimately collaborated with her for the first volume of her most famous of cookbooks; the joys and agonies of teaching, cooking and writing about food; her frequent moves with Paul’s work, first to Provence, then Germany and finally Norway before he retires and they move back to the US; then on to her commercial and television successes. I couldn’t help but feel joy living vicariously through her many adventures.
Another Julia Child trait that seems atypical from the stereotype was that she doesn’t seem that uptight. Everyone knows that she loved food, but it’s also very clear that she loved wine, too, and wasn’t afraid to drink. In Marseille she writes “I had stumbled into an exciting street devoted entirely to brothels.” A prude would not have found that very ‘exciting.’ I was a bit disappointed that she failed to comment more on Paul’s interrogation in Washington where among other things, he’s accused of being a “homosexual.” I don’t think that Julia was a homophobe at all, and though it’s never said, she had gay friends, for example, the famous James Beard. It’s an issue dear to my heart that she side-steps in this volume. I wonder why?
Of course, the most unusual thing about Julia Child is that which everyone already knows about her: she became a famous chef, TV personality and she’s credited with revitalizing American cookery up to the present day. Charmingly, at first, if this book can believed, she only wanted something to do while Paul was at work. After trying a few other hobbies, she finally decided to learn to cook. Simple. Yet once the ball started rolling, well then, just look out! Underneath that tall exterior was lurking a very ambitious woman who succeeds beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.
I was fascinated by her ideas about American life and food. To me, she sounded a little bit like a snob in the ways she sneered at the sprawling growth of southern France: “It had rarely been my displeasure to see such a spate of plaster-splashed neo-Med box houses and pleasure domes crowded next to an unending row of tourist traps, cheap knickknackeries, Coca-Cola signs, and sleazy bouillabaisse parlors. Phooey! I don’t think I’d have liked la belle France at all if this were all I knew of it.” Maybe it needs a bit of editing but the sense is pretty clear. This same kind of suburban sprawl was happening everywhere in the United States at this time so one can only conclude that she wasn’t a fan. As to the food, once we’ve left behind the question of what a ‘sleazy bouillabaisse parlor’ might be, it’s obvious that she has some definite, negative ideas about the ways that the American food establishment was set up.
This doesn’t seem to be just a personal bias, either. One publisher at Houghton Mifflin, a house that ultimately rejects the manuscript which eventually becomes Mastering the Art, supposedly said “’Americans don’t want an encyclopedia, they want to cook something quick, with a mix.’” That’s a sad commentary about how we ate then. Julia was discouraged but she also seemed to get it. She spends hours trying out her French recipes with ingredients that would be available in everyday American supermarkets, for example. In the section of Mastering the Art volume 1 about cooking with wine and liquors, she strongly advises skipping the wine if it’s too poor quality, sour or bad. Apparently good wines simply were not that widely available then. Fresh herbs were also difficult to find at the time. It’s hard for me to even grasp that idea.
She was very concerned with the rise of the supermarket in France and with it the inevitable closure of small specialty food shops like butchers, bakeries, wine shops and cheese shops. That’s something that I’m concerned about now-a-days. I like to hope that we’re swinging in the other direction in terms of specialty stores. They’re all over the place in San Francisco and New York. In the more suburban areas, I’m not as sure, but my folks seem convinced that more is available now than in the past where they live in Northern Virginia.
If there is any real shortcoming to this book, it’s Child’s blind admiration for all things French. I’d love to have heard her ideas about regional Chinese cooking as she lived and worked in China for some time before moving to Europe. And, like I’ve noted elsewhere, there’s a lot of exciting food culture in this country too. Did she have to reject everything?
Julia Child had a charmed life. I hope that all of us can be so lucky!