Book Review: My Life in France

I devoured this book in two days flat, even though I was supposed to be cleaning the house to prepare for a dear friend’s visit.

Every single spare moment of those two days was spent with my nose firmly planted in Julia Child’s My Life In France, a memoir that records her years living in and visiting France, her spiritual home, the land that inspired her to change the way America cooked.

Written in collaboration with her nephew, Alex Prud’homme, the book is a fascinating look at France and the US in the bustling postwar years of the late forties through the 1950′s and 1960′s through the eyes of a woman who, by her late thirties, had travelled to Ceylon and China, but who had yet to take up a whisk or saute pan.

To say that France changed Julia Child is an understatement.

France was the fertilizing influence that allowed Julia to change and grow, blossoming into the culinary giant we see her as today.

Told in her own words, as recorded by Prud’homme, the book narrates Julia’s first impression of French food, embodied in her first meal: sole meuniere. She and her husband, Paul, had stopped in Rouen, on the way from the port of Le Havre to Paris, where he was to be employed at the American embassy. For lunch, they decided upon :a Couronne, a restaurant well-praised by the Guide Michelin.

Although the Norman town of Rouen is famous for its duck, after consultation with the waiter, Paul chose sole meuniere.

“It arrived whole: a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of fresh parsley on top. The waiter carefully placed the platter in front of us, stepped back, and said, “Bon appetit!”

I closed my eyes and inhaled the rising perfume. Then I lifted a forkful of fish to my mouth, took a bite and chewed slowly. The flesh of the sole was delicate, with a light but distinct taste of the ocean that blended marvelously with the browned butter. I chewed slowly and swallowed. It was a morsel of perfection.

In Pasadena, we used to have broiled mackerel for Friday dinners, codfish balls with egg sauce, ‘boiled’ (poached) salmon on the Fourth of July, and the occaisional pan-fried trout when camping in the Sierras. But at La Couronne I experienced fish, and a dining experience, of a higher order than any I’d ever had before.”

Of course My Life in France is not just about food, and Julia’s relationship to it, which was profoundly changed by her experiences in Paris and her travels through the countryside.

It is also about people, and finally, readers can catch a glimpse of the relationships that nurtured Julia as she grew into the foodie icon she is lauded as today. Most interestingly, is her memories of her artist husband, Paul Child, a gourmet and wine afficianado who did all he could to support Julia’s growing interest in all things culinary. At first, when she simply wanted to learn to cook for the two of them and their friends, he was of course, vociferously helpful. When she took her first steps toward teaching and writing, however, is when Paul’s assistance and encouragment became vital to Julia’s growth, and he became almost an unsung collaborator. He helped with the illustration for her books by doing drawings and photographs himself; and when Julia flagged in promoting herself in the media, he pushed her forward into the limelight, happy to see his wife stretch and grow into a person larger than she thought she could be.

Also well-drawn and beautifully remembered is Julia’s relationship with her collaborator, Simone Beck, also known affectionately as Simca.

Simca’s contribution to both volumes of Mastering the Art of French Cooking is often overlooked in the United States, and Julia uses her memoir as a means to rectify this oversight. We most often remember that those books are written by Julia Child, and Beck’s (and for that matter, Louisette Bertholle’s) contributions go forgotten.

The truth is, the idea for the book came from Beck and Bertolle, and they had been working on a manuscript of tried and true French recipes for American cooks for some time and even had procured a publisher. However, they had been told by an editor to aquire an American collaborator who both knew French food and how to explain it in terms that American cooks could understand and appreciate. They approached Julia, and though at first, she refused to assist, later, she was convinced to look at the manuscript and do some work on it.

While the idea was Beck and Bertolle’s, the execution turned out to become pure Julia, which may soften some of the American propensity to downplay the contributions of the two Frenchwomen. Julia looked at the manuscript, and deemed it too arcane and dry for Americans, with explanations of technique that were neither clear not deep enough to ensure success for a cook who was not a French native. So, she set about rewriting it, a task that was to take the concerted effort of both Beck and Julia nearly a decade.

The chapters outlining the creation of both volumes one and two of Mastering the Art of French Cooking are among the most fascinating, at least to me, because it affords a look into the process of how a cook becomes a writer. Describing seemingly endless rounds of recipe testing in her kitchen and in Beck’s, Julia recounts the triumphs of thier working relationship, as well as the tensions. Both opinionated cooks with strong personalities and differing views of what constituted appropriate levels of recipe testing, the collaborators often disagreed, with the result being that while the collaboration was wildly fruitful, it was also very taxing, and sometimes threatened to weaken the friendship between the two women.

The friendship, though stretched and endured, culminating in the Childs’ building of a small home next to the house that Simca and her husband shared; the two families spent many happy holidays together in the sunny south of France. After Paul could no longer travel, Julia gave the house up, as they had agreed thirty years before, to Simca’s family.

A natural storyteller, Julia filled the narrative of her memoir with detail. Her words draw vivid portraits of the people, places and food of a France that have rapidly disappeared with the passage of time. Her wit, humor and infectious joi de vivre come through so pefectly, that I found myself hearing it all in her characteristic trilling voice. She and her nephew captured a series of moments in time that are important, not only as a portrait of a France that is no more, but also is a historical glimpse at the making of a culinary icon.

Needless to say, I cannot recommend this book enough to anyone who is curious about the life of Julia Child. It is illustrated throughout by the photographs of Paul Child, all of which echo his own artisitic vision, and wry sense of humor.

It is certainly a book that is not to be missed.

12 Comments

RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. I grew up watching Julia every weekend. She was beyond a cooking role model for me as I took her philosophies into everyday life. Her cooking style wasn’t pretentious yet she made fancy foods and I always that.

    This perhaps played into my attitude as an adult that if someone else can do that I probably can too. She showed me that cooking isn’t all that hard really, that’s is just a combination of manageable steps that culminate in a grand presentation. She was very human on her show and it was like watching my aunt cook especially as they had the same hair style.

    I wonder what the next couple of generations will be like without a steady dose of Juilia. Sure we have Food TV now and a non-stop stream of rock star chefs, but who really draws inspiration from Emeril? He seems like a nice guy, puts on a good show, but does he really train aspiring chefs? What will his legacy be besides the word “bam?”

    When I heard of Julia’s death I had one of my rare moments of crying over the death of someone I’ve never met. Even now I get a bit misty eyed as I type this. What modern television chef will inspire the sort of devotion that Julia gets?

    Likely? None.

    Comment by Andy — April 11, 2006 #

  2. I, too, grew up watching Julia and I adore her. I am not so patiently waiting to get my hands on a copy of My Life in France. Thanks for your review…now I’m even more excited…

    Comment by julie — April 11, 2006 #

  3. Thanks! I just requested this from the library. It sounds magnificent!

    Comment by Kiwi Carlisle — April 11, 2006 #

  4. Thanks for such a wonderful, insightful review … now I REALLY want to read the book!

    Comment by Cate O'Malley — April 11, 2006 #

  5. Thank you for the review. I’d been eyeing the book and was prepared to get it soon, but now I have to get it sooner. Like Andy, when I heard about Julia’s death I was shocked and saddened. I didn’t grow up watching her, but I knew of her and her incredible influence. Where would we be today without her? And then I had the pleasure to go to her “kitchen” at the Smithsonian when the exhibit opened in Washington. So incredible!

    Comment by Scott — April 12, 2006 #

  6. Barbara, I have been waiting for your review and I can only say, nicely done. You capture the essence of Julia, her life and her work. I just returned from Barnes & Noble with a pile of new cookbooks and now I will have to return for this book!

    Comment by Anne Napolitano — April 12, 2006 #

  7. [...] Tigers & Strawberries ยป Book Review: My Life in France Add to amazon wishlist (tags: books julia_child) [...]

    Pingback by Erin S. O’Connor » Blog Archive » links for 2006-04-12 — April 12, 2006 #

  8. Andy–I grew up watching her, too, and I think that much of my own culinary philosophy was formed by that early exposure. For Yule, Zak’s parents got me the two sets of DVD’s of her old “The French Chef” series, and it was amazing to watch how unrehearsed, and yet, natural she was in front of the camera. It was refreshing after all of the very scripted-seeming shows on Food TV to watch her just very simply show a viewer how to do something with her hands and with her very straightforward explanation.

    No gimmicks. No “bam!” No flash, except that which comes from very expertly making an omelette and making it look easy.

    It made me realize how much my own teaching style, when I teach demonstration classes, came from watching her when I was very young. I am also very self-effacing, very “if I can do it, so can you,” and I use a lot of humor in my teaching style.

    I got choked up when she died, too, I must admit. It was like the end of an era, or the loss of a dear friend.

    Julie, Kiwi and Cate–yes, read it as soon as you can–it is a wonderful, wonderful book.

    Scott–she did indeed start a revolution–and I have no idea where we would be without Julia Child’s influence.

    Anne, thank you very much for your kind words. Run back to Barnes and Noble fast!

    Comment by Barbara — April 12, 2006 #

  9. [...] Tigers & Strawberries ” Book Review: My Life in France … planted in Julia Child’s My Life In France, a memoir that records her years … Of course My Life in France is not just about food, and Julia’s relationship to … ricklomas @ 2:03 pm [filed under [...]

    Pingback by Maddy Lomas: a diary of a girl living in France — April 28, 2007 #

  10. [...] Tigers & Strawberries ” Book Review: My Life in France … planted in Julia Child’s My Life In France, a memoir that records her years … Of course My Life in France is not just about food, and Julia’s relationship to … ricklomas @ 3:24 pm [filed under [...]

    Pingback by Maddy Lomas: a diary of a girl living in France — May 6, 2007 #

  11. [...] Tigers & Strawberries ” Book Review: My Life in France … planted in Julia Child’s My Life In France, a memoir that records her years … Of course My Life in France is not just about food, and Julia’s relationship to … [...]

    Pingback by Maddy Lomas: a diary of a girl living in France — May 7, 2007 #

  12. [...] Tigers & Strawberries ” Book Review: My Life in France … planted in Julia Child’s My Life In France, a memoir that records her years … Of course My Life in France is not just about food, and Julia’s relationship to … [...]

    Pingback by Maddy Lomas: a diary of a girl living in France — June 30, 2007 #

Sorry, the comment form is closed at this time.

Powered by WordPress. Graphics by Zak Kramer.
Design update by Daniel Trout.
Entries and comments feeds.