Saturday, April 29, 2006

MY LIFE IN FRANCE by Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme

Julia Child and Alex Prud'homme, MY LIFE IN FRANCE (Knopf, 2006).

If you think that Julia Child (1912-2004) was a stuffy, funny-talking old lady, think again.

Many of us struggle to find our calling in life. Julia Child found hers while living in Paris in the 1940s and 50s. She knew little about the culture and her high-school French was limited. Her husband Paul was an excellent tour guide though. He had lived in France before, knew the language, and escorted his wife to many sites and restaurants. Wanting to explore the culture and cuisine independently, Julia took language lessons. She also began to cook more (raised in an upper-middle class family in Pasadena, California, Julia had never been encouraged to do much cooking). She learned about ingredients by exploring local markets and talking extensively with vendors and enrolled in Le Cordon Bleu, the famous cooking school, in 1949. Despite conflicts with the school's owner, a woman more concerned with the bottom line than with training master chefs, something clicked for Julia--she had found her calling:

"I had always been content to live a butterfly life of fun, with hardly a care in the world. But at Cordon Bleu, and in the markets and restaurants of Paris, I suddenly discovered that cooking was a rich and layered and endlessly fascinating subject. The best way to describe it is to say that 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" (p. 63).

My Life in France will appeal to those who enjoy cooking narratives and travel writing--A Year in The World by Frances Mayes is a recent example. I loved the black and white photographs taken by Paul Child and how they were arranged throughout the text and not in a middle-of-the-book gallery.

This book will also appeal to some fans of biography. It reads like a series of postcards or vignettes. Child details the beginning of her career as a world-renowned chef, television host and author--how she analyzed, studied, practiced, taught and wrote about French cooking. The book's tone (light, descriptive, not overly analytical, not delving too deeply into the darker sides of the author's life and personality) reminded me of the first volume of Langston Hughes' autobiography, The Big Sea.

At the beginning of this review, I suggested that this book might help you to see Child in a new light. Not knowing much about her, I appreciated her efforts to explode stereotypes about French people. She found them to be delightful, friendly, and helpful, in contrast to the views of some of her family and friends.

Also of interest:
Julia Child: Lessons with Master Chefs: A PBS series

Can you recommend any other cooking memoirs?

Doris Dixon, Raleigh Branch Library

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I haven't read them, but a friend highly recommends Ruth Reichl's Comfort me with Apples and Tender at the Bone. And if you want to know all about the sex, drugs, and rock-and-roll of the restaurant business, read Kitchen Confidentialby Anthony Bourdain.
Edna Lewis, The Taste of Country Cooking (Knopf, 1976.)

Crenshaw Branch has a copy of this gem of a book about Edna Lewis, who helped popularize Southern cooking. As Lewis recounts, she "grew up in Freetown, Virginia, a community of farming people. It wasn't really a town. The name was adopted because the first residents had all been freed from chattel slavery and they wanted to be known as a town of Free People....The spirit of pride in community and of cooperation in the work of farming is what made Freetown a very wonderful place to grow up in....The farm was demanding but everyone shared in the work--tending the animals, gardening, harvesting, preserving the harvest, and, every day, preparing delicious food that seemed to celebrate the good things of each season....Since we are the last of the original families, with no children to remember or carry on, I decided that it I wanted to write down just exactly how we did things when I was growing up in Freetown that seemed to make life so rewarding."

Born in 1916, Edna Lewis died in February 2006. Click here to read more about Edna Lewis, Julia Child and other trend-setting chefs.
Julia Child (My Life in France) and Edna Lewis (The Taste of Country Cooking) are no doubt glossing over the "messier" parts of life. Both women are looking back, after several decades have past, on a time that they remember as having been "ideal." Do people often associate food with the "best times" of their lives? Can you recommend cooking narratives that deal with troubled times?
I second Pamela's post about Ruth Reichl. I recently read her book Garlic and Sapphires: The Secret Life of a Critic in Disguise and enjoyed it very much. As a food critic for the New York Times, she would go to elaborate lengths to hide her true identity while she was rating each restaurant. Read it to get a taste of what it is like to be a food critic!

For more non-fiction food fun, I would also recommend books about kitchen science. As someone who is trying to learn how to cook more than a frozen dinner, I find that reading these types of books gives me a greater understanding of cooking principles and inspires me to try more difficult dishes. Perhaps try On Food and Cooking: The Science and Lore of the Kitchen by Harold McGee for a very thorough historical and scientific look at the food and beverages in your kitchen.
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