Wednesday, April 15, 2009

10 Favorite Things on My Life in France by Julia Child

In writing about the life of Julia Child as part of the Reel (Real) People series in association with the upcoming film Julie & Julia, I became surprisingly interested and fascinated with Julia Child's life.

As a result, I got my hand on her posthumous biography My Life in France, and thought I would lay out my 10 Favorite things about this book.

My 10 Favorite Things about My Life in France

1. The historical story that is nestled into this book is fascinating. It's certainly interesting to see how America's foreign policy following WWII changes and adapts through the administrations of Harry S Truman and Eisenhower through the eyes of Paul and Julia Child. Paul Child's diplomatic role in furthering a presentation of American culture and art through ECA (Economic Cooperation Administration) is interesting as a direct arm of the Marshall plan, yet the lack of promotional opportunities for Paul, the increased emphasis on military expansion, as well as the growing fear that was associated with McCarthyism in the United States really was shown through the life of Paul and Julia and their experiences in Europe as American citizens, especially when Paul gets a surprise trip to Washington DC were he is interrogated.

2. I was pleasantly interested in the character/person in the book names Judith Jones. Jones, the editor who is credited with the decision to publish the Diary of Anne Frank for Double Day, despite the initial decision not the publish the manuscript. Judith's own unique experience in France, in which a trip was extended, almost by fate, allowed her to connect with the French culture, a husband, and a new job, going to work for Alfred A. Knopf. At Knopf, Jones became a powerful voice and advocate for Julia Child's work, as well as helped change the title of "French Cooking for the American Woman" to "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." I think a Judith Jones biopic could be really fascinating.

3. I thought it was fun that Julia and Paul went to Cannes Film festival,mainly as an extension of Paul's professional role with the government. Julia was able to see two films at Cannes, the Disney short (and Oscar winning short) Water Birds which she seemed to like a great deal, and the Hitchcock thriller I Confess staring Montgomery Cliff which she felt "fell flat."

4. It's crazy to think that Julia Child didn't get her first cookbook until her 37th birthday as a gift from Paul. Julia's previous life experience prior to there move to France was certainly far from flat, and yet here in the middle of her life Julia develops a new hobby/passion that changes her life's role and legacy. Julia's ability to adapt, work hard, and never feel sorry for self holds a powerful message for our opportunity to succeed at any stage of our life.

5. Paul's encouragement of Julia is in itself an inspirational message of this story. Paul does not discourage Julia, or tell her that her dreams are too big, her hobby to expensive, or her interest to bizarre. Rather he encourages her passion, even when other American foreign service workers and French citizens might have criticized Julia for taking on domestic hobbies that housekeepers could have easily performed.

6. The relationship Julia has with her co-authors of Mastering the Art of French cooking is really interesting. It is clear that the personalities, styles, and life purposes of Simone Beck, Louisette Bertholle, and Julia are all very different. Originally Beck and Bertholle are the one's who are working on the project, but as the project takes many years to complete, Julia's role continues to increase in the project. It's hard to tell from the biography exactly how Bertholle and Beck feel about Julia's role in certain steps of the project. It is clear that the book probably would have never happened, or been nearly as publicized or successful with out Julia's role in the book, but the relationship with these three women is a long and arduous journey that Julia is honest to lead the readers through.

7. The book is co-authorized by Alex Prud'homme, the grandson of Paul's twin brother Charlie. The interviews for the book were conducted in the last eight months of Julia's life, and then published in 2006. I am so glad that Alex took the time to conduct these interviews. It is clear from the book that both Paul and Julia wrote so many letters during their time in Europe, as that was their primary method of staying in touch with their families and friends. You can tell that these letters provided a great window of capturing Paul and Julia's true experiences and attitudes.

8. Julia is obsessive. Her dedication to excellence is amazing. Her commitment to convert French recipes to American recipes with American measurements and American ingredients is so commendable. To hear how many different pie crust she made (sampled warm and cooled) to get the butter measurements just right, or to read about her time with Nestles' Chocolate scientist to try to understand why American chocolate and French chocolate was different, or her studies in fish (comparing American-available fish versus French-available fish and their different names), or to read about the great lengths she went to make a home oven French bread recipe is truly impressive. A passion and dedication to excellence is something that in the long-run is what I believe allowed Julia to, in time, distinguish herself from other cookbook authors.

9. The French Chef cooking program is so interesting to read about. You can tell Julia loved her cooking program. It's interesting to read about, because you realize how far ahead of the curve Julia was with her television cooking program. What she was doing hadn't been done before, and especially in that scale. Julia's dedication to tape these shows in a single take (with significant practice before each taping) is very interesting. Her willingness to make mistakes on air is interesting and honest. It is also interesting how she kept the success of these programs a secret from her co-authors, which only became a problem when her American celebrity status rose and her co-authors were partially excluded from the visits of American magazines like McCalls, Time, and Vogue.

10. In the original book deals with different publishers prior to Avis Devoto's huge help and support of Julia, it is interesting to hear the resounding reason other publishers were not interesting in Julia's book. The primary reason is because of the belief that the American woman wanted something simple, with short cuts, boxed mixes, and convenience foods. In many ways, these publishers felt like Julia and her co-authors were late to the game, with the assumption that people were not interested in cooking something that might be complicated, or might require special technique or utensils. In many ways, this was part of the intentions of the three-authors work, preserving the art of French food and to take a French tradition of certain foods and allow them to have fool-proof recipes that anyone, with minimal training could make with success. I think it's interesting how it turned out that the small minority of people who the publishers believed might be interested, ended up being a much larger group then expected.


Tucker said...

That's such a great book. I've been reading it to my wife and kids after dinner - if we have time. We also checked out the three disk compilation of her show The French Chef, which we also are loving.

Becky Johnson said...

So enjoyed this! Wonderful, thorough. Audio book version also excellent. I am reading Judith Jone's book, The Tenth Muse right now and also did a post on my blog -- about this book, and later, the movie. (Just look at posts about Julia Child in blog index if your interested.)

Anne-Liesse said...

Thanks ! I've wanted to read that book for months but now, after seeing the movie and reading your post, I'm ordering it without wasting one more second !

Angeline said...

I would love to read this book as well. I've read a lot of reviews and I ma pretty sure that this book is very inspiring. This will surely give lessons about the outlook in life. As a motivational speaker, I always share my experiences with other. I have never been to France yet but I am planning to visit that beautiful country soon.