Tuesday, October 22, 2013

My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme


“One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed.” 
― Julia ChildMy Life in France


As I write this review, I'm wiping tears from my eyes. It is rare to find a book as touching and inspiring as My Life in France by Julia Child. I didn't grow up watching Julia on telly as so many did and my mom didn't have a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in her kitchen. All I knew of Julia Child before a few years ago was the Dan Ackroyd Saturday Night Live skit poking fun at The French Chef as she was known on TV.

It's hard to believe that when Julia Child made her first television appearance for an interview she didn't even own a TV! Though she was a comical character (I have since watched a few videos on YouTube), Child was indeed an inspiration, full of joie de vivre and always learning. We could all stand to be a bit more like her if you ask me.
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My interest in Julia Child began while I was living in the Cayman Islands when the film Julie & Julia came out. Loving Meryl Streep and Amy Adams, I rushed out to see it with no idea of what to expect. I left the cinema and made a beeline to the nearby bookstore Books & Books where I bought my very first cookbook. The film left me hungry, not only for food but for the experience of cooking - it looked like so much fun at a time when I was feeling a bit bored in general. I know it sounds cliche, but that's what happened. Though I couldn't get my hands on a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I was excited to try something new so I settled on The Better Homes and Gardens Cookbook. It was familiar to me as that was the cookbook my mother and grandmother both had in their kitchens (though I'm not sure I've ever seen either use them) and it was a great beginners book! I still use some of those recipes regularly. Another thing about Julie & Julia that struck me at the time was that Child and her husband Paul lived healthily for the most part to ripe old ages, yet they ate butter, salt, cream and all the wonderful things that can be found in French food. I suppose this was the first time I started to think about food the way I do now - reconciling that if food is made at home, it's probably not as dangerous to the health as some processed foods, regardless of sugar or butter content. Of course this is only my opinion as I'm not an expert by far, but these are things we must all grasp in our own ways. So at that time, I began to make more of our food from scratch, especially our deserts which I reasoned in my head were better than candy bars if they were made at home...  I could control sugar content if I made it myself. That Christmas I hosted a party where I baked over 50 different recipes to create an edible Christmas wonderland in our flat since there was a lack of reasonably priced Christmas decor on the island. We were swimming in cookies for weeks, but everyone had a nice time even if I did go completely overboard. Fast forward 4 years and I now have a cooking blog of my own - funny how things happen.

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My Life in France might not touch everyone the same way. I personally can relate to Julia - it's uncanny how many similarities there are between she & Paul and myself & my husband. She started cooking late out of boredom as did I. Her husband was a bit of an amateur photographer and so is mine. During the course of the book she lives in 4 different countries - I once lived in 3 countries in 3 years. Julia hailed from a conservative background, but emerged with liberal views - I'm the same. Neither of us have children, we both married older men and moved abroad. We both love for France, especially Paris. To say that we have a few things in common would be an understatement.

You definitely don't need to be a food enthusiast to enjoy this book. Above all, I found My Life in France to be the most beautiful love story I've read since The Notebook. Julia was lucky enough to have two great loves: her husband Paul and her beloved la belle France. My Life in France is undoubtedly a love letter to both. That said, I dare you to read this book and NOT be inspired to cook a little something. The way Julia describes food and wine is positively infectious... I feel as though I tasted every bite devoured and every vintage bottle of Le Grand Cru drank and I've never enjoyed my food so much as I have since I started reading this book!

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As everyone probably knows, Julia Child revolutionized post-war home cooking without servants, the cookbook industry, French cooking in America and food-related television programming. Let's face it - without Julia, there might not be a Food Network - cooking shows before her didn't fare well with American audiences. She was nothing if not a pioneer. What you may not realize is that she lived in China, Oslo and Germany, not to mention multiple locations in France and the US and she spoke multiple languages on some level. This life abroad pretty much began as a government employee during war time, which is how she came to find herself in China courting an artistic man 10 years her senior who loved her for who she was and effectively introduced her to France. Paul Child helped his wife learn the language and taught her about wine among other things - he is almost as much to credit for Julia's success as she is. He often illustrated or photographed her cooking, did research on materials that could be used in American ovens to emulate French bakers' ovens and even taught special sessions on wine to her cooking school students. Their relationship is a fine model in my opinion of what marriage can be if we're lucky: always supporting each other, enjoying life together and working together on all aspects of life as a team. Of course they had their trials like anyone else, but their story is truly inspiring.

Upon arriving in France just after the end of WWII, Julia decided to leave government work which left her in a country where she couldn't speak the language and had nothing to do. Always the trooper, Madame Child thrust herself into the culture by learning the language, going to parties, throwing dinners and eventually talking her way into Le Cordon Bleu classes that were made up strictly of male students studying to be professional chefs where she excelled beyond expectations in spite of difficulty. Her perseverance is awe-inspiring and a major theme in this book. Mastering the Art of French Cooking started as a book written by Julia's two collaborators Louisette Berthold and Simone Beck that was failing to be published. Julia started working with the two on revamping the book in September 1952 - it was published in 1961 - they worked on the book day and night for nearly 10 years. Even before that, Julia tirelessly studied cooking, attended demonstrations, practiced recipes and taught in a cooking school with her collaborators. She wasn't born a cook - she set her sights on something she wanted to do and she made it a reality.

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I've heard hemming and hawing over Mastering the Art of French Cooking - most of the feedback is that it's full of time-consuming, elaborately unrealistic recipes and while it may have been revolutionary at the time, it doesn't work today for most people who have busy schedules and are used to faster, more modern cuisine. Knowing that, I recently bought a copy of both volumes as I believe it is not only a cookbook, but also a history lesson. How quickly we forget what life was like before the internet, microwaves, toaster ovens, refrigerators, cell phones and the like, but as I've learned from Julia, "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." It seems that Julia not only put this practice into her cooking, but also her work and most importantly her life.

To think that you know Julia Child's story from seeing Julie & Julia is a gross understatement. Though Nora Ephron's film is one of my favorites, it's based on two books and therefore leaves out so much. One of the best things about My Life in France is Julia's tone of voice - she writes as though everything is important and to read the exact text of her rejection letters from publishing houses is to time warp to the past, going along on the journey with her. Seeing the photos of her travels makes it all seem very real and to read this book in some ways is to live her life alongside her. It's an absolute joy. Julia Child was a remarkable woman and I suspect this book will continue to inspire me long after I've finished it - I only wish she were still alive and on Twitter (knowing her attraction to all things modern, I'm sure she would be) so I could Tweet her and tell her how much I loved it! I will always be happy that I read this book and shall hopefully take some of Julia's great attitude and joie de vivre with me. I highly recommend My Life in France - it's one of the best books I've ever read.

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1 comment

  1. I totally agree! I ran out and bought this book after the movie came out and relished each page. I recently re-read it because my husband and I are traveling to Paris in December and I was craving the experience of seeing France through Julia's eyes once again. It is truly a love letter to both her husband as well as France. J 'adore!

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