Friday, December 30, 2016

My Life in France

Book: My Life in France 
Author: Julia Child, Alex Prud'Homme
First Published: 2006 by Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
No. of Pages: 317
Genre: Autobiography (Hardcover Edition), Non Fiction, Memoir, Biography

There comes a moment in everyone’s life, that defining magical moment when you realize who you were always meant to be. Such a moment is very precious and must be carefully held, never to let go; and Julia Child never did let go, not for a moment, from the time she docked at Le Havre, France on a Wednesday morning, on November 3, 1948 till she passed away in 2004. And so, "My Life in France", is just that: An enchanting memoir of that magical moment and her subsequent years in France where she became besotted with French food and found her “true purpose and vocation” in life.

My life in France takes us on a kaleidoscopic journey of a 6'2" thirty six year old loud and unserious Californian." As we read, we see an American woman trying to carve a place for herself in the beautiful Parisian landscape all the while learning, blossoming, and transforming from a secretary to a happy housewife whose sole aim in life becomes to cook well and to write a cookbook. 

My Life in France by Julia Child, Alex Prud'homme

The book is essentially divided into two parts containing four and five segments respectively. The first part gives us a vivid picture of Julias’s life in La Belle France (which is also the name of the first chapter). The other three chapters include Le Cordon Bleu, Three Hearty Eaters, and Bouillabaisse a´ la Marseillaise.

While introducing the book she says, “I was lucky to marry Paul. He was a great inspiration, his enthusiasm about wine and food helped to shape my tastes, and his encouragement saw me through discouraging moments. I would never have had my career without Paul Child.” This speaks volumes about the love, warmth, and affection that Julia and Paul’s marriage had. This little note of acknowledgement shows how a supportive partner can really bring out the best in you. For Julia, it was her husband who brought her to France (Paul Child worked for the US Information Service in the visual presentation department and spent over 5 years in France,) encouraged her to follow her newfound passion for cooking, and take it to the next level.

Reaching France, Paul and Julia first looked for a place to eat. With a Guide Michelin they were directed to an establishment called Restaurant La Couronne (“The Crown”), built in 1345 in a medieval quarter-timbered house. Julia recalls that Paul strode ahead full of anticipation, but she hung back, concerned “I didn’t look chic enough, that I wouldn’t be able to communicate, and that the waiters would look down their long Gallic noses at us Yankee tourists.”

Julia’s first experience of Sole Meuniere at La Couronne which she describes as a “morsel of perfection” was actually “the moment” that defined her course of life as a celebrity chef and writer.

Julia says,

“In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs. From them I learned why good French good is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. Good results require that one take time and care. If one doesn't use the freshest ingredients or read the whole recipe before starting, and if one rushes through the cooking, the result will be an inferior taste and texture--a gummy beef Wellington, say. But a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a life-changing experience.

Such was the case with the sole meunière I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.”

From here on Julia shows single minded focus on learning how to cook well. After settling at 81 Ru de l’Universite, she enrolls in a professional restaurateur’s course under Chef Max Bugnard. Her struggles become very real as she competes with her fellow course-mates and tries one recipe after another at home. The book is dotted with some lovely reminiscences where she introspects and makes observations about herself. There is a particularly lovely paragraph where she comments about her own self:  

“Upon reflection, I decided I had three main weaknesses: I was confused (evidenced by a lack of facts, an inability to coordinate my thoughts, and an inability to verbalize my ideas); I had a lack of confidence, which cause me to back down from forcefully stated positions; and I was overly emotional at the expense of careful, 'scientific' though. I was thirty-seven years old and still discovering who I was.”

The second segment of the memoir focuses on Julia’s life years at her new home at 3 Steubenring, Plittersdorf, Germany and subsequently in the United States. The chapters are titled French Recipes for American Cooks, Mastering the Art, Son of Mastering, The French Chef in France, and From Child’s Kitchen.

The book in itself is very well composed indeed. I do not believe there is any aspect of Julia’s life that has been left untouched. Though spanning a mere 317 pages (which also include beautiful black and whites captured by Paul) it is a testament to a woman who worked hard enthusiastically perfecting recipes and writing them down for all. This book also gives us a picture of the wonderful friendship she shared with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle with whom she co-authored Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

Some of the best lines from My Life in France:

  • “You never forget a beautiful thing that you have made,' Chef Bugnard said, 'Even after you eat it, it stays with you - always.”
  • “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! Usually one's cooking is better than one thinks it is. And if the food is truly vile, as my ersatz eggs Florentine surely were, then the cook must simply grit her teeth and bear it with a smile -- and learn from her mistakes.”
  • “The German birds didn't taste as good as their French cousins, nor did the frozen Dutch chickens we bought in the local supermarkets. The American poultry industry had made it possible to grow a fine-looking fryer in record time and sell it at a reasonable price, but no one mentioned that the result usually tasted like the stuffing inside of a teddy bear.”
  • “I discovered that when one follows the artist's eye one sees unexpected treasures in so many seemingly ordinary scenes.”

One thing that this book will definitely give you is the sense and feel of a different kind of time, when life in general just moved slowly and people spent quality time balancing both professional and personal life. This makes me realize something simple: We go through life never realizing that we are the ones who give meaning and pace to time.

I believe that you don’t go through life, you take it along with you. And looking at Julia’s life you can see how she veered hers into a tour de force of celebration. As I think about the book and think about Julia, I cannot help but feel immense happiness in having found an ordinary yet extraordinary person who made sure she spent every day doing something she loved to do. Such a simple thing really, yet a feat truly remarkable!

I give this book 8/10

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