I finally finished this wonderful book, My Life in France, by Julia Child, written with her husband's grandnephew, Alex Prud'homme.
Julia Child had a wonderful life, and it is obvious as she tells her story. In fact, the first sentence is a good synopsis: "This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in my life: my husband, Paul Child, la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating. She gives a bit of background about growning up in Pasadena, and meeting Paul when they were both in the OSS in Sri Lanka.
But the book itself starts when they arrive in Paris, in 1948. Paul, in his mid-forties, has travelled the world and has well-honed tastes in food and wine. Julia, ten years younger, had never before been to Europe, had little interest in cooking, and was pretty happy-go-lucky.
Fortunately, her personality was such that she seems to have remained happy-go-lucky throughout her life, but in France, she found her passion. Shortly after arriving, Paul took Julia to a restaurant in Rouen called "La Couronne" where she had her first sole meuniere (accompanied by wine! at lunch! mon dieu!) It proved to be the first of many resplendent meals, in restaurants and at home, described in this book.
Newly married and discovering wonderful food, it was only natural that Julia Child would want to learn how to cook. She attended demonstrations at Le Cordon Bleu, and soon enrolled for a short, then longer course. The experience there was mixed. She learned wonderful things from chef Max Bugnard, but also had clashes with the woman who managed the school.
In Paris, she also met a lot of people with a consuming interest in food. She joined a club called "Le Cercle des Gourmettes", through which she met Mme. Simone Beck Fischbacher and Mme. Louisett Bertholle. The three started giving cooking lessons to some of the local women, and began writing down and refining recipes. Shortly after, the women decided to write a cookbook on French cooking for the American cook, a task which grew astronomically over the course of the next few years.
Meanwhile, Paul worked for the U.S.I.S., doing exhibits. He was also a gifted photographer and artist, and took most of the photos for My Life in France. He also took hundreds of photos of Julia cooking, many of which were turned into illustrative drawings for Julia's cookbooks.
After a few years in Paris, the Childs were transferred to Marseilles, the Plittersdorf, Germany, and later Oslo, Norway. But wherever they were stationed, Paris called them back, and they returned whenever possible. Through it all, Beck, Bertholle and Child worked on the cookbook, sending letters, recipes, manuscripts back and forth through the mail. All were responsible for the authenticity and reproducibility of the recipes, but Child took it to heart, trying each recipe many times to make sure it was as good as could be.
Understandably, over time, there were rifts in the friendships and life changes, but in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was born. The authors were responsible for generating their own publicity, and hit the road doing signings at book stores and interviews for magazines and radio stations. These caught on well, and after a while, they demonstrated recipes on television shows. This led to Julia Child getting a chance to try her own cooking show, and The French Chef was born on PBS. Child's media exposure eventually led to many more shows and books, and to Julia's becoming a huge media star.
Throughout it all, she was grounded, warm, generous, funny. My Life in France is about much more than writing the cookbook. It is about her relations with her husband, her friends and family, and, perhaps greatest of all, a country. She shares her impressions of people they met, meals they ate, cold-water flats they lived in.
In short, this is a charming, warm account of a life well lived. I am left with the hope that some day I can look back on my life with such satisfaction. Not likely, but a worthy goal.
I was surprised by the difficulties they encountered in trying to get their first cookbook published. It is obvious (though subjectively so) that Julia Child did most of the work on Mastering the Art of French Cooking, so I was surprised when she mentioned it, authored by Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle and Julia Child. I went to my bookshelf and found my first edition, published in 1961 (and signed by J.C. herself in 1992), by Beck, Bertholle and Child.
I also have a later, working copy, which was published in 1966, and lists the authors in a different order: Julia Child, Louisette Bertholle and Simone Beck. While I have not combed the second copy for other differences, all I can readily discern is that the copy is the same, but the biography on the back flap is of Julia Child, instead of Simone Beck, and the initials on the foreword are in a different sequence.
When Volume II came out, it was authored only by Julia Child and Simone Beck.
Whatever hard feelings may have resulted from inequalities of recognition, the fact remains that the Childs built a house on a piece of land owned by Simone Beck and her husband, and spent as much time there as they could in the ensuing decades, until other issues made it no longer practicable.
This is a lovely, friendly, candy of a read. The perfect thing to recline on a hammock in the back yard with.
[Image via The Johns Hopkins News-letter]