Sometimes you just need something light and fun, but not too frothy, with big helpings of intelligence, wit, and passion and a dollop of being willing to laugh at oneself. And when I need that, I sometimes turn to Julia Child’s lovely and refreshing memoir, My Life in France.
I first stumbled across Julia’s account of her time living abroad with her husband Paul when he was working for the State Department and she was learning to cook while I was reading Julie Powell’s abysmal Julie and Julia. (Full disclosure: I have a strong dislike of Powell.) As I followed Julie through her quest to cook every recipe in Julia’s landmark cookbook set, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I couldn’t help wondering if I could just get to know Julia herself rather than spending any more time with the repugnant Julie. And after a quick internet search, lo and behold, I found I could. Switching gears from Julie Powell to Julia Child that first time was like coming up into fresh air and sparkling sunshine after being stuck in a cave of selfishness and negativity. Simply put, I thought Julia was the bees knees. And I still do. This second time around, courtesy of my aunt’s Christmas gift, Julia was just as lovely, open, honest, and full of humor as the first time.
Now I am not much of a cook. I am perhaps more adventurous in my cooking that I was when I first started out, but I don’t really enjoy the process. I hate chopping, I don’t care much for measuring, I’d put cumin in everything if I could (though Michel claims my love of seasoned salt surpasses my love of cumin), and I am super impatient. But I love eating good food, so I try to make myself good food. In that quest, I have developed oddly strong attachments to a few “celebrity” chefs, the strongest and most obsessive being toward Ina Garten, The Barefoot Contessa, known simply as “Ina” in our house. (The only time I really lost it when seeing one of my famous favorites was when I saw her speak in Chicago last November. I was super cool until she walked on stage, at which point I started making this uncontrollable half-laughing/half-crying noise that sounded like the hyenas in The Lion King. Classy.) The reason I like Ina is because she isn’t trying to be slick or perfect or the camera’s focus. She appreciates good food made simply, so that is what she makes and eats. (Plus she is a very calming presence and helped get me through some stressful times in college.) It is this philosophy that Julia espoused herself decades ago when she was first coming into her own as a cook (never a restaurant chef, as she makes clear). Julia’s goal was to find a way to bring the glory of French cuisine to Americans simply and accessibly, and she did just that and more. Julia was the first real celebrity chef in that she appealed to and worked for the masses. So though I have yet to actually attempt any of her recipes (unlike Ina’s), Julia is the gold standard.
Fortunately, she is just as witty and delightful in writing as she was on TV. Her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme, helped her with this book, created from their conversations in the last 10 years of her life after Paul had died. Julia is frank in her story telling, not afraid to discuss her own short comings or the short comings of others (in a totally sweet and politic way). She’s open about her frustrations in her early culinary education, her relationship with her loving yet difficult father and stepmother, and the anxieties that come from working in foreign diplomacy. She also is rapturous in describing her first perfect, memorable meal in France, sole meunieur–her first real introduction to French cuisine, and the reader takes delight in her discovery. Though the creation of Mastering the Art of French Cooking takes up a good part of the book, including the occasional warts of her working relationship with her co-authors, it’s not the only focus. Julia’s thorough account of their time in Paris, Marseilles, Oslo, Washington DC, and Boston is punctuated with charming moments with Paul, her hopes and dreams, and favorite meals she cooked and ate, all rendered in loving yet refreshingly honest detail. (Not too honest, of course. This isn’t some sordid tell all. Julia was a classy lady, after all!)
It is clear that an important part of cooking for Julia was the opportunity to share it with others, as her favorite meals are those with friends old and new. And that’s what reading this book feels like: chatting with a new friend. Regardless of how you feel about cooking, take a break and spend some time with Julia. You won’t regret it!