Monday, February 22, 2010

My Life in France, by Julia Child

My Life in FranceThis autobiographical work by Julia Child is an absolutely fascinating look at an era and a cuisine that time has left far behind. Julia and her husband, Paul, who worked for the state department, were stationed in Paris, France for several years, beginning in 1948. While she was there, she developed an insatiable curiousity about French cuisine that lasted the rest of her lifetime. She studied at the Cordon Bleu first, then she and two of her friends started teaching their own classes, and began to write a book together, which became Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Volume I.

Child and her husband were later sent to Marseilles, where she continued to research the cuisine of that region, and eventually were pulled out of France and sent to Germany, then Norway before Paul's retirement in 1962. Everywhere she went, Julia made friends and enjoyed learning about their food and customs.
It helps a bit to either know a bit about French cuisine or read a bit of French while reading this book, as there are a number of phrases or names of dishes left untranslated from the language in the book, and it's fun to sort of puzzle them out as you go along.

I learned interesting little facts I would never have suspected, such as "the French have a 'crus' of butter, special regions that produce individually flavored butters. Beurre de Charentes is a full-bodied butter, usually recommended for pastry dough or general cooking; beurre d'Isigny is a fine light table butter."

Julia and her husband met so many interesting people. For example, she speaks of Hadley Mowrer, the "former Mrs. Ernest Hemingway...the mother of Jack Hemingway, who had been in the OSS during the war and was called Bumby." I have a friend who owns Jack Hemingway's ranch on the breaks of the Grande Ronde River, so this caught my eye. Then, a little later, "On June 25, Bumby Hemingway married Puck attractive Idaho girl...she and Bumby had met in Sun Valley, Idaho, in 1946." An interesting little tie-in to Idaho history with a personal connection.

I also found out that a cheese such as Camembert must be served at exactly the right time. "If you asked for a Camembert, she would cock an eyebrow and ask at what time you wished to serve it: would you be eating it for lunch today, or at dinner tonight, or woudl you be enjoying it a few days hence? Once you had answered, she'd open several boxes, press each cheese intently with her thumbs, take a big sniff, and - voila! - she'd hand you just the right one. I marveled at her ability to calibrate a cheese's readiness down to the hour..."

Julia and I had certain experiences in common. When I was first married, I'd spent all day long creating a vegetable stock for a soup I was going to make later on. I called my wife on the phone and asked her to pour off the stock, straining out the vegetables, after it cooled. When I arrived home from work, I looked in the fridge for the stock, and it wasn't there. When I queried my wife, she said, "I poured it off. the vegetables are still in the strainer." She'd poured my stock down the drain! After one dinner party, when Julia allowed "the boys" to clean up, they mistook a large pot filled with veal stock she'd left on the floor for a garbage can, and scraped all the plates into it!

I rather liked a phrase of Paul's she quoted, when they were moving from France.  "If variety is the spice of life, then my life must be one of the spiciest you ever heard of. A curry of a life"

There's actually several good recipes included in this book, for three sauces, Hollandaise, Mayonnaise Leger, and Beurre Blanc. I'm going to have to try them out sometime. The hollandaise recipe has a little twist I've never tried before that might make it a bit quicker to make in large quantities, as when you have folks over for Eggs Benedict.

As a book nut, I found the following passage most amusing. "in the ...village of Moustier, we delivered - on behalf of the consulate - a stack of books to an elderly, self-taught librarian who had been patiently requesting printed matter for years. He kept all of the volumes in his musty, dark, one-room operation 'protected' by wrapping them in plain brown paper (thus obscuring the titles). The books were shelved on rough, hand-hewn planks, which reached to the ceiling and were accessible only by a rickety ladder that not even he dared to climb. Lacking a card catalogue, he had devised his own system: 'I organize the books by size!'' he proudly announced."

The book covers all the time the Childs spent abroad, as well as the period when Julia was developing her cooking show on tv, The French Chef, which I remember watching as a child, and time spent writing volume II of her cookbook. There are a ton of fascinating stories in here about people she met and befriended, places she visited and loved, and dishes she created and consumed. I think you'll love it, and as Julia always used to say, "Bon Appetit!"

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