Monday, December 14, 2015

Book Review: My Life In France

Author: Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
# of pages: 303 + 3 page foreward by Alex Prud'homme
Original Publication Date: 2006
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf
My Copy: First Edition Hardcover - from the library

I don't read a ton of memoirs. When I read memoirs, I'm either obsessed with the topic or obsessed with the person. In this instance, I feel it's a little of both.

Did you see the film Julie & Julia, the story inspired by the book inspired by the blog about Julie from NYC working her way through Julia Child's masterpiece, Mastering the Art of French Cooking? I was a child in the 90s so I didn't grow up watching The French Chef and my mother was way more The Joy of Cooking and much less Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She had a lot of mouths to feed and very little time. While I didn't particularly care for the character of Julie, I thought that Julia Child was delightful. I will probably never get through her encyclopedia of French cuisine, but I did get through the book she wrote with her grand-nephew about her life in France.

It begins with the description of Julia and her husband, Paul, docking in Le Havre and then driving south through Normandy towards Paris. They stopped along the way to eat at a restaurant called La Couronne ("The Crown") in Rouen.  There, Julia had her first experience with real French cooking, and she called it, "the most exciting meal of my life" (p.19).

Then Julia detailed her life in France, from her decision to study at Le Cordon Bleu to meeting famous chefs and her friends and later co-authors, Simone "Simca" Beck and Louisette Bertholle. She talked about how she fell in love with la belle France and the people that live there. She wrote beautifully about Paris and the market and her apartment and her first cat, and about her beloved Paul and his work.

One of the most interesting things to me was reading about US history and foreign policy from the perspective of someone who was an American away from America at the time. Reading about the McCarthy Era from the perspective of an American in Paris was fascinating (and frighteningly familiar to current events) and Julia's writing style was so vivid and clear. 

Many of the anecdotes retold in the book are taken from letters exchanged between the people written about - I love that! It gives the book a very here-and-now feel which is neat.  There are detailed descriptions of food and cooking techniques and lots and lots of French words that aren't translated within the text (don't read this on an empty stomach).  I managed to piece most of it together but there are some things that I will never successfully translate. Luckily, most of the non-translated French words are names of ingredients so it was no particularly great loss to me. 

The book is filled with stories of happiness and plenty of frustration as Julia detailed being shuffled around by the Foreign Service and sent to places not nearly as wonderful as Paris. She also told stories nearer the end about the pitfalls of the publication process and later the deaths of friends and loved ones. Though Julia died before this book was published, she did finish it, and ended it by reflecting back on that very first meal on her very first day in France, and how that one dining experience changed the entire course of her life.

Some quotes I loved:

From page 114:
 "This is the kind of food I had fallen in love with: not trendy, souped-up fantasies, just something very good to eat.  It was classic French cooking, where the ingredients have been carefully selected and beautifully and knowingly prepared.  Or, in the words of the famous gastronome Curnonsky, 'Food that tastes of what it is.'"

From page 123:

"Our pupils had not had much exposure to wine, and kept making uninformed statements like, 'Oh, wine, I don't like it.' When Mary Ward said, 'I never drink red wine; I like only dry white,' Paul took it as a personal insult. 'That's like saying, "I never talk to French people; I only talk to Italians,"' he said. Then he offered her a glass of red wine he considered quite good...a  flowery, well-rounded Bordeaux. Mary took one sip and said, 'Hey, I never realized red wine could taste like that!'"

From page 174:
"A [bouillabaisse] made for ten people usually tasted better than one made for four, because you could include a larger number and variety of fish. ... The disputes [on methods of making it] were endless, and people took great pleasure in hashing them out - one reason that bouillabaisse was a perfect reflection of Marseille itself."

From page 297:
"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!"

From page 302:
"In Paris in the 1950s, I had the supreme good fortune to study with a remarkably able group of chefs.  From them I learned why good French food is an art, and why it makes such sublime eating: nothing is too much trouble if it turns out the way it should. ...a careful approach will result in a magnificent burst of flavor, a thoroughly satisfying meal, perhaps even a  life-changing experience.
"Such was the case with the sole meuniere I at at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.... I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite - toujours bon appetit!"

Recommended Reading Level: 14+ for the abundance of French words and necessity of historical context for maximum comprehension.

Rating: 4/5 stars I had to take away a star because there really are quite a lot of French words that weren't translated where translation would have been helpful. It also loses focus a bit around 3/4 of the way in. The parts about her TV show and subsequent books rather detracted from the overall delightful feel of the book.

Who Should Read It:  People who love Julia Child; people who love French cooking; people who love la belle France; those who want to know more about life in France in the 1950s; those who are interested in trying their hand at French cooking; people who love to travel from the comfort of their armchairs

For more of the books I've loved, hated, and reviewed, please check out my Book Reviews tab. To see the full listing of books I've read this year and what I'm currently working through, feel free to peruse my shelves at Goodreads.

Happy Reading!


*Note: I am not now nor have ever been an associate or acquaintance of Julia Child or her family. I am not an agent of or in any way associated with Alfred A Knopf publishing, Random House Books, or any of its affiliates. This is an unpaid, unsolicited review of a book I genuinely liked and wished to share. All text quotations are used for the sole purpose of reviewing and are not claimed as my own.*

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