Book Club Tuesday: As Always, Julia & My Life in France

If you’ve read last week’s review you’re expecting my thoughts on some cooking-related memoirs. Everything today is about a woman I’ve come to admire: Julia Child. So let me be honest here — before 2009, “Julia Child” (I use quotation marks because I had a very limited Julia Child schema prior to) sat somewhere in my consciousness right between vague images of her cooking program and images of Dan Aykroyd as Julia Child on SNL. I think this is because when her shows were popular, I may have been more interested in Saturday morning cartoons than cooking shows. Even by the late ’90s when I was coming around to the whole idea of cooking and culinary pursuits, I was more interested in Martha Stewart (if you want to read an interesting piece comparing the two click here). It wasn’t really until 2009 and the release of the film Julie & Julia that I suddenly found a new interest in this enigmatic woman because she was shown to be so normal, so human. Unlike the larger-than-life persona which exists.

If you’re at all connected to Pinterest or Instagram undoubtedly you’ll have seen clever Julia Child quotes written in beautifully scripted writing. Just have a peek at what a quick Google search of the topic “Julia Child Quotes” looks like:

You see? No shortage of beautifully rendered, clever wisdom from Julia Child. But for me there’s a disconnect from Julia the persona (quotes and all) and Julia the person. I think people who watched her programs probably won’t feel this way because they saw her through each episode, each instance where she proved herself natural, humble, and down-to-earth. Even though I own a copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, I have never actually cooked from it.  It sits right beside my copy of the Joy of Cooking (another cookbook that I own and have never cooked from). Not something I wanted to admit but I think this is part of what drives my interest in Julia Child: what is it about her that makes me even want to own a copy of her book? Reference material? Because it’s the thing “cooks” do? (I’ll stop now because the more I write, the less I like myself. Pretentious much?)

Back to the movie! So in 2009 when I saw Julie & Julia in the theatre I was thrilled at how “normal” and everyday Julia seemed. She succeeded through her genuine curiosity and not because she would become famous. She was a person who lived a passionate life and shared that passion with others. This is how she comes to meet Avis. One of the things that struck me most about Julie & Julia was the scene in the film where Julia meets Avis (DeVoto) in person and it’s revealed that neither woman has ever met the other and their entire relationship has existed through letters. Wow. I thought about it and I wondered if this kind of thing could even happen today? Intrigued I picked up the book As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child & Avis DeVoto (2010) — a compilation of their letters from 1952-54.


In some ways these letters are incredibly insightful on one hand and quite mundane on the other. But they serve to illuminate the real person behind the Julia Child persona. Part of me felt like a lurker, reading letters that no one besides the intended was meant to read. I mean, can you imagine if all of your private texts, BBMs, messanger messages, (you get the idea) were saved then printed for everyone to read upon your death?? Must say it doesn’t make me feel very good but I didn’t feel bad enough to stop. Anyways, I think I enjoyed reading their letters, which were more like discussions, because both women a) wrote great letters and b) had interesting and diverse opinions on so many topics. One opinion that sticks out in my mind (possibly because whenever I’ve made one, my husband gives me such a look of disappointment akin to the one I get when I use the word “leftovers”) is Julia’s opinion on this dish: “Casseroles. I even hate the name, as it always implies to me some god awful mess.” Now I finally understand the possible implications around making this dish because I’ve always thought: “Casseroles. Yum!” Who knew? Those of you who are keenly interested in Julia Child may enjoy her descriptions of cooking in France, I for one really liked all of the discussions on the types of groceries available to home cooks in 1950s America. Something as ubiquitous as a shallot nowadays was, according to Avis, a specialty item back in the 1950s. I loved that they mailed each other kitchen tools and ingredients. That is great and, even better, it was mostly in the name of research for Julia’s first cookbook Mastering the Art of French Cooking.

After reading that book, I moved onto her memoir: My Life in France that was published posthumously and compiled/written with her husband’s grandnephew, Alex Prud’homme. One of the passages that struck me — “I was a six-foot-two-inch, thirty-six-year-old, rather loud and unserious Californian. The sight of France in my porthole was like a giant question mark.” I had no idea — none — that Julia was only 36 (!!!) when she moved to Frnace with her husband. No offence to Meryl Streep (who I loved in the movie) but in light of this information it changes how I see Julie & Julia. When watching the movie, if you’d have asked me afterwards, I don’t think I could have guessed Julia’s age from Streep’s portrayal — there’s a huge difference between 36 and 60. And I think in that moment I really started to relate to Julia Child much more and (if it’s possible) become even more interested in Julia’s time in France. I love the detail that has been put into her memoir and found all of the information regarding her time at the Le Cordon Bleu so fascinating! I think she speaks to the life long learner in me — but at the risk of sounding to corny or cliched I’ll move it along.

Reading her memoir you definitely see the trajectory of Julia into the great persona of Julia Child. In one part she recalls her hours of research on mayonnaise and how she “proudly typed it up and sent it off to friends and family in the States, and asked them to test it and send [her] their comments. All [she] received in response was a yawning silence. Hm!” In the rise of the age of food blogging and Instagramming this seems laughable because I think today Julia would have had no problem finding testers for her recipes (just look at Angela Liddon of ohsheglows.com — she had to turn away volunteer testers!) I also think that this passage points to the reason why Julia and Avis were so kindred — they spoke the same language — finally someone to test those recipes. I think that what Julia accomplished with her career really is amazing. She became an inspiration to so many home cooks because she wasn’t exclusionary — she ignited interest and passion in cooking no matter the skill level.

 

 

 

 

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