Sunday, October 11, 2009

My Life in France, by Julia Child

After seeing Julie and Julia and loving Julia and Paul Child (as portrayed by Meryl Streep and Stanley Tucci), I had to read My Life in France. Julia Child wrote the book with Paul's grandnephew Alex Prud'homme shortly before her death, drawing on her memories, as well as letters and other documents. The focus is on the years the Childs spent in France after World War II, but also extends beyond that era.

The book is a fun read for a food lover; learning about the effort it required to bring Mastering the Art of French Cooking to life is truly fascinating. While the differences in eating and cooking traditions in France and the United States were an obvious challenge, I never considered the complications of differences in ingredients available (flours are evidently infinitely variable). Julia's testing of techniques and recipes makes her sound like a pioneer in molecular gastronomy, the scientific approach to cooking so popular now. Since Paul worked for the USIA, the Childs were also affected by political events (e.g., McCarthyism), which adds another layer of interest.

It's surprising to note that the Julia Meryl Streep portrayed in Julia and Julia was in her late 30s. While Meryl certainly doesn't look her age (60), it's a Hollywood oddity to see an actress play someone 20 years younger--perhaps Meryl was chosen because the Julia that Americans knew on PBS's The French Chef was older (and, of course, because she's Meryl Streep).

In reading and seeing Julie and Julia, I wondered why Julia disapproved of Julie Powell's project. After reading My Life in France, I can see that, after spending years writing the book, Julia might have found someone trying to cook her way through the recipes in a year insulting and/or trivial. In addition, there's a streak of coldness that comes through in the book--she says of herself, "I have never been very sentimental," and her response to her father's death shows that (granted, he was a difficult man, but this response to me is more about her than about him): "I know there were times I could have been better, nicer, more generous toward him, and so forth and so on. But, frankly, my father's death come as a relief more than a shock. I suddenly felt we could go to California whenever we wanted to, without restraints or family bien, l'affaire conclue."

Favorite passage:
. . . I made sure not to apologize for it [bad food]. This was a rule of mine.

I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook...," or "Poor little me....," or "This may taste awful...," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" Maybe the cat has fallen into the stew, or the lettuce has frozen, or the cake has collapsed--eh bien, tant pis!

("This may taste awful" is so me--I'm going to stop it immediately!)

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