My Life
In France

Julia Child
Flo Salant Greenberg,

(Random House Audio ---
Four Disks)
When Julia Child and husband Paul arrived in France in 1948, their first meal consisted of a salad, a wine, and a sole meneure, taken in Rouen. They were on their way to Paris. He worked for the United States Information Agency. She was along for the ride, but ended up falling for the whole French culture.

This is a woman who grew up in prosperous Pasadena with a father, she tells us, of noxious politics. She was also, as many contemporaries were, familiar with marshmallow salads and cans of string beans and haunches of beef cooked to a stringy mess and beets and spinach and corn that had been boiled to death.

But she was also a woman of great ardor, great patience, and great persistence, and once she had decided on her life's course --- living in France, writing a book on French cuisine--- there was no stopping her. Her story is in the details: the vegetables and bread and cheese and pastry available just around the corner. The people who grew and sold and took pride in these items. The chummy warmth of great meals in tiny Parisian restaurants. The cold of a cold-water walk-up flat in Paris immediately after WWII. During the war, she tells us, the three great terrors for Parisians were
  • The Cold;
  • The Gestapo;
  • Hunger.

My Life in France is an encyclopedia of falling in love, and living in love, with the companions and food of her adopted country. Whenever it came time to celebrate, Julia or one of her friends would cook up a stunning meal --- cul de veau mode d'Arbois, escargots farcis, or truite au bleu --- to be served with a Marétel, a St-Pourçain, a Beaufort or any other fine wine.

It's her passion: and for those of us who share her love of other cultures (and a great meal), the book is a dream. She was --- as she showed us so effortlessly on her television programs, merry, endlessly energetic, and blessed with a fine humor. If you make a mistake in the kitchen, she tells us, keep on going. Don't try to hide it, don't ever apologize. All will know that you blew it, but in matters of food, all will always forgive you.

We know that Child was slightly mad for detail. Her first work, Mastering the Art of French Cooking, took her almost eight years to put together. She insisted on testing, and sometimes re-testing the recipes, dozens of times.

To make a spaghetti sauce, you and I will fry up an old onion in some oil, cut up the Roma tomatoes with celery, throw them in with a bay leaf or two and some dried up chicken stock and whatever wine we find at the bottle store (or under the sink). That's spaghetti sauce.

Julia? She's going to measure everything out precisely, will cook it at exactly the right temperature for exactly the right amount of time. Then she will blend it and puree it and strain it, and it will be right every time. For her it was a science, one in which the pots and pans and chafing dishes and culinary tools were carefully tested, the ingredients carefully measured. Thus Child can best be seen as a physicist of the kitchen (with a PhD in French cookery).

My friend Cecilla claimed to have made a sauce maison as dictated by Mastering the Art of French Cooking. She cut and sliced and diced and fried and sautéed things most of the day, straining, mixing, decanting, cooling for an hour, boiling it down twice again, adding this and that. Exactly as ordered. By suppertime she had a thick beige-colored goo that tasted not a little weird. Maybe she had left out a step. Maybe she used the wrong pot. Maybe it was too much (or too little) basil, bay leaf, burgundy. Whatever it was, she, as instructed, didn't apologize. She and her friends flushed the mess down the toilet and went out to a nearby Italian café which served simple spaghetti dishes late into the night, and Mastering the Art of French Cooking was filed away at the lowest corner of the book shelf.

Be that as it may, one ends up with a real affection for Julia. She is funny, full-of-life, always cooking up something. At the end of her book and her life, she gives up her cottage in Provençe --- celebrating its demise with several friends and a Boeuf Bourguignonne, which is, of course, perfect. Then, without a look back, she moves home to tend her beloved husband Paul, now in a nursing home, and to spend the last months of her own life writing this delicate story of an American woman who so long ago fell in love with France and its cuisine, a love affair that started at the perfect time: for her, for France, for America.

Throughout My Life in France, there is a passion. There is a passion for the very best mayonnaise (several months of experiments: what kind of oil to use, how to mix it, how to blend it, when to put in the eggs, how to put in the eggs); the very best roast chicken --- what temperature, where to get the chicken, how to bind it, how to baste it, how to "rest" it.

It is an epic telling of one woman's lust to discover how to make the perfect French meal from the best of French kitchens, and then, how to make it available to the rest of us. When Child started all this, the old style of French cookery was at its height, the national bible was the Guide Michelin, and the national saints were Georges Auguste Escoffier and Philéas Gilbert. In the same pantheon, we can now place Julia Child.

This is a most engaging work of hunger and love and joy, and, on these discs, it is read at exactly the right pitch and fervor by Ms. Greenberg.

--- Rachael Beckett Wright
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