Everyone I know loves to watch cooking shows, and they all have a favorite food personality. Boys tend to like Giada de Laurentis. Girls tend to like Barefoot Contessa or sometimes Rachel Ray, though she’s a lot to take. Everyone loves Top Chef. These shows have improved cooking and food awareness. I know how to chiffonnade basil and make a roux from watching the Food Network. It’s really amazing the tips you can pick up from these shows. Little did I know, until I read Julia Child’s My Life in France, how unoriginal we all are. People have been watching food shows for decades, and it all started with Julia Child.
Julia Child paved the way for this indulgence in food and being a ‘foodie’ in the 1950s and 60s. She was the first to make food on television, and she was the first to introduce speedy-cooking-obsessed America to the virtues of taking time with food rather than pulling something out of a box.
In My Life in France, which covers much more than her actual time in France, Child explains in short, pleasant vignettes, as transposed by Alex Prud’homme, how she grew to love food. To my surprise, Child did not know much about cooking until she was 37 years old. She and her husband moved to France after the war for Paul to take a diplomatic job in Paris. After eating a beautifully composed meal in a small restaurant in Le Havre, she became obsessed with food. This meal literally opened her taste buds, and she began her journey to becoming a French chef. She took classes at the Cordon Bleu, which were sub par, but she met some great chefs who gave her private lessons. According to Julia, taking classes like these were not rare at this time. Many housewives did this to learn their way around the kitchen, but unlike many of these women, whose cooking experience stopped at the market and their home kitchen, Julia began to investigate and test all sorts of recipes because she wanted to know how they work. She tells one story of how she tested dozens of different recipes of mayonnaise before she was happy with the result. Before she got to the perfect recipe, however, she had so many batches, that she had to resort to flushing some down the toilet!
After a while, she began to teach other people how to cook. She became so energized as a result of her own discoveries with food that she wanted to share her knowledge with others. She and a few friends started cooking classes in Paris and soon after started writing a cookbook, a labor of love that eventually became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volumes I and II. What made Julia Child so unique was that she was able to explain the process and chemistry of each recipe so that the home cook could understand what was happening in the kitchen. Julia made it possible for women in Iowa, who had never been to Paris and had no understanding of French cuisine, to make a beautiful coq au vin. Her cookbooks were a revelation to Americans in the 1960s who were anxious to learn about cooking. They are still classics today.
My Life in France is full of charming stories of finding ingredients at the market, living in Provence, and details about the arduous publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Julia comes through the pages as a very nice, open person who was obviously a great hostess. This is a meditation on the kitchen and not a memoir of her life, though she does provide some information about her family and relationships as she goes. It is a wonderfully sensuous, nostalgic book that made me want to get into the kitchen, make myself a tart, and open a bottle of wine. Bon Appetit.
Fun Fact: Julia Child was 6 foot 2 with size 12 feet.