My Life in France With Julia

9780307474858 Before we went on vacation last week, we stopped off at Barnes and Noble to pick up some books for the boys. At the checkout counter, I impulsively grabbed My Life in France
for myself and promptly devoured it like a fine chicken cooked for hours in garlic and thyme.

My Life in France is Julia Child's account of her adventures in food. In her late thirties, her husband took a job with the government in Paris where she had her first encounters with French food. As she described her orgasmic first bites of this cuisine, my mouth watered. She enrolled in a local cooking school and met up with two women who were struggling to write the definitive French cookbook. One drops out of the project, and Julia works with the other woman for years polishing the ultimate cookbook. Later, she becomes famous in America on the PBS cooking series. 

Alex Prud'homme writes the book from Julia's perspective. He interviewed her when she was in her late 80s and early 90s about her time in France fifty years earlier. He also used Julia's and her husband's old letters to piece together the tale.

I read this book on the shores of Lake George, occasionally reading aloud to Steve. It was a joy to have Julia on vacation with us. Steve declared her, my kind of person. I guess she was. Opinionated, theatrical, obsessed, bohemian. How much fun must it have been to sit at Julia's table, all six foot two of her, and listen to her adventures in the kitchen? I imagine there would be several excellent bottles of wine on the table.

Much of her book describes the writing process. She talks about struggling with publishers to give them a product that they thought they could sell. She talks about navigating the tricky waters of co-authoring a book. Her co-author wouldn't check her recipes. The two fought about turnips and meat. Their friendship manages to remain intact, though Julia describes the resentments and tensions like they were yesterday. Each section required months, even years, of work. Any writer or editor will twinge with sympathy at Julia's struggles with book writing.

One of the problems that Julia faced was that her publishers told her that a cookbook that required time intensive cooking would not sell. Housewives no longer had time or the interest in cooking. They were expected to be chauffeurs, as well as cooks. Women would not cook a meal that required three hours in the kitchen. 

Again, that twinge of sympathy. Our schedules have been so crazy that I've been relying on fast food and the kindness of Grandma to feed my kids for far too long. The soccer schedule. Homework routines. Grading papers. Therapy. Everything gets in the way. Out of desperation, I've ended up at the drive through window at Wendy's more times than I care to admit. Since the summer began, I've been determined to cook proper meals for the kids and to use the farmers market every week. I can't say that I've always been successful, but food quality has somewhat improved around here.

Julia reminds us what is important in life. We must savor every taste and experience that life throws us. A good meal takes time to create, and it is something that should be shared with family and friends. A good meal is something that can remembered in detail fifty years later. A good meal is about conversation and laughter. And who we have at that dinner table is just as important as the food itself. Julia sought out interesting characters to share her meals. She loved the eccentric, the intellectual, the oddball. Like the thyme and the garlic, the company is an essential ingredient to any meal. 

Somehow I have to put aside the chauffeur duties and make time to follow Julia's example.

21 thoughts on “My Life in France With Julia

  1. Beautiful review, Laura. Melissa read the book a couple of weeks ago, and adored it; she got me to read it too, and I agree with both of you.
    There’s been a lot of conversation in the foodie blogosphere about this book of late, what with Michael Pollan’s essay in the NYT Magazine and the film adaptation, but the book itself transcends all that. I think what I took away most strongly from the story Julia told about her own life was her love of the particular. Onions and chickens and people and buildings and seasons and ideas: she pursued with a passion anything–any flavor, any method, any argument–that was it’s own thing, as opposed to some dreary predictable mass-produced meal or ideology. And, in her own way, she was so humble about it all: she knew there was so much stuff out there, waiting to be known or learned or cooked, and her openness and teachableness came through in practically every paragraph, even as she slowly but surely mastered her own favorite slice of the world.
    On a more pedestrian level, it really made us wish for winter, for the temperature to drop enough for the kitchen to be tolerable when we crank the oven up to roast a chicken or a beef, Julia Child-style. The downside to that, unfortunately, is that the farmers markets close around here come the end of September…

  2. Yes, a beautiful review indeed! Does it discuss Julia’s days as a spy?
    I threw a Julia Child’s dinner party two summers ago. It consisted of women bringing different Julia Child’s recipes. We served: pate (which I made!!), potato vichyssoise, boeuf bourginon, and a cake (lemon meringue?). It was so fun. I’m itching to do it again.

  3. I’m with Russell — while I love the summer, I secretly long for the days when I can actually cook for several hours without turning the house into a tiny furnace. I love to bake bread, a hobby that goes on total hiatus over the summer.
    So I guess what I’m saying is I want to live up north, where the house always cools down overnight regardless of how many hot dishes you turn out. If only you could also get good tomatoes up north!

  4. “If only you could also get good tomatoes up north!”
    I’ve got one tomato. Granted, I only have one plant, but still. It has been a cold, rainy summer. At least the slug ate the flowers instead.

  5. My dad used to sink tin pans full of beer in his garden to drown the slugs. Also works with high school boys.
    Macaroni, that meals sounds fantastic. Not quite sure what that beef dish looks like, but Julia talks about it a lot in the book.

  6. I don’t really mind the slugs that much. It’s fun to watch the boy get his nerve up to touch them. The little slugs were a bit creepy as he picked-up a stick and had a half-dozen on his hand.

  7. Also, my mulch is covered in little mushrooms. I’m not sure if that is because of how wet it is or because we purchased ‘organic’ mulch.

  8. I secretly long for the days when I can actually cook for several hours without turning the house into a tiny furnace. I love to bake bread, a hobby that goes on total hiatus over the summer.
    We still bake bread, but it has to be done first thing in the morning, or else it makes the kitchen/dining area too hot to endure.
    Our tomatoes have been fantastic this year. The zucchini are doing great (anyone have a good zucchini recipe to recommend?), and the peppers and cucumbers and herbs. Don’t know about the watermelons yet; probably not enough water, but we’ll see. For the third year in a row, our corn crop has complete collapsed. I don’t know what were doing wrong, but every year, between weather, disease, or marauding animals, we love pretty much the whole thing. This year we obtained exactly three ears of corn that were edible. Woo-ha.
    Macaroni, just what is “potato vichyssoise,” exactly?

  9. All vichyssoise has potatoes, doesn’t it?
    I also admire Julia’s singlemindedness about the cooking but I have some envy for her opportunities: it seems like no one has that much leisure now, and food is also much more expensive. Not to mention all the space she had to cook in!
    I met her once (disclosure: my grandmother was Avis DeVoto, who figures in the movie and the book) and she was entirely charming.

  10. “…food is also much more expensive.”
    I agree about time, but the percentage of income that Americans spend on food is way down and we spend less on food as a proportion of income than Europeans generally do. There’s also the issue of selection. When I was a kid in rural Washington state, we had a very limited supply of lousy, expensive fruit at the main grocery in my home town. Nowadays, there’s a Costco and a store specializing in produce a couple towns over and my grandparents always make a point of stopping for fruit when they’re passing through. Likewise, when we lived in DC, the Pentagon City Costco helped make mangoes a regular and inexpensive part of our diet.
    Now that we’re living in an unglamorous part of Texas, I love the fact that you can get good, inexpensive produce at Walmart. It’s amazing what you can get there. I got a pot of three Thai basil plants for $3 there this spring and they’ve been thriving despite my ongoing experiments as to how little water you can give herbs during 100 degree temperatures. Even at our neighborhood grocery (which is far from gourmet), you can get 6 limes for a dollar. I wish we had a good Asian grocery locally, but you can do mail orders without breaking the bank (my husband likes Sadaf for Middle Eastern stuff). We even mail ordered some Thai produce from Amazon earlier this summer (kaffir lime leaves, lemongrass, and galanga). Between that and the prevalence of inexpensive appliances (like rice cookers), it’s a golden age or it ought to be.

  11. “I also admire Julia’s singlemindedness about the cooking but I have some envy for her opportunities: it seems like no one has that much leisure now, and food is also much more expensive. Not to mention all the space she had to cook in! ”
    She didn’t, right, in the first kitchen in Paris? Women (who didn’t work outside the home) might have had more “leisure” back then, for things like cooking, but I also think that people spend their leisure time on a wider variety of things these days. Take, for example, blogging. Time spent blogging could be spent cooking, no? Or the energy put into serious crafting (quilts, beads, scrapbooks). I think what Child did to cooking is what Polan describes, making it into a crafting activity, that one spends leisure on, rather than a maintenance activity.

  12. PS: I always like to hear when people who seem like their gracious and charming in their books seem so when people meet them.

  13. How cool, Marya! Avis plays such a big part in the book. She seemed like an amazing woman, as well.
    Yeah, Julia’s kitchens were tiny apparently. And the Pollan book makes a big point of the fact that we spend less on food than we did in the past. Julia was an anomaly. She was into cooking at a time when it wasn’t fashionable. She also didn’t have children and she was living abroad where didn’t wasn’t sucked into other activities that kept American housewives busy back then.

  14. The Cambridge houses were pretty large though–admittedly Boston real estate is crazy but it seems amazing now that my grandparents’ house could have belonged to a college professor.
    The kitchen itself is now recreated at the Smithsonian and you can tour it online. I wouldn’t call it tiny! It’s not a faux-restaurant kitchen like the ones serious cooks have now though.
    If you google you can also see what the new owners of the house replaced it with–standard boring kitchen island setup.

  15. Reprint of some thoughts on Julia Child at the Reality-Based Community:
    “That is, she believed that there was a right way to do things, that some people knew how to do these things, and that if you wanted to do things right you should look to the people with serious training and understanding…”

  16. But she would have been really pissed off at being called a conservative. She couldn’t stand her father’s Republican politics and considered herself quite untraditional. She went to a cooking school that was for men who aspired to be chefs; it wasn’t for housewives. When they had to go back to US, she chose to live in Cambridge, MA, because she liked the “eggheads.”

  17. Laura,
    There’s a quote that you’re not going to like. It goes something like this: “Everybody is conservative about the stuff they are experts on.” (Of course, as someone once pointed out, one counterexample is that potheads are experts on pot.)

  18. But she would have been really pissed off at being called a conservative.
    Which just goes to show how stupid our collective use of the label “conservative” is here in the U.S. Germany is the most “conservative” place I’ve ever lived, and it’s their socialist policies which make it all possible.

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