The Hungry Engineer

My Life in France

29 Oct 2008

I have a confession to make – and I’m worried that I will offend the entire food blogging community by doing so. I’ve never really paid much attention to Julia Child. The few times I had seen her on television, she struck me as overly fussy and maybe even an tiny bit overbearing. On a whim (and possibly because I read the story about the 6'2" warbling chef being a spy), as an effort to balance out all the Bourdain I like to fill my head with, I decided to read her latest book, My Life in France.

My Life in France was published posthumously and was completed with the help of Alex Prud'homme, her great-nephew. It is clearly a book about Julia and her husband Paul’s adventures and how they made it to France and how that changed their lives. But in essence, I think it’s more about the things Julia loved – France, cooking, adventuring, and of course, her beloved husband, to whom she dedicated the book. I’m not sure the France she so adored still exists, but if it does, I desperately want to experience it. It is a France filled with warm and welcoming people who share a passion for food and who are happy to share it with you if you express an interest. It is a France lined with small specialty food shops and a glorious array of handmade bread and charcuterie and any number of other culinary goodies. It is a France whose culture and specialties vary by region.

Julia’s story is a fascinating one. When Paul whisked her off to France (where his job with the US Information Service was sending him), she was 36 years old, knew little about France, and it seems even less about cooking. Paul, on the other hand, had lived in France before and introduced her to the language, the people, and <gasp> the food. Julia’s eyes were opened by the incredible flavors she experienced during her first meal in France, and it would seem that that meal changed the course of her life. It was not long after that fortuitous meal that she realized her passion in life was food and cooking. Being the person that she is, naturally she dove headlong into it, enrolling in an extensive course at Le Cordon Bleu in Paris. There she tackled her chosen craft with a ferocity unequaled. She was still learning the French language as all this was going on, but barreled on regardless, peppering her instructors with questions and absorbing as much information as she could. And when classes were over, she’d continue to work on her new cooking lessons at home.

Julia Child may well be my new hero. As an adult, she changed her course in life and immersed herself completely in food and cooking. She took a scientific approach to her cooking, never being content with having a method that would simply work. She wanted the method that would produce the very best and most consistent results for the American home cook. And despite some differences with her writing partners and difficulties with finding a willing publisher, in 1961, Mastering the Art of French Cooking was published. In her ever-pragmatic way, she realized the cookbook wouldn’t sell simply because it was the very best cookbook of its kind. She’d have to work to expose folks to it, and she promoted the book ceaselessly. And her constant book marketing had its own reward. With her bold and endearing personality and her natural ease on television, it became clear to the folks at WGBH that she should have a cooking show, and The French Chef was born. (Amusing aside – at the time she helped make the pilot episodes of The French Chef, the Child household wasn’t equipped with a television set.) Julia and the French cuisine she so loved were soon reaching households across the nation.

This book is incredible. Julia Child and her husband Paul were fascinating people. One might argue after reading this that Julia was simply lucky – that opportunities were presented to her that the rest of us “regular folks” wouldn’t have been offered. But that luck wouldn’t have amounted to squat had she not worked as hard as she did – had she not been the lively and outgoing person that she was. I read a great deal, and it’s been a long time since I’ve been so inspired. Maybe it isn’t so absurd to consider changing careers partway through adulthood to chase after your passions after all. Is the Julia and Paul story romanticized? Probably (I’ve taken to thinking of Julia Child as a romantic pragmatist). Is it heartfelt? I would say, without a doubt, yes.

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