My Life in France by Julia Child – learning to cook and write about food in the French way by a remarkable woman

My Life in France by Julia Child

Although I am not a good cook, even I had heard of the amazing “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” volumes I and II as the authority on cooking French recipes adapted for American tastes and available supplies that had been produced by the chef, Julia Child. This is the book behind the achievement of this ground-breaking book, which boasts fool proof techniques and recipes for cooking in the genuine French way. It is much more in so many ways. It is also the story of Julia’s life together with her husband Paul as they began married life in France and she began to become obsessed with the foods, the restaurants and generally the French way of life.

Written “with” Alex Prud’Homme, this recalls in a nonstop series of anecdotes and memories of a life of determination to produce food in an excellent way, even when starting with few if any skills and embracing the most basic of  foods and recipes. It recalls the challenge of following her husband in a series of United States government jobs, of finding accommodation, of places to buy and cook the food that she came to love. It is a story of love between a couple who worked together but preserved their own spheres, who made genuine friends and discovered fascinating settings for their activities, who worked hard to change the face of American (and by extension, British) cooking from the mid twentieth century onwards. It covers the problems of co authorship when research took the form of ideas then extensive checking that the recipes would work for everyone as well as translating the language and expectations of a big book into English. Julia comes over as someone who embraced her new life in France with enthusiasm, but also organised determination. She set out to learn the language and to cook in an authentic manner, using the equipment and ingredients that she could locally source. While some of her recipes may be rather rich or grand for today, she champions ideas that are still fashionable, that anyone can cook who is prepared to really work at it. Her later books were to rise to the challenge of electric kitchen equipment, though her first impulse was to create with traditional items such as copper bowls. There are a lot of food references in this book; while it doesn’t give recipes as such there are many details of struggles with ingredients and methods, and just how many times Julia had to repeat processes to get them just right.

The other fascinating element of this book is the large number of friends and acquaintances that Julia and Paul made in France and other countries. There are many chefs and experts in the realm of French food, but also the servants, the colleagues, the particular circles of interests they joined. As Julia’s success as an author and cookery teacher grows, she recalls how she pioneered cookery programmes on American television and how she sought to capture the last vestiges of traditional food production and wine keeping on film. Julia and Paul obviously did their best to make a physical home wherever they lived, even when they were dispatched to a place or even country they did not know. This book also refers to Julia’s political and emotional estrangement from her father, as well as some of the lasting effects of war service. She admits to mistakes, panics and disasters, but also the triumphs of hard work in producing a definitive cookery book that is almost legendary even several decades after it first appeared.

The book is liberally illustrated with photographs of Julia and many of the people she encountered while perfecting her art. There is also a comprehensive index of many of the topic mentioned and people who contributed to her progress. This is a well written and readable book for anyone who has an interest in cooking and the French lifestyle in the mid twentieth century onwards, as well as the progress of a remarkable woman. I was pleased to have the opportunity to read and review this book.