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Book review 324: My Life in France

June 19, 2014 - Harry Eagar
MY LIFE IN FRANCE, by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme. 352 pages. Anchor paperback, $15

Maybe I am wrong, but I do not think I would fall in love with Paris, and Julia Child’s love letter from there (assembled at the end of her long life) does not make me think I would, either. While not as charming as Elliot Paul’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” once Child gets rolling, and she unmasks her feelings about some people she had to deal with (especially her father), “my Life in France” does attain charm.

But it sure doesn’t make Paris sound attractive, and neither did Paul’s despite its passion and charm. The classism turns me off -- not hers, the French people’s.

The main narrative concerns how she was taught classical French bourgeoise cooking, and then both Americanized and regularized it. She calls her approach “scientific,” and in some ways it was. She also was a prodigious worker.

From this the cookbook “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” emerged as a natural entrepreneurial offshoot of the cooking school she and her friends established, although the school cannot have been much of a business proposition itself.

It is interesting, if you like cookbooks, to compare Child’s progress with that of Irma Rombauer to “The Joy of Cooking” (told by Anne Mendelson in “Stand Facing the Stove,” which despite its inexplicable title is an excellent history of classical American bourgeoise cooking and essential to understanding both the difficulties and the achievement of Child).

But “My Life in Paris” is also the first-person love story of Paul and Julia Child. Paul does not come through as vibrantly as Julia.

It is also, and very much by the way, an insight into the politics of the ‘40s, ‘50s and early ‘60s by an aware liberal (where the conflict with her pa came in). Some of her throwaway lines are devastating, such as the fact that toward the end of their time in Indochina, the French were losing as many officers as were being commissioned out of St. Cyr and the other academies.

Child does not mention -- it would be bizarre if she had -- that by 1968 the Americans were running out of officers, too.

But everything links up, in cooking and in war.

“My Life in France” was assembled by Chlid and her nephew, using interviews supplemented by papers from her files, but it reads well, and as the book progresses, better and better, an unusual accomplishment for such an approach. Julia Child died as the final stages of composition were being completed.

 
 

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