- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

MY LIFE IN FRANCE

By Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme

Knopf, $25.95, 320 pages

REVIEWED BY LORNA WILLIAMS

The first meal Julia Child cooked after her marriage in 1946 — brains simmered in red wine — was ambitious but a disaster. When she sailed to France two years later with her foreign-service husband, she did not understand or speak French. Thirty-six years old, she knew little about the country, even less about its famed cuisine, and fancied that “France was a nation of icky-picky people where the women were all dainty, exquisitely coiffed, nasty little creatures, the men all … dandies who twirled their mustaches, pinched girls and schemed against American rubes.”

Yet in 15 years this self-described “rather loud and unserious Californian” emerged as America’s high priestess of French cuisine: the principal author of the encyclopedic “Mastering the Art of French Cooking,” and the plummy-voiced star of a ground-breaking TV cooking show, “The French Chef.” Not bad for someone who was neither French nor a chef, and who did not find her metier until her late 30s.

“My Life in France,” the memoir Child wrote with her grand-nephew Alex Prud’homme, is her account of this sea change, “a book about some of the things I have loved most in life: my husband, Paul Child; La Belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating.” Paul, who knew the country and its language well, introduced Julia to French culture and French attitudes to wine and food. He encouraged her to take courses at the Cordon Bleu cooking school, to teach and to take on the cookbook that would make her a household name. “I would never have had my career without Paul Child,” she acknowledges.

The idea for this memoir first emerged back in 1969, when Paul was sifting through hundreds of letters he had written to his twin brother, describing his and Julia’s life in France from 1948 to 1954. Somehow “the France book” never got written, however. Paul died in 1994 at age 92, but Julia never gave up on the idea. In 2003, about a year before her death, Mr. Prud’homme suggested a collaboration and, by weaving taped interviews together with the letters, has produced a narrative in which the large-as-life presence of Julia Child looms on every page.

The plentiful black-and-white photos, many taken by Paul, are the icing on the gateau: 6-foot-2-inch Julia towering over students at her cooking school, lighting a cigarette on a Marseille street corner, posing in a bubble bath with Paul for the Valentine’s Day card the couple sent every year (because they were always too late to send out Christmas cards).

Child was hooked on the joys of French cuisine with her first meal in France: oysters, sole in brown-butter sauce, green salad and fromage blanc (a dessert cheese), washed down with a bottle of crisp white wine. Throughout the book she describes many other meals — some far more elaborate — in luscious detail, but that relatively simple repast remained “the most exciting meal of my life.”

Determined to cook that way herself, she enrolled at the Cordon Bleu and learned to chatter away in French to vendors at local food markets. She discovered that cooking, far from being mindless drudgery, was an endlessly fascinating and serious business. “I fell in love with French food — the tastes, the processes, the history, the endless variations, the rigorous discipline, the creativity, the wonderful people, the equipment, the rituals. I had never taken anything so seriously in my life … and I could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen. What fun! What a revelation! … How magnificent to find my life’s calling, at long last!” That is quintessential Julia Child: straightforward, determined, ebullient.

At the Cordon Bleu, she learned how to cook everything from snails to lobster to wild boar. Along the way she made embarrassing mistakes, even failing the examination the first time she took it. After finally earning her diploma she began teaching cooking classes along with two committed amateur cooks like herself, Simone “Simca” Beck and Louisette Bertholle, who were working on a book about French cuisine for Americans and needed help. So began the collaboration that would eventually result in “Mastering the Art of French Cooking.”

The nine-year struggle to get “Mastering” in print is the core of this book, and makes fascinating reading for anyone interested in the publishing business. Houghton Mifflin turned it down after hearing from a group of male editors that American women wanted quick, easy recipes, preferably including mixes. (They were half right of course but ignored Francophile cooks who wanted authentic recipes.) Finally Knopf took it on, though Alfred Knopf himself quipped: “I’ll eat my hat if anyone buys a book with that title!”

“Mastering” taught legions of Americans how to cook, and the related TV show introduced Child to millions more. She became a star, loved by the public for her lack of pretension (which in no way compromised her commitment to excellence in food and its preparation) and resolute cheerfulness in the face of culinary catastrophes: a chocolate mousse that would not budge from its mold, the collapsed apple charlotte.

Still, it’s no surprise to learn that Child was not always the jolly bonne vivante seen on television. She remembers her co-author, Simone Beck, as “a dear friend, but horribly disorganized and rather full of herself.”

The real dish is that the two argued back and forth constantly. The last straw was a letter from Simca complaining for the umpteenth time that “you Americans can’t possibly understand that we French would never [do that].” Mrs. Child threw the missive on the floor, stomped on it, and declared, “That’s it. End of collaboration.”

Such contretemps leave a sour taste, but not for long. Beyond teaching people how to cook, Julia Child taught us about the sheer pleasure of eating — a lesson that seems forgotten today when Americans eat more food than ever but enjoy it less. On the final page she recalls again that delicious, life-changing first meal in France: “I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite — toujours bon appetit!”

Lorna Williams is a Washington writer.

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