July 2006

Barbara J. King


Julia Child: A Life in France

I have never before craved a roast chicken throughout the reading of an entire book. This constant and at times vexing state of affairs afflicted my reading of Julia Child’s My Life in France (written with the help of Alex Prud’homme), and yet it heightened my experience of the book. As I began to hallucinate the smell and taste of such a dish, Child’s descriptions of gourmet meals took on an added texture for me, a texture sensed on the tip of the tongue.

Not that Child’s writing needed the help: her passion for French food, indeed for conveying to others the simultaneous elegance and accessibility of French food, lights up this memoir. For Julia, creating galantine de volaille, for instance, is an artistic and color-drenched process: “First, you make a superb bouillon -- from veal leg, feet, and bones -- for poaching. Then you debone a nice plump four-pound chicken, and marinate the meat with finely ground pork and veal strips in Cognac and truffles. Then you re-form the chicken, stuffing it… You tie up this bundle and poach it in the delicious bouillon. Once it is cooked, you let it cool and then decorate it -- I used green swirls of blanched leeks, red dots of pimiento, brown-black accents of sliced truffle, and yellow splashes of butter.”

Reared on a diet of Saturday Night Live parodies of Child’s robust presence and unique voice, I found this volume to be an eye-opener as well as a palate-stimulator. I came to respect Child’s immense passion and devotion to detail, and had fun following along as she turns a new life abroad into a labor of love.

The story starts in 1948 when she wasn’t yet celebrity Julia Child but just plain old 6’2” eager-American Julie, fresh off the boat from New York to Le Havre. En route to Paris on that first day in country, Julie and her husband Paul stopped in Rouen for lunch at Restaurant La Couronne. Julie spoke no French and knew nothing of French food. After a first taste of the sole meuniere (“a morsel of perfection”), she was never the same again. Tastes and textures surrounded her and seduced her as she settled into Parisian life. She was 37-years old: “By now I knew that French food was it for me. I couldn’t get over how absolutely delicious it was.”

In the fall of 1949, Julia enrolled at Le Cordon Bleu: “I could finally see how to cook properly, for the first time in my life. I was learning to take time -- hours, even -- and care to present a delicious meal. My teachers were fanatics about detail and would never compromise.”

Good-student Julia ended up channeling the more compulsive aspects of these chefs: “I did hours of research on mayonnaise, for instance, and although no one else seemed to care about it, I thought it was utterly fascinating. When the weather turned cold, the mayo suddenly became a terrible struggle, because the emulsion kept separating, and it wouldn’t behave when there was a change in the olive oil or the room temperature. I finally got the upper hand by going back to the beginning of the process, studying each step scientifically, and writing it all down.”

The cost of this all-absorbing diligence was at times corporeal: “One weekend I overdid it a bit, when, in a fit of experimental zeal, I consumed most of two boned stuffed ducks (one hot and braised, one cold en croute) in a sitting. I was a pig, frankly, and bilious for days, which served me right.”

Food occupies the center of My Life in France, with details at times rather ghastly for vegetarians to process, as when Child describes “the sizzle of the roasting duck flesh and the gush of blood and wine as the silver press crunched down on the carcass.” Yet it was a welcome surprise how much Child devotes to the lengthy period of gestation of her first book, co-authored with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle. She wanted more than anything “to bridge the cultural divide between France and America” by convincing housewives and other American cooks that French cuisine is easily created with the help of step-by-step, beautifully precise directions. In 1952, Child read a 600-page manuscript drafted by Beck and Bertholle and signed on as co-author. A full nine years later, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published by Knopf, 732 pages and an astonishment to weary Julia: “I could hardly believe the old monster was really in print. Was it a mirage? Well, that weight on my knees must mean something! The book was perfectly beautiful in every respect.”

The intervening years are a story of meticulous food research mingled with co-author disputes and numerous publishing setbacks. With Mastering finally in print, Child’s career skyrocketed. Recounting of subsequent events is compressed, appropriately so given Child’s fame, yet the flavor is conveyed nicely as when Child describes the chaotic early days of her television show: “There I was, in black and white, a large woman sloshing eggs too quickly here, too slowly there, gasping, looking at the wrong camera while talking too loudly, and so on.”

For all the warmth expressed by Julia for France, the French people and of course the glorious food, there’s a chill here too. A secondary theme in the book is Julia’s growing detachment from her father, a staunch Republication back home in California who seems to be become ever more narrow-minded with age. Generational rifts are not uncommon, and given this man’s abrasive personality I understand Child’s statement that her father’s death came more as “a relief” than anything. When it comes to Paul’s aging, though, the book’s account is not wholly satisfying.

Ten years older than Julia, Paul fell into ill health at the height of Julia’s celebrity. By this point in the narrative, it is abundantly clear that Paul and Julia (or “Pulia” as they were known to some) were what my husband and I call a “Frog and Toad couple.” (If you’ve been badly deprived and are unable to gloss this reference, find the Arnold Lobel Frog and Toad book series, grab a preschooler, and start reading.) Genuinely close, they were loyal friends. But in telling of Paul’s poor health and its consequences, the writing becomes emotionally flat, curiously so. We are told that when Paul is age 90, confined to a nursing home in the States, Julia calls him daily during a trip to France. Yet there is no real feeling expressed by Child here. My friend Marsha Autilio, who knows things, tells me that Child conveyed in taped interviews something of the pain that her husband’s situation caused her. Perhaps what I read as flat or chill may be merely Child’s wish to preserve emotional privacy in print, or a less-than-stellar decision on Prud’homme’s part (he completed the book following Child’s death in 2004).

I read My Life in France just before flying to France and Italy for a family vacation. My trip featured marvelous art and architecture of course, but also a Child-fueled quest for that roast chicken I had been craving. My first attempt yielded an adequate enough dinner in the Latin Quarter. Knowing that Child would never have accepted mere adequacy, I kept searching. Two nights later I found heaven in the form of delicious poulet roti in a restaurant near Notre Dame cathedral. Poultry-sated at last, I was freed to indulge other desires. Final tally for the 10 days: four books read (Martha McPhee’s L’America by far the most stunning); three English bookstores, excluding those in airports, visited (Paris’s venerable Shakespeare and Co. the most impressive, but Lucca’s English Bookshop, just doors down from our apartment, somehow my favorite); nine books lugged home (too soon for a verdict here).

What remains to be done, besides gazing wistfully at our Europhotos, is to find a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking and to experience what Julia Child insisted anyone with a kitchen could and should experience, the pleasure of creating exquisite French food myself. Stay tuned… and bon appetit.

-- Barbara J. King sends a hearty thanks to Stephen D. Wood for being so very cool at baking, book-sharing, and being friends.