May 14th, 2021
After many stop-and-start attempts, it’s my intention to write regularly ( at least 2-3 posts/ month initially and hopefully, picking up speed) at Bookended and I’m starting off with some suggestions for summer reading. First on the list, My Life In France by Julia Child with Alex Prud’homme.
My Life In France by Julia Child, written with her great-nephew Alex Prud’homme, is Child’s memoir of the years she lived in France with her husband, Paul. It was while living there that Julia Child became interested in cooking, specifically the French way of cooking. Interested is such a mild word for what was really a passionate, intense, voracious, all-consuming love affair with authentic and precise French cooking, experimenting and perfecting techniques, and teaching others what she’d learned through her classes and her books. It was a love affair that was to sustain her through her life. The book talks about the Childs’ life in Paris, Marseille, Oslo, and the United States, their amazing meals at different restaurants, their local excursions and trips, their growing circles of friends, their experience of being part of the United States Foreign Service, the cultural and political climate of the time and how all of that formed the backdrop for Julia’s cooking. Julia attended the Cordon Bleu school to learn French cooking, immersing herself in all aspects, from selecting and shopping for the best ingredients to the most authentic way of preparing dishes and the best wines to pair with them. She teamed up with Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle to offer cooking classes (L’école des trois gourmandes) and later, the three women collaborated on the manuscript that would eventually become the 726-pages, Mastering The Art Of French Cooking (Vol. 1).
Why this is a great book to read
Many parts of the world still continue to face terrible tragedies as a result of COVID-19 infections and it’s unclear when we as a world population will leave the pandemic behind (or if that is not possible, at least be able to manage it without the current, devastating loss of life). Here in the United States, we are cautiously reopening though life doesn’t yet feel completely normal. At this time of post-pandemic uncertainty, this book provided welcome armchair travel, a visit to Paris and Marseille complete with food, wine, and great company. The book is written in a no-nonsense, forthright manner but the descriptions of the local scenes are vivid, detailed, and almost poetic. Paul and Julia moved to France in 1948, three years after WWII, and life has resumed normalcy: it made me feel hopeful that we too might soon experience a post-pandemic return to normal or even a renaissance, as some have suggested.
It’s also a great pick if you enjoy memoirs especially those where the writer’s voice is crisp and clear. Pick the physical book if you want to see the accompanying photographs taken by Paul Child, an avid photographer; the audiobook version was a fantastic production and one I recommend.
Perhaps the best lesson I learned from this book was you don’t have to know everything before you start on a project. Nor do you have to wait for everything to be perfect. That you can learn as you go along. I admired Julia’s dedication at the same time that I realized she wasn’t dedicating herself ( i.e it wasn’t an extra effort she was putting in) so much as she was that interested in cooking and writing about it. Towards the end of the book she talks about working on Vol II of Mastering The Art Of French Cooking and how that was a refuge when her husband Paul was ill and I thought again of how art, writing, cooking, and other creative pursuits are both sanctuaries where we can hide from the chaos of the world as well as how we express ourselves and are seen.
I borrowed this book because I read in an online article that Julia Child was 49 years old when her book , Mastering The Art Of French Cooking was published. I am soon going to be 49 and have been working on a novel for about 3 years. I think you can see where I’m going with this… Jokes aside, this was a fascinating read. I cook my family’s meals but at best, I am a mildly interested + fairly detached cook. Cooking does not inspire that kind of passion in me but Julia’s story of falling in love with cooking and pursuing it for the rest of her life resonated deeply while also raising interesting questions. Do we all have a raison d’etre? Do we need one? If yes, does it stay constant or will it change? Can we have more than one? If age isn’t a barrier (and it obviously isn’t) and it doesn’t matter how old you are when you find something you are passionate about, does that mean we keep trying until we find it? I don’t have the answers to all the questions but I was reminded of the famous Joseph Campbell quote: “…that if you do follow your bliss you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while, waiting for you, and the life that you ought to be living is the one you are living. Or as Julia Child herself said, “Find something you’re passionate about and keep tremendously interested in it.” And at the same time, with the ever-present and fantastic tension of opposites, Aldous Huxley’s words: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them. So throw away your baggage and go forward. There are quicksands all about you, sucking at your feet, trying to suck you down into fear and self-pity and despair. That’s why you must walk so lightly. Lightly my darling…“
Thank you for reading!
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Images: Bookended.org. If you are curious about the blue and white background in the photos, it’s a hand block-printed sari from India, one of my favorites. I’m a huge fan of the art form and that color combination.