Early in the morning of Wednesday, November 3, 1948, the newest member of the American Embassy in Paris stepped off the SS America with his wife. They drove through the French countryside, stopping at Rouen for a lunch of oysters, sole meuniere, salade verte and baguette with fromage blanc for dessert. For Paul Childs, it was a return to a country he loved, to Julia Childs it was a meal that would change her life.
This was the start of Julia Child’s career as a food writer and TV cook. I’ve heard her compared to Fanny Cradock and, while they were contemporaries, I think Julia’s reputation rests more on her ‘Mastering The Art of French Cooking’ which places her firmly in Elizabeth David territory. Like David, Child introduced authentic French cooking to an unknowing public.
This book tells the tale of how that work came to be. Child arrives in a France starting to recover from the war, where shortages and power-cuts abound. She describes finding a place to live and dealing with the vagaries and eccentricities of French telephones and French maids. But it is clear from the first hours of her arrival that Child loves France. She loves the country, the people, the lifestyle and above all the food.
Child makes it clear that she was no natural gourmet. She appreciated the food she was eating in Paris and wanted to learn to cook it herself. She trained at L’Ecole du Cordon Bleu and worked hard at becoming the cook she wanted to be. She clearly had a knack for making friends and allies and it was two friends, Simone Beck and Louise Bertholle, who were writing a French cookbook for Americans and who invited her to help. If the original idea wasn’t Child’s no one can doubt the amount of effort she put in to making it a reality. As an aspiring food writer, I was slightly stunned at the sheer amount of work Child and her friends put in to testing recipes and making sure that they were reproducible. The book took over a decade to write and a couple of years to find a publisher willing to take on such a comprehensive cooking manual.
But this is far more than a description of how to write a cookery book. Child describes France and the people she met in wonderful, warm detail. It also veers into history as her diplomat and artist husband is interviewed as part of the McCarthy anti-communist witch-hunts. If you’ve never read one of her recipes or seen a video of her demonstrating cooking this is still a great book to read for its description of a post-war France that is fast disappearing.
Title: My Life In France
Author: Julia Child
Paperback: 364 pages
Publisher: Gerald Duckworth & Co Ltd; 2 edition
Date: July 2012