I feel so fortunate that I live in a period of time in which food and cooking have great value. I believe we largely have Julia Child to thank for this. Without her there would be no Food Network, no cooking competitions, no belief that the average person can produce a meal at home that rivals one found in a restaurant. Cooking and baking is one of the main I do for people – if I have, at some point, labored over a meal for you, you know I have cared. In short, food is as important to me as it was to Julia.
In a culture obsessed with overnight success, Julia stands as an icon to all those who struggle to find their calling. We are so immersed in the belief that one’s life should be figured out by 22, that success comes to those who just want it hard enough, we look past all the efforts that went into it. It’s heartening to discover that Julia didn’t start cooking until her mid-thirties. Even after falling in love with food, it took another eight years with Simone Beck to finish the manuscript for Mastering the Art of French Cooking – eight years is a long time to become an overnight success – and then the book was rejected by their publishers. But Julia remained undeterred: “I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself. I had gotten the job done, I was proud of it…I had found myself through the arduous writing process. Even if we were never able to publish our book, I had discovered my raison d’être in life…”
For a pastime that is frequently associated with traditional feminine gender roles, My Life in France (Julia Child & Alex Prud’Homme, 2006) presents Julia as one of its first to break that illusion. Never one to do what was expected of her, nor one to be “nice and amenable and dumb, with no thoughts or feelings about anything,” it is impossible not to be won over by her overt feminism, especially coming so much before such thoughts and behaviors were socially acceptable. “[My father] had assumed I would marry a Republican banker and settle in Pasadena to live a conventional life,” she writes. “But if I’d done that, I’d probably have turned into an alcoholic, as a number of my friends had. Instead, I had married Paul Child, a painter, photographer, poet, and a mid-level diplomat who had taken me to live in dirty, dreaded France. I couldn’t have been happier!”
Julia’s story is a fascinating one and it’s beautifully written with the help of Prud’Homme, her grandnephew. I am in awe of the seamless way in which her letters and oral history are bound together to form a captivating story. It’s more than just the making of a star. It’s a collection of mistakes, misgivings, errors, and hard work that formed the legend we still refer to today. It’s clear that Julia would never want her story smoothed over, with only the glossy bits on display. This was anathema to her cooking style and, one can guess, to her life. Julia states toward the end that the great lesson to be learned in her later book From Julia Child’s Kitchen is that “no one is born a great cook, one learns by doing. This is my invariable advice to people: Learn how to cook – try new recipes, learn from your mistakes, be fearless, and above all have fun!” As surely as that applies to the kitchen, so too does it apply to life. I closed the book inspired and I am grateful that Julia chose to share her life with us.
[Book Riot Read Harder Challenge: read a food memoir.]