The first two books for the year are both re-reads. Both well worth multiple reads, as it happens. I first read this twelve months ago and was captivated. We bought a second copy while on holidays (I must check when we get home to see whether we indeed already own a copy). No matter. It was worth the read. We got this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris, a place that you must visit if you like second-hand books. It’s on the left bank, close to good food and the Notre Dame cathedral. They are also very hospitable and helpful.
Below is the original Goodreads review with a second reading postscript.
Having seen Julie and Julia, this was bound to end up on the reading pile sooner or later. Happily, it was sooner, for this cleverly crafted biography was worth every minute that was spent reading it.
Though really focusing on one slice of Paul and Julia Child’s life, it is soon apparent that the slice devoted to France was considerable indeed. From her first sole meunière at Rouen in 1948, Paul child and France remained her lifelong loves.
Though this book will appeal to the culinary set, it is a wide-ranging snap-shot of post-war France. The parade of characters include chefs such as Bugnard, and gourmands such as the eccentric Curnonsky. The Prince des Gastronomes adopted his pseudonym having covered a feast for the Russian royal family in Paris in the mid-1890s. Though a brilliant article, the author was unknown. His solution was the Russian-sounding pen-name. His reputation remained undimmed until his death in Paris in 1956.
Child is refreshingly forthright in her opinions, and doesn’t shrink from self-praise. Her indignation at failing at her first attempt to gain her certificate from Le Cordon Bleu almost makes the book shake in one’s hands as she lists her accomplishments. But it is deserving. Her optimism despite the stumbling blocks thrown across her husband’s career and the difficulties in publishing what would become Mastering the art of French cooking are simply so many obstacles to overcome.
Her love for Paul Child is manifest, and softens the few hard edges that that Julia shows. A talented artist, Paul joined the OSS during the Second World War (he met Julia working in Sri Lanka). Both Democrats, Paul was viewed with suspicion and, during the McCarthy witch-hunts was recalled to Washington and questioned about his political beliefs. His support for her projects was invaluable, and it was he who suggested that she should work in television (a remarkable observation as they hadn’t seen one at the time).
Enthusiasm for life and all that it offers, for good and ill, is the thread that holds this book together. Published posthumously in 2006, this is simply a wonderful piece of biographical writing.
Postscript – we picked up a second copy of this at the Abbey Bookshop in Paris. If you get to Paris, visit them. They are very hospitable.
On thing that struck me again is how important a part of culture food is. I love visiting France because eating good food (and making the time to do so) is still seen as important (I love Italy for the same reason). This is not to say that all the food that you buy in France is great. But I suspect (but cannot prove) that it’s generally better that that consumed in the Anglo-Saxon world.
As I write this we are in Bayeux and most businesses are closed from 12:00-14:00. Perfectly civilsed. I have nothing against sandwiches (I love a good sandwich), but I dislike our modern preoccupation with food as something to get through. At work, we often feel that we have no choice (and many don’t). We are the poorer for it.
The other thing that came through the book is that the French, their reputation notwithstanding, are very polite and usually friendly. My wife saw a staff member at the Bayeux tourism office being extremely patient with an elderly Canadian gentlemen. The French also value politeness highly. It’s important to say ‘bonjour/bonsoir’ when you enter a business. Politeness to people who serve us our food or our services is also something of an anachronism in the Anglo-Saxon world, and again we are the poorer for it.
Not that France or the French are perfect. Julia’s description of the drawn out bureaucratic nightmare that constituted their efforts to get a telephone are still a feature of modern French life. If you have to encounter the French bureaucracy, roll with the punches. And be polite. You may be the better for it.
At one point, Julia exclaims that she must be French and no one had previously informed her of this fact. I concur wholeheartedly.