Saturday, August 29, 2009

Book Review: My Life in France by Julia Child

A good friend and fellow foodie loaned me her copy of My Life in France by Julia Child and recommended I read it. I was a little skeptical because the front cover of the paperback included a picture of Meryl Streep in her role as Julia Child in the upcoming (or perhaps already released) film "Julie and Julia." Personally, I do not have a great deal of interest in seeing the film about a young woman who undertakes the seemingly Herculean quest of cooking her way through Mastering the Art of French Cooking cover to cover. However, if someone I deem to be a credible source reports that a good dose of the movie is more about Julia than Julie, I might reconsider.

At any rate, My Life in France begins at the end of World War II, when Julia Child's service with the OSS, the forerunner of the CIA ended and her relationship with Paul Child began. After the war, Paul Child remained a member of the US foreign service and was assigned to Paris. Julia was not content to remain a member of the somewhat cloistered group of fellow Americans in the foreign service in Paris. Although she didn't speak a word of French, she had a strong hunger to immerse herself in the culture of France and Paris. And, as anyone should know, a large part of the culture of Paris and France involves every aspect of food and cooking. This eventually led her to enroll in classes at Le Cordon Bleu. My Life in France provides heaping helpings of Julia's thoughts and insights as she took the first steps that would eventually lead her to the status of a living legend and icon of cooking and cuisine.

The book also explains in considerable detail the toils, triumphs, and frustrations of developing and writing Mastering the Art of French Cooking and seeing the book published. My Life in France is required reading for any dedicated foodie.

Reading the book caused me to reflect on Mastering the Art of French Cooking and to realize just how truly ahead of its time it was. In order to put the book in perspective, one has to reflect on the history of America and its cuisine in the Twentieth Century. Right up to and following World War II, especially during the years of the Great Depression, in many parts of the United States, putting food on the family table was a considerable task. One doesn't have to look very far back in their family history, especially here in the Great Plains, to find a time when almost everything that appeared on the table was produced and prepared within the 80 acres or so where the farmhouse was situated. Animals were slaughtered and meat preserved. Vegetables were grown and canned. Eggs were gathered. Cows milked. Loaves of bread were baked several times a week. Sure, there were trips to a market to buy things that simply could not be produced, but the trip to the grocery store as we know it today just didn't exist. Daily life and things we take for granted today required hard, relentless work. On top of those daily challenges were heaped the hardships of the Dust Bowl and the rationing and sacrifices of World War II.

After the war, things got better. The country experienced a boom, not only in terms of the economy, but also in technology. The era of modern conveniences was upon us. Great minds turned their attention to making daily life easier and more convenient. Besides being able to produce and ship all sorts of foods all around the country and the globe, the country was also introduced to things like cake mixes and all sorts of pre-cooked foods that could simply be popped into the oven, or eventually, the microwave. As automobile travel expanded and the average American became more affluent, things like fast food and an abundance of restaurants followed. In short, food and eating simply became a heck of a lot more convenient. Not necessarily better, but certainly a lot "easier."

The United States was in the midst of the Space Race and the Cold War when Mastering the Art of French Cooking was first published. My Life in France details the skepticism of publishers about the likelihood of success of the tome about French cooking, something to this day the average American is likely wont to describe or define. (Just ask someone what they believe to be French cuisine. Snails? Emphasis on sauces? Lots of cream and butter? French bread? French fries? Try it. Ask some non-foodie friends.) Nevertheless, the book sold better than expected. In my opinion, however, it still remained far ahead of its time.

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is not a work for the faint of heart and it is decidedly not the go-to source for simple little recipes to whip up something a little different for the next dinner party. I can think of no better example than the recipe for French Bread found in Mastering, Volume II. The bread requires four very simple ingredients: flour, water, yeast, and salt. Nevertheless, the recipe covers something like 10 pages and describes in great detail how to develop the dough, form loaves, and bake them to get as reasonably close approximation to the real thing as one can expect using everyday equipment and everyday ingredients. (Hint: the story of how this recipe was developed is one of the highlights of My Life in France.)

Mastering the Art of French Cooking is experiencing a major revival thanks to the book Julie and Julia and the movie. There is no doubt that the country is re-discovering food and cooking. Although we continue to enjoy many modern conveniences, people have discovered, or rediscovered, the older more labor-intensive ways of producing and cooking food. The difference is that it is now somewhat of a luxury to cook this way (wanting to do it versus having to do it). In addition, people have learned that mass produced, processed foods are not necessarily the best foods or the best for us. It seems more people than ever are interested in cooking and have the desire to purchase the tools and commit the time necessary to master the type of skills that are necessary to produce truly great food. Just look at the sort of equipment that is available to the average cook today, let alone the highly specialized equipment available to those who can afford it (induction cooktops, ovens that inject steam, etc.). If Mastering the Art of French Cooking has a time, that time is probably now, 40 years after its publication and several years after Julia Child's own death. It seems that just now people are interested in the nuances of good food- where it comes from, who brought it to us, how it is made, and how to make it ourselves.

Read My Life in France. It's not only a good read, it's a great glimpse into the life of a truly remarkable woman. I encourage you to read the book and reflect on how much of your own relationship with good food and good cooking has been influenced by Julia Child.

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