Maybe you all remember back in 2005 when Julie and Julia came out. It was the result of a blog, remember, that Julie Powell wrote for Salon.com, in which she cooked all of the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking? A lot of people read it, and they even made a pretty good movie out of it.
Julie and Julia was only okay, in my opinion — not badly written, but narcissistic and whiny and obviously a bit fast and loose with details. But I read it, and I read the blog and I watched the film, too, because Julia Child’s story — more than Julie Powell’s, really — is so similar in some ways to my mother’s experience. When my mother accompanied my father to France for a year in 1973, she had almost no French and a very basic repertoire of mostly-bland American dishes. When she arrived in Strasbourg, bag and baggage with a brand-new baby in tow, she threw herself into the culture, wanting to “live as the French lived.” She went to markets, learned about meat and produce and fish, and, a bit like Julie Powell, cooked her way through the nearly-new Mastering the Art of French Cooking. And nothing was ever quite the same in our family again.
Julia Child’s memoir, My Life in France, tells a story that is in some ways very much like this. She served in the OSS in Ceylon just out of college, which is where she met her husband Paul. When they married, he was posted to France. She spoke no French at all and had never eaten an authentic French meal; she was six-foot-two and grew up in a conservative family that led her to be initially suspicious of tiny, elitist French people. But she threw herself wide open to every experience she had, and (as many others have found before her) she found that food was the best gateway to culture. This is true, of course. When you’re interested in someone’s food, you’re interested in who they are. People who would never speak to you under other circumstances will tell you their recipes, their childhood memories, the best way to make bouillabaisse or to kill a lobster; they’ll tell you where to find the most unspeakably delicious cheese or the only shop where they sell a specific kind of candied orange peel or where you can pick tiny myrtilles for jam, and before you know it, you have a new best friend.
But Julia wasn’t content to be a marvelous home cook, or even to immerse herself in French culture and to make wonderful friends and become fluent in the language. She was ambitious, wild, funny, electric. She went to the Cordon Bleu and got a certificate, and then, with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle, she launched herself on the project that would, eventually, shape-shift into Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
It’s hard to say which takes center stage here more often: food or Julia herself. Mouthwatering French cuisine (and culture by way of food — tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are, indeed!) is everywhere, from Julia’s first meal in France (a simple sole à la normande) to incredibly elaborate preparations that sound impossible today. (Filet mignon stuffed with chopped ham and vegetables, en croûte, napped in cream sauce!) It made me take out my copy of Mastering the Art… and look at some of my favorite recipes again. A real person tested and re-tested those recipes, making them exactly right for American cooks who had never dreamed of making a homemade hollandaise. Thank you, Julia.
In this memoir, Julia spares no one, particularly not herself. (It is the refreshing other end of the spectrum from Julie Powell’s self-indulgent memoir.) Her successes and her failures, both culinary and personal, find their place here. She takes enormous delight in food, and in working with the wonderful people — chefs and otherwise — that she comes in contact with. When relationships become difficult, as they did with Simone Beck when Julia’s fame outstripped hers, she accepts the realities and is grateful for what she still has. Her tenderness (particularly for her husband) and resilience in the face of hardship come across on every page, and her distinctive style (Woe! Alas! Zoom! Bang!) gives you some sense of her outsize personality, her energy, and her sense of humor.
This was a particularly lovely memoir for me, because Julia Child was a kind of household god when I was growing up. You could consult her on anything, from poaching an egg to fixing a fallen cake to — I now know — love advice. Now that I understand more about her background, her ambition, her openness to culture high and low, I feel I also understand more about what enabled my mother to be so brave and happy on her own adventure, and what has also supported me in my own relationship with France. Bon appétit!