Wednesday, August 09, 2006

My Life in France - The Julia Child Memoir

I have long been an admirer of Julia Child for her forthright attitude and gusto. I love the fact that she knew nothing about cooking until she moved to France at the age of 36 - a time when most of us assume our fate is pretty well sealed. At that point, her life was changed with one lunch at a restaurant in Rouen, France, while she was en route to Paris where she lived for several years with her husband, Paul Child. She has famously described that meal as a turning point in her life, and openly proclaims that she would never have had her career were it not for Paul Child.

Julia was raised in Pasadena in an upper class "nonintellectual" (her word) environment- where the food was good and hearty, but nothing to write home about. Prior to marrying Paul, she graduated from Smith College and worked in a series of administrative jobs - ultimately landing at the OSS (Office of Strategic Services - precursor to the CIA) where she met Paul, a cartographer and sophisticated older man (by ten years). Paul was raised in Boston by a Bohemian mother who had lived in Paris, and was far more "intellectual" and cultured than Julia imagined herself to be. He was also the yin to her yang - quiet and thoughtful where she was effusive and enthusiastic. After their marriage, when she was in her mid-thirties, she needed to learn to cook so they could survive on the "government wages" they were earning. She took a few classes and muddled through recipes in Gourmet, sometimes with the result that dinner did not reach the table until 10:oo PM - and even then it wasn't very good. (I well remember going through the same thing when I first started to cook!)

In Paris, she decided to go to cooking school, and attended the Cordon Bleu. She also mastered the French language, and fell in love with Paris and it's people - quirks and all. While in Paris, she started a club called the "Cercle des Gourmettes" a group of women who were the counterpart to the men's group called the "Gourmands." After graduating from the Cordon Bleu, she began teaching French cooking to American women in her own kitchen - starting an informal school called the "Ecole de les Trois Gourmandes." The Trois Gourmandes were Julia and her friends Simone Beck, and Louise Bertholle. The three collaborated on the first volume of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which at the time was a major advancement in the art of "cookbookery" - as Julia calls it.

In the late 50s, Julia and Paul returned to the U.S. and settled in Cambridge, Massachusetts - in the house she would live in until she moved to Santa Barbara after Paul's death. (The kitchen of the house is now in the Smithsonian Museum.) After returning to the U.S., Julia focused her efforts on the development of the book that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking. The book was the first effort to make French home cooking, or "La Cuisine Bourgeoisie" available and accessible to American housewives. It contained exhaustive descriptions and instructions that Julia devised in a laborious process that took several years. It went through several incarnations and titles, and was rejected for publishing twice before it was re-worked into its final form and published by Knopf in 1961.

As a result of the book's success, Julia was asked to do appearances on talk shows where she did cooking demonstrations. After seeing her on one of these shows, PBS developed the concept for the television show "The French Chef," which ran during the mid to late sixties. Her offhand manner and sense of humor quickly earned her a loyal following and launched her into celebrity.

Ultimately, "My Life in France" is a love story about the relationships between Paul and Julia, and Julia and her beloved "la belle France." It was written by her great-nephew, Alex Prudhomme, and appears to be compiled largely from letters written by Paul to his twin brother each week and conversations with Julia shortly before her death in 2004. The writing sounds like her speech - you can almost hear her voice as she describes her experiences with her trademark enthusiastic exclamations and descriptive detail.

She had some wonderful memories, and her description of them is bittersweet. She writes "I tried to hold onto my impressions, but it was hopeless, as if I were trying to hold onto a dream." At least they are preserved here for us to share - and perhaps be inspired to create some wonderful memories of our own.

My Life in France
Julia Child with Alex Prudhomme
317 Pages, Published by Knopf in 2006
$25.95 - list price.


  1. Great review. I was wondering if I should read it right away--now I know! Thanks for sharing.

  2. I loved this book. I was so moved as it came to a close, and I shed a few tears. Your review of it is so good! Thanks.

  3. Great review! I actually saw a whole different dimension in the book. What really jumped out for me was Julia’s dogged determination to learn the right technique, perfect it, get the recipe right, and make it understandable to the rest of us. Thought you might be interested in my assessment of “My Life in France" --