Julie, Julie, Julie

My Life in France
Julia Child

A book about or by a cook is not a cookbook, even if it includes the occasional recipe.

I think the logic of that statement is irrefutable. At least enough so that I once again sneaked past the cookbook waivers imposed by my wife.  I honestly would not have sought this particular volume out if it hadn’t fallen off the remainder rack at a deep discount because I’m sort of viscerally opposed to movie tie-in editions. As you can see, this printing gives you both Meryl Streep and Amy Adams with the added bonus of Nora Ephron‘s name. It’s enough to make me cringe.

True confession: I saw the  movie, chick flick that it is.  My ostensible reason was to see an old schoolmate, Stanley Tucci, work. But the subject was food and Paris and that’s always enough to reel me in. The whole blog turned into book thing was a lot less interesting. Julia, though, she’s an institution, right?

The Galloping Gourmet Graham Kerr

A six-foot two woman with a piercing voice, Julia Child was easy to lampoon.  And yet she may be responsible for every other TV chef and the metastasizing food channels on cable TV. While she was probably sober, in her exuberance she came across as tipsy, if not drunk, and rumours continue to float about claiming she was an alcoholic, drunk on set.  If she wasn’t, Graham Kerr and Justin Wilson seemingly were.

None of this memory lane stuff has anything to do with the book. (Although I was surprised to learn that Wilson was still alive and  that Kerr was a Canadian and also still among us.) Child was that most American of creatures, a native Californian. Born and raised in Pasadena, Child was of solid Republican, WASP stock. Evidently she was also something of a disappointment to some of them, at least in the right-thinking department.

She tells her story with great brio and her co-author, her nephew, the writer Alexander Prud’homme, has captured her voice as he helped shaped her narrative. The tale is, in some ways, less interesting than the telling. The story boils down to this: American gets posted to Paris after World War II. She becomes entranced with the culture, particularly the food, and decides she will share this with her countrymen. In so doing she stumbles her way through publishing, additional postings and the earliest days of public television building her brand and, along the way, helping create the modern foodie.

The Cajun Chef Justin Wilson

I think it’s hard to imagine the impact Child had in the US. I own an early edition of Mastering the Art of French Cooking that came to me by a circuitous, and telling, route. My mother-in-law, one of those Juliaphilic foodies, bought it for her mother-in-law. I’ve no reason to believe that granmere was a great cook and, in her Idaho origins, may have been more like Julia’s parents than her contemporary, Julia. The book wound up in one of her daughter’s hands and, as a second, got passed to me. So there you have one family and at least three copies of the book (my mother-in-law owns one still).

I’ve also stood in a kitchen that was its own tribute to Julia. The big French range. The peg board on the wall. The outlined pots and pans, all gleaming copper. I remember walking in and stopping short in amazement. That someone had built a culinary aerie on the second floor of an old New England frame house in a mill town was surprising in itself. That it was a re-creation of a TV set made me wonder whether I was in the presence of  a 70-year old woman or a Brittney fan.

There is certainly that element of fan worship when it comes to Julia. Yet in the end what struck me was the elitism.  Pasadena, before it became a code word for insularity and materialism, was a tony place. The mostly passed-over service in the OSS makes no mention of that office’s reputation for recruiting mostly among the WASPistocracy. Our chef seems to only know two types of French folk–those associated with high-end food and the elite. There is the occasional servant and workman to be sure but, mostly, it’s a rarefied slice of French life.

One other item points to the elitist worldview Child acquired somewhere in the course of her life. Her mission, which reappears throughout the book but which takes, literarlly, two lines in the movie, is to teach Americans the one, best way to cook French food. What balderdash. Yes, the recipes should work. And there are techniques that must be mastered. But really, if I don’t flour the chicken breast before browning it in order to save 5 minutes and 2 plates, and yet still end up with a rich, flavorful pan sauce who cares that a step was skipped.

In the end, Julia is that worst kind of prescriptive American snob. I say that with some sadness because I think she’d be a hoot to share a meal with. I just don’t see the world–let alone food (even French food)–the way she did.

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