My Life in France

my life in franceMaybe 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!

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22 Responses to My Life in France

  1. CJ says:

    I don’t know much about Julia Child, I never read Julie Powell’s book nor watched the movie, and dairy makes me sick so I avoid French food, but this review makes me want to read My Life in France. I love how you show the connection between Child’s life and your mother’s life and the importance Julia Child has held in your own life. This is just the kind of book review I love.

    • Jenny says:

      I’m sure you’d love to read it. Julia Child’s life is so interesting in and of itself, and her embrace of another culture is so much fun to watch!

  2. Sue says:

    I did see the film and enjoyed Julia’s personality – loved your “Woe, Alas, Zoom, Bang” comment. This review had an almost Memoir feeling about it – great writing and wonderful review.

    • Jenny says:

      Thank you! And her writing is so much fun to read, for just that reason. Also, she is so resilient when something goes wrong. Just tackles the next thing. It’s wonderful to see.

  3. Lisa says:

    What a wonderful connection to your family! Like CJ I didn’t know that much about Julia Child, when the buzz started around Julie Powell’s book. (I can’t remember if I actually saw her on The Muppet Show or have just seen clips from it). I looked at the Powell book a couple of times at the library, but I was put off by the snippets that I read. But then I came across this book, which I loved for so many reasons, starting with Julia Child herself. You make me want to read this again.

    • Jenny says:

      Lisa, who was on the Muppet Show? (I am a HUGE Muppet fan and can’t recall this.) Amy Adams, who played Julie Powell, was in a recent Muppet movie (and was great) though. And of course, I’m pretty sure the Swedish Chef was based on Julia Child!!!

  4. Jeanne says:

    I love stories about Julia Child. She was taller than I am!

    • Jenny says:

      Jeanne, are you really tall? I didn’t know that! I am 5’8″ and taller than most of my friends, but nowhere near six feet two!

  5. rebeccareid says:

    Aw, I love your personal connection to this book. I loved this book too and should revisit it someday.

  6. I don’t really like French food a whole lot, and I hate cooking, but I love eating and I loved this book! I read Julie and Julia when it first came out and it was ok, but I agree with you that it’s narcissistic and whiny. My Life in France, though, is exactly what a food-related memoir should be.

    • Jenny says:

      I love to cook, and I love French food, so it makes the memoir even better for me. But I think you’d have to love it, along with MFK Fisher’s memoirs. It’s great no matter what kind of food you like!

  7. JaneGS says:

    I loved this book too, and I appreciated your comparisons to Julie and Julia, which I wanted to love but only liked.

    >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

    This is so true, and My Life in France is a testament to this truth.

    Great post! Makes me want to go make a souffle.

    • Jenny says:

      You can’t go wrong making a soufflé. Well, that’s not true. You can’t go wrong making a quiche. But either way, I hope you enjoyed it!

  8. vicki (skiourophile / bibliolathas) says:

    I loved this one – she doesn’t gloss the difficult things (like the friendships that break down) and lets us be a bit intrusive (about her childlessness, for instance), and then there’s the food… THE FOOD… wow. I think I drooled through a good deal of this book.

    • Jenny says:

      I had the precise reaction you did. It was the perfect balance of straightforwardness and reserve and FOOD. I drooled too!

  9. Karen K. says:

    I loved this book too. I never figured out why the Julie & Julia book was so popular — I loved the movie but 90% of what I liked were the Julia portions. I’ve watched it several times and I usually fast-forward through the Julie bits, as I find them rather whiny and navel-gazing. Julia Child, however, was one of my childhood idols. I used to watch her shows on PBS with my mom and that really got me into cooking (though, sadly, I hardly ever do it any more).

    • Jenny says:

      I preferred the Julia portions of the film, too (though I thought Amy Adams was well cast as Julie.) But Julia’s attitude, that with time and care anyone can be a wonderful cook, is so encouraging! I love to cook, myself.

  10. Melissa says:

    I loved this one. The movie definitely sparked my interest, but this book was so much better than Julie and Julia.

  11. cbjames says:

    A few things: My “don’t read books based on blogs” rule came about after reading Julie and Julia. I did not like the book at all, but I bet it was a wonderful blog.

    You mention M.F.K. Fisher above; have you read The Gastronomical Me, her memoir of France and the food she ate while living there? Lots of wonderful stuff about food. Made me want to time travel to pre-war France.

    Julia was probably on Sesame Street, not The Muppet Show. She’d be great making sandwiches with Big Bird.

    We make French omelet’s based on a Julia Child video. They are basically scrambled eggs cooked very quickly, while flipping them in a pan full of melted butter. Just eggs cooked in butter and you never had a better omelet in your life.

    I’m going to go make one right now.

  12. Pingback: Sunday Salon: Weekly Links | the dirigible plum

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