Wednesday, 21 October 2009
review: My Life in France, by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
Who would have predicted the television success of Julia Child? Over six feet all, already into her fifties (BBC, please note), and with a voice that irritated some as much as it enchanted others, the late TV chef’s success must surely have been as much as a surprise to her as it was to everyone else. In addition, by the time she hit the small screen in the US, she had spent almost as much time living outside of her native country as she had in it. On the face of it, then, her rise to prominence as a TV star was, to say the least, an unlikely one.
But succeed she did, and now, five years after her death at the age of 91 (she also successfully predicted her longevity), interest in her life has been reignited once more, if indeed it can be said to have been extinguished in the first place.
‘Julie and Julia’ is the film responsible, a film chronicling a period in the life of a food blogger who decided –on the verge of marital breakdown – to reinvent and challenge herself by cooking her way through Child’s famous tome, ‘Mastering the Art of French Cooking’. Child’s own life, particularly her life in France, which is when she wrote ‘Mastering...’, forms the parallel tale.
Luckily for those of us who are interested in the making of ‘Mastering...’, Child wrote her own memoir of that time, aided by her grand-nephew, Alex Prud’homme. Called, simply, ‘My Life in France’, it takes as its starting point the moment she and her husband first moved to France in late 1948. The majority of the book concentrates on the ten years immediately following Child’s first visit to the country – the years in which ‘Mastering...’ was born – and effectively ends in 1974, with Paul’s death and her work on ‘From Julia Child’s Kitchen’.
As Child tells it, it was her first meal in France that spawned the hitherto unknown cook within her. Unfamiliar with much of the food (she didn’t even know what a shallot was), never mind drinking wine at lunchtime, her eyes were opened to a very different kind of dining experience from that with which she was familiar: “Our first lunch together in France had been absolute perfection. It was the most exciting meal of my life.” It was, as she put it, her epiphany.
From that point on, Child gobbled up all things French, particularly anything to do with eating, revelling in it all like a small child in a toyshop. As her gastronomic experiences quickly widened (escargots, and even more so, truffles “quickly became an obsession”), so too did her appetite for learning how to cook. Spurred on and enthused by Paul’s gift to her of Larousse Gastronomique on her thirty-seventh birthday, she attended a demonstration session at the nearby L’École du Cordon Bleu, and swiftly signed up to a six-week course.
It wasn’t all plain sailing. Child soon decided she was in the wrong class, and badgered the owner of L’École to let her enrol in another. It seems to have set the tone for a difficult relationship, punctuated with somewhat wilful stubbornness on both sides. What emerges from the narrative is Child’s forceful resolve, supported by impressive self-discipline. Often frustrated by the lack of individual attention in class, she carried on regardless, and indeed, classtime neglect simply “had the effect of making me work even harder”. Becoming totally absorbed by cooking as she was, it wasn’t long before she “could hardly bear to be away from the kitchen”.
And so began the quest for culinary perfection. Mayonnaise was the subject of one early mission, by the end of which Child was of the belief that she “had written more on the subject of mayonnaise than anyone in history”. She was undaunted by others’ lack of interest: when family and friends failed to respond to her foolproof new recipe for mayonnaise, Child simply reports “I was miffed, but not deterred. Onward I plunged.” By this point in the book, her reaction comes as little surprise.
Still, her tenacity saw her finally take her Cordon Bleu diploma (although not before one last stand-off with the owner). With new-found confidence, she teamed up shortly afterwards with two fellow ‘Gourmettes’ (members of an exclusively-female dining club in Paris) with an ambitious new project – to write a cookbook of French recipes for the American home cook. This itself segued into another venture between the three women, a new cookery school to counter the perceived stuffiness and archaism of the L’École.
What followed was, by Child’s account, a tortuous period of writing, editing, and persuading. Various publishing houses showed interest, only to lose it at the sight of the huge tome laid at their feet. What had, in her words, been conceived as a “modest little book” had in fact become an unwieldy behemoth of over 700 pages, as the authors – and Child in particular, one imagines – chased after every detail in their quest for recipe perfection. More than once, it seemed that it would never see the light of day. But, once again, it was Child’s sheer bloody-mindedness and determination that ensured the book finally saw the light of day, a full ten years after it had been first started. Moreover, her underlying optimism proved well placed – as we now know, the book became a huge success, and a veritable culinary bible for readers all over the world.
And so, nearly fifty years on from the date of its first publication, it is still inspires – as it did the blogger who made her own fame and fortune by cooking her way through it all (much to Child’s disgust, apparently).
It is, of course, a book largely about Child and food, and is thus a veritable literary feast for foodies. But there is plenty else of interest in here for non-food lovers – the respective backdrops of post-war France and Europe, the McCarthy era (she and Paul came under investigation at one stage), not to mention the uncertain and nomadic life of being the wife of an American civil servant.
In many ways, this is an indulgent book – Child gets to pick out her own highlights and darker times, and to pass judgement on others without restraint. Neither she nor Alex Prud’homme makes any apology for that, and why should they? Child is (or was) what she is, and by living to the venerable age of 91 and still holding court, she was surely entitled to tell it her way.
Somewhat ironically, though, through her accounts of her dealings with others, Child also lays herself bare. What emerges – strangely enough, given her success – is arguably a certain naivety, an underlying insecurity, a lack of self-confidence. Her early days in France, especially, found her plagued with feelings of inadequacy and frustration at what she perceived to be her shortcomings - most notably, when amongst (Paul’s) intellectual friends.
Perhaps this goes some way to explaining not only her insatiable appetite for knowledge, but her own impatience and intolerance of those who didn’t subscribe to her views. Several family members (her father and mother in particular), as well as friends, seem often to be little more than an irritation to Child, although in fairness, such moments are just as frequently countered by moments of frank self-realisation (for example, “I could at times be overly emotional”; and of her father, “I know there were times I could have been better, nicer, more generous to him...”). It is no surprise, then, that by the time ‘Mastering...’ was finished, one of her co-authors had vanished from the picture almost entirely, while Child’s relationship with the other was, shall we say, ‘difficult’. By contrast, those she loved, she loved unswervingly – the saintly Paul, and her younger sister, Dort, were clearly both the focus of almost unquestioning admiration and loyalty.
Whatever you may end up thinking of Child herself, ‘My Life in France’ is an engaging read. And perhaps it’s precisely because of her very human frailties – it’s almost impossible not to find yourself cheering her on in one moment, and then despairing at her lack of empathy, or at her apparent ruthlessness, the next. Just as mesmerising is her obvious energy – no one could ever accuse her of having simply stumbled upon fame. Everything that came her way did so as a direct result of colossal (some might say obsessive) hard work and force of will.
There’s also plenty of photographic evidence throughout the book, reproduced in black and white, documenting both her life and work in France – ranging from snaps from the family album to photographs (littered with Child’s numerous additions and amendments) of her ‘top secret’ recipes sent to Dort while ‘Mastering...’ was still a work in progress. They are themselves testament to Child’s scrupulous record keeping and attention to detail.
By her own admission in ‘My Life in France’, Child was not the easiest person to live or work with. But those traits responsible are undoubtedly the very same that lie behind the dynamism and sheer joie de vivre of this book. If you are a fan of hers, or of French life and cuisine, or if you’re curious to find out more about the inspiration for ‘Julie and Julia’, then this is a must-read. If you’re none of those things, read it anyway. As Julia Child puts it herself, “one learns by doing”.
(with thanks to Duckworth for the review copy)
My Life in France, by Julia Child and Alex Prud’homme
Paperback: 336 pages
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd (11 Sep 2009)