Funkyfacecat’s #CBR4 Review #06: My Life in France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme
I didn’t really know who Julia Child was before I watched Julie&Julia because of Meryl Streep last year (on DVD), and I’m sure I wasn’t alone in wishing that the whole film had been Meryl-as-Julia (I have a friend who agrees with me). I found out about My Life in France from CBRIII, and made a mental note to read it at some point, particularly as I happened to find Julie&Julia at a second-hand bookshop and mildly enjoyed it.
My Life in France is a delightful memoir that exudes joie de vivre during the good times, and quiet determination during the difficult, and a deep curiosity towards everything from politics to the chemical processes of making chocolate to interior design. Written with Alex Prud’homme (her husband’s twin brother’s grandson), it spans the years from 1948 to 1992, and details Julia’s life with her adored husband Paul, a cultural ambassador, and her beloved French cuisine, a source of entertainment, nourishment, pleasure and purpose. It’s set mostly in France, obviously, but touches down in Norway and Germany as well – and the shadow of the Cold War McCarthy-era America and Washington bureaucracy haunts the edges of Julia and Paul’s mostly sunny life in post-war France.
My Life in France focuses on the food, which is made to sound complicated and delicious, but also shows the leisurely mouth-watering meals in restaurants and at home within the context of sharing with family and friends:
At eight-thirty, we began dinner with an apéro of Blanc de Blanc and cassis. Sitting at the next table were a fat Belgian and his plump wife, eating slices of lièvre à la royale and imbibing from a dust-covered bottle of 1924 Burgundy. As we chatted with them about wine, our first course arrived: a loup de mer (sea bass), its stomach cavity stuffed with fennel, grilled over charcoal. With this we drank a lovely 1947 Château-Chalon, a white from the Jura, which had a deep-topaz color and an interesting taste, almost like Manzanilla. (“It is made from grapes that are picked and hung to dry like raisins for about six months,” Monsieur Caillon said). (105-106)
I do not know what all these things are, and I don’t like fish, but I want to be there and be adventurous.
The book isn’t all about hedonistic guzzling though; Julia’s efforts to write a precise and standardisable recipe are also intriguing:
Part of my problem as a practical American was the deeply ingrained chauvinism and dogmatism in France, where cooking was considered a major art: if Montagne said such-and-such, then it was considered gospel, especially by the men’s gastronomical societies, which were made up of amateurs–and, my, how they loved to talk! The history of a dish, who said what about it and when, was terribly important to them. But, as Paul liked to say, “The word is not the thing” (one of his favourite utterances, borrowed from the semanticist Alfred Korzybski). As I worked on the manuscript, I reminded myself not to accept Simca and Louisette’s directions at face value. I subjected every recipe to what we called the “operational proof”: that is, it’s all theory until you see for yourself whether or not something worked. (145)
Julia explores new cultures thoroughly, seemingly unhampered by the awkwardness that a lot of expats feel in new countries at first; her lessons with cordon bleu chefs lead to making friends with people to do with cooking and eating from street market vendors and to exclusive gourmet clubs, and her attitude seems to be enchantingly hail-fellow-well-met whether meeting fishermen’s wives or French politicians and aristocrats.
My Life in France left me with two desires: one to visit Paris, and another to read and try cooking something from her magnum opus Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Right now both seem equally unlikely, but who knows?
Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme. My Life in France. London: Duckworth Overlook, 2009.
Original blogpost at funkyfacecat.wordpress.com.