Apr 10, 2006

How Julia Child became Julia Child

William Grimes reviews My Life in France, Child's memoir--written with Alex Prud'homme--about her transformation from non-cooking Californian to expert on French cuisine.
"My Life in France," written with Alex Prud'homme, is Child's exuberant, affectionate and boundlessly charming account of that transformation. It chronicles, in mouth-watering detail, the meals and the food markets that sparked her interest in French cooking, and her growing appreciation of all things French. It also tells the story of the inspired partnership between Child, who died last year, and her husband, Paul, a sensualist and cosmopolitan who cheered his wife on every step of the way, tasted all her experiments in the kitchen and imparted his considerable knowledge of French wine and culture. As Child puts it, with considerable understatement, "We were a good team."

Child had a lot to learn. "What's a shallot?" she asked, on sitting down to one of her first French meals, in Rouen. No matter. Ignorance was, in a sense, one of her great strengths, since it was joined to a steely determination to get to the bottom of every mystery that French culture threw her way. She was methodical and rigorous, qualities that had stood her in good stead when she worked for the Office of Strategic Services during the war, and that would define her method in codifying French cuisine. "I could be overly emotional, but was lucky to have the kind of orderly mind that is good at categorizing things," she writes.
The book that catapulted Child to fame is Mastering the Art of French Cooking, an encyclopedia of French recipes and cooking techniques. I have an old, spattered copy that I consulted pretty religiously back when I still enjoyed cooking. Julie Powell devoted a year to cooking every recipe in the book and blogging about it at The Julie/Julia Project. Powell just won a non-fiction Blooker Prize for the project, which she turned into a book.

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