Cooking up career from scratch

Review Memoir

April 16, 2006|By SUSAN REIMER | SUSAN REIMER,SUN REPORTER

My Life in France

By Julia Child, with Alex Prud'homme

Alfred A. Knopf / 302 pages / $25.95

Julia Child's most successful recipe might not have been for boeuf bourguignon or bouillabaisse, but instead for a happy and successful marriage.

The much-loved French chef of television fame was first a nervous bride, brought to Paris in 1948 by her husband, Paul, a midlevel bureaucrat at the American Embassy there. She was too big - at 6 foot 2, she towered over the petite French women, and her size 12 feet would not fit in their shoes. She was also too loud and such a poor cook that she took newlywed lessons on how to make pancakes.

But her first restaurant meal in France, of oysters and sole meuniere, caused her to fall in love with her new home and, though she had to ask her husband what a shallot was and was shocked at the idea of drinking wine with lunch, she quickly determined that she would learn to cook its wonderful food.

My Life in France is the story of Julia and Paul Child's early life together in Paris and Marseille, where they spent almost six years in the make-do poverty of a civil servant and where Julia studied at a shabby, postwar Le Cordon Bleu.

Begun just months before Child's quiet death at almost 92 of kidney failure in August 2004, it was written in collaboration with her grandnephew, journalist Alex Prud'homme, and based on the hundreds of letters she and Paul wrote, and saved, during their life together.

It is also the story of the birth of the most daunting achievement of Julia Child's career and, indeed, in the history of food writing. Her first cookbook, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, now in its 40th printing, took nearly a decade of collaboration with her two French sister gourmettes to produce, and was winnowed down from more than a thousand recipes that were painstakingly tested and then converted by Child for the American cook shopping in American supermarkets.

Craig Claiborne of The New York Times called it "the most comprehensive, laudable and monumental work" on French cooking when it appeared in 1961, and he correctly predicted that it would "remain the definitive work for nonprofessionals."

Julia and Paul returned to the United States after tours of duty in Bonn and Oslo - not exactly culinary capitals - and Paul retired from government service and dedicated himself to Julia's career. He designed her kitchen in Cambridge, Mass., which is now behind Plexiglas in the Smithsonian, and he did drawings for her books.

Flush with the financial success of Mastering, she and Paul built a second home in Provence on a corner of a large property owned by Simone Beck, her collaborator, and spent much of their time there, entertaining and perfecting the recipes that would appear in Julia's subsequent cookbooks.

Paul was a decade older than his wife, and he entered a nursing home in Massachusetts as the infirmities of old age accumulated. Julia would nonetheless rise every morning at 2 a.m. France time to call him. He died at 92, a decade before her.

I did not hear Child's roller-coaster lilt in the pages of this book, and I did not recognize any of her trademark dithering. It was written by Prud'homme from long, unrecorded conversations with his great-aunt and completed a year after her death.

But I was nevertheless won over by the charm of this story, as anyone who ever watched The French Chef on PBS was won over by its hostess.

It is a book about food and cooking - Julia seemed to be able to remember every course of every meal she had ever eaten or served - but it is also a delightful narrative of a companionable couple. He chooses the wine to serve with her recipes, a perfect allegory for their relationship.

"This is a book about some of the things I have loved most in my life: my husband, Paul Child; la belle France; and the many pleasures of cooking and eating," she says in the opening paragraph.

It is a surprisingly unsentimental book. She tosses off her disappointment at never having children with an eh bien, and is unmoved by the final closing of La Pitchoune (the Little Thing), their home in Provence.

"I've always felt that when I'm done with something I just walk away from it," she wrote. "Fin!"

But the reader is left sharing the feeling of anyone who might have dined with Julia and Paul: sated by their food and wine but craving more of their company.

Susan Reimer is a Sun columnist.

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