Saturday, October 31, 2009
The Kitchen Reader - My Life in France by Julia Child
The Kitchen Reader book for October is My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme. Alex worked with Julia in the last year of her life to put together this book from her memories and from old letters that the Childs and their friends and relatives had sent over the years. The idea for the book had first been floated by Paul Child, Julia's husband, in 1969, but it was not until shortly before Julia's death in 2004 that the idea came to fruition. It was a close call, as Alex had to finish the book after Julia's death.
My Life in France documents the lives of Paul and Julia Childs, not only during their time in France, but also during Paul's diplomatic transfers to Norway and back to America before his retirement. Through its pages, we learn how Paul and Julia came to be in France, and how Julia came, first to cooking and earning a diploma from Le Cordon Bleu, then to writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC) and her subsequent TV career. I learned for the first time that Julia co-authored MtAoFC with two French women, Simone Beck (known as Simca) and Louisette Bertholle, and that the project to write a book on French cookery for American women was actually started by Simone and Louisette. It was not until their original publisher rejected their efforts and suggested that they find an American collaborator to help them that Julia's involvement with MtAoFC commenced. None of Julia's achievements came without considerable downs and lots of hard work. Perhaps the most striking aspects of Julia's personality which shine through in My Life in France are Julia's determination and committed work ethos. Without them, MtAoFC would never have been published.
The pages of My Life in France are littered with colourful characters, including the larger than life Julia and her sister, Dort, through to their cantankerous father, John McWilliams, the Childs' French maids, Coo-Coo and Jeanne-la-folle ("crazy Jeanne"), Chef Bugnard, Julia's teacher at Le Cordon Bleu, Julia's devoted friend Avis De Voto (who is integral in MtAoFC finally being published), Judith Jones, the editor who made MtAoFC happen, and last but certainly not least, Paul Child, the love of Julia's life. The relationship between Paul and Julia is remarkable, and I would consider myself extremely blessed if I find a soulmate who makes me feel like Paul made Julia feel.
Paul and Julia dubbed their apartment in Paris "Roo de Loo" (as it was located at 81 Rue de l'Universite), and it is here that much of the action in the book takes place. Although Paul and Julia are forced to leave Paris after 4 years for Marseilles due to Paul's work commitments, their hearts remain in Paris. While in Paris, Julia met Simca and Louisette, and together they started a cooking school called L'Ecole des Trois Gourmandes ("The School of the Three Hearty Eaters") before their book collaboration began. When Julia collaborated with Simca and Louisette on what was to become MtAoFC, there were so many hurdles to the book's publication that I am sure that Julia often had reason to recall one of Paul's favourite phrases, Illegitemus non carborundum est ("Don't let the bastards grind you down").
Julia's successful TV career began in 1962 after she returned to the US as a means of promoting MtAoFC, at a time when she had never even watched television. It was a baptism of fire, as the original three shows were filmed without interruption, and as Julia herself said, she was a complete amateur. However, those first three shows were popular enough for her show, The French Chef, to become a regular television program.
Child residences which feature prominently with Roo de Loo include their Provence getaway situated near the Becks called La Pitchoune (meaning "The Little Thing" and dubbed "La Peetch" for short), and their final home at 103 Irving Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts, which Avis spotted for them, and from whence Julia's famous kitchen was relocated to the Smithsonian Institute.
The book's conclusion is rather poignant, as Julia's relatives and friends begin "to slip off into the wide blue yonder". However, a life as rich as Julia's gives reason to celebrate rather than to mourn. We are incredibly lucky that, thanks to Paul Child's original idea, Julia's dedication to that idea and Alex Prud'homme's ability to bring it to fruition, we are able to share some of the details of Julia's life, and be inspired ourselves.
My Life in France has a wonderful tale to tell, which is interesting and inspiring regardless of whether or not you have an interest in food or have seen Julia's shows or own MtAoFC. It gives readers an inside look at an extraordinary life and at a number of pivotal historical eras in modern European and American history.