Book Review: Cookery Bookery

My Life in France, by Julia Child; Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell; Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Simone Beck, Juliette Berthould and Julia Child

Julia Child and the culinary road to emancipation

Books reviewed for this article:
My Life in France, by Julia Child
Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell
Mastering the Art of French Cooking, by Simone Beck, Juliette Berthould and Julia Child

 

Julia Child played by Meryl Streep and Julie Powell played by Amy Adams (below) in the recent Julie & Julia, about Julia Child and her path to emancipation | Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures

Among the respectable collection of cookery books on my shelf is a 1972 paperback edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking (MtAoFC), which I have used off and on over the years, when I either wanted to check quantities in a recipe I only half remembered, or to be absolutely sure about the procedure in a complicated one. Year in, year out, I have never been disappointed, for exactitude, seriousness and absolute authority is what this culinary icon – soon to be republished in a hardback, fancy box set just in time for Christmas – is all about.

However, I never found it exactly a delightful read; for all those reasons, it was rather a reference work. Unlike the equally iconic French Provincial Cooking by the British writer Elizabeth David, who takes us with her on adventures through France, up hill and down dale, from a Michelin 3-starred restaurant to that staple of French truck drivers, the relais routiers, evoking the odors and flavors of every sauce, tarte and rôti de veau aux herbes provençales she encounters.

MtAoFC is so detailed as to be ponderous, so intractable as to be forbidding – witness the recipe for bœuf bourguignon, which takes up no less than eight pages (!). The authors of MtAoFC, Simone Beck, Juliette Berthould (both French) and the indomitable American, Julia Child, go into such laborious specifics about the requisite batterie de cuisine and are so dogmatic about processes (the “right” way to whisk egg whites, merde alors!) that they seem to take the fun out of cooking.

What a revelation then, thanks to Nora Ephron’s new film Julie and Julia starring Meryl Streep, to discover the human side of Julia Child, which I found not only through Streep’s warm-hearted, life-embracing performance, but also in the pages of Child’s own memoir, My Life in France – which thanks to the film, I now encounter for the first time.

It is this autobiography, of course, and not the MtAoFC itself that is the true source of the film – together with a rather strange, semi-autobiographical, bare-all blog-novel by Julie Powell, a young woman living and working in New York, who sets out to cook her way through MtAoFC in 365 days. Her book (and the film) would have us believe that she succeeded in a feat that could only be compared to climbing all the great peaks of the world in one year. It might make a great story, but it is certainly a tall one.

I did read Julie Powell’s book, but her throw-away style irritated me – Nora Ephron has made her into a far more likeable person than she comes across in her own words. This may have much to do with Amy Adams, who plays her as an ingénue with a big heart, who, at a crossroads of her life, finds a cause (cooking) and a mentor in Julia Child who becomes her soulmate and idol.

What then, is the appeal to today’s readers – and indeed cinema audience – of a deceased cookery writer from the 1960s? MtAoFC was first published nearly 50 years ago in 1961 and has never been out of print. Well, perhaps it is that the 60s are back in fashion; perhaps it is the fact that television audiences are obsessed with cookery programs, pioneered by Julia Child in the U.S.

Or perhaps it is a good time, now at the coming-of-age of feminism, to review those early trailblazers and compare them with the young women of today who, sad to tell, are still fighting some of the same battles (witness the fascinating new book by Gail Collins, When Everything Changed: The Amazing Journey of American Women From 1960 to the Present, published by Little, Brown & Company). The struggle for personal emancipation at the root of these stories is what makes them appealing.

Julia Child’s account in My Life in France of her road to self-discovery and, indeed, fame, through culinary expertise, is silhouetted against the richly hued setting of Paris. Firstly, there’s the apartment that Julia and her husband Paul rent from a down-at-heel aristocrat, laden with Louis XV curlicues and bibelots but short on heat, with a kitchen three floors up. Then there’s the discovery of the street markets with their – for an American used to sterile supermarket packaged goods – revelationary stalls of unimagined varieties of charcuterie, glistening fresh fish and brightly colored, weird and wondrous vegetables that lead her to become an aficionado of aubergines and artichokes.

Next, Julia conquers the restaurants. Some grand and elegant, others fast and cheerful brasseries and bistros, but all Arcadian temples offering food and wine of the greatest finesse and sensuousness. Finally, she explores the kitchens: the culinary workshop of the forbidding Cordon Bleu cookery school, filled with the sounds of the utensils of the trade, where mentors exercise power with discernment and pupils submit willingly to the rigors of the absolute monarch. Then, of course, there is Julia’s own kitchen, which, after every foray to Hillerin’s, the kitchen shop sans pareil, fills with ever more copper pots and pans, earthenware bowls and measuring jugs, and nifty gadgets for beating and skewering, larding and basting.

The pages of My Life in France are peopled with a lively cast of characters ranging from the ever-so-dexterous master chef at the school, who becomes a dear friend, to the intellectual and artist friends who delight in tasting Julia’s latest invention at the Child’s dinner table, and the tradesmen and wine-growers and sellers, all given a part in the plot.  The whole of Paris comes alive, from the steep streets of Montmartre, to the clamor of Les Halles, the smart shops of the XVIth arrondissement, and, of course, Julia in her kitchen.

All this is enormously satisfying to read; Julia’s thoughts about her work in her own space are fascinating, as is her sheer joy at culinary discovery, the painstaking research into the minutiae of methods, trying and testing every single ingredient and step. She insists on the best, no, the definitive recipe, the one that is worthy to be passed on to the American housewife, not only as “absolutely foolproof” but also “authentically French”.

For this becomes the ultimate goal: to create an ordered compendium of scientifically proven French recipes, adapted for the “servant-less American housewife” – a Herculean task, and one to which Julia Child rises with indefatigable energy and extraordinary good humor. Constantly at her side is the charming Paul, her erudite, artistic, well-traveled and, one is tempted to add, long-suffering husband, a middle-level U.S. diplomat. But in fact, Paul does not seem to suffer at all; on the contrary, Julia portrays him as unselfish, supportive and ingenious, in all respects an ideal husband. Late marriage suits them both, and it is delightful to witness his joy at her blossoming. Even when McCarthyism casts its long shadow over the decidedly Democratic couple and Paul is ordered back to Washington for investigation, the episode only serves to bring them closer together.

In this way, My Life in France successfully combines several genres; it is at once a travelogue, a love story, a political commentary, a thesis on French cuisine and, above all, a memoir of a personal crisis overcome and a vocation found.

Julia Child died in 2004 at the age of 91 and did not live to see the 2006 publication of these memoirs, which she had had told to her nephew, Alex Prudhomme. The book is a remarkable witness to an era and a tribute to the passion and energy of a very accomplished woman who found her true calling. And if either it or the glorious Meryl Streep as Julia in the film, inspires you to take a fresh look at Mastering the Art of French Cooking, well that is not a bad thing either. Although times have moved on and we don’t often cook in such a defined way any more (the whole appeal of Jamie Oliver and cohorts is their slap-dashedness and “do your own thing” attitude), this writer can vouchsafe for the success of the bœuf bourguignon – as long as you are prepared to read the whole eight pages!

 

Available at The British Bookshop and Shakespeare & Company Booksellers

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