One of the first things you think of at the mere mention of France or Paris is food. It is so ingrained in French culture you can barely separate the two. Julia Child has been a favorite of my mom’s for a long time; we own a number of her cookbooks and will pull out recipes of hers when we want to try something new. So why not combine two different things that I have been vaguely familiar with and read Julia Child’s book about “My Life in France.”
It was funny to hear that Child was not always the greatest cook. She grew up in a very privileged home (some would say she was spoiled and rich, I cannot really disagree with this statement), so the need for knowing how to cook and use the kitchen was not something she needed. She never took a liking for it and never saw it fit for her to do. That is, until she met her husband. Her husband knew cuisine, and especially French cuisine quite well, so as they dedicated the rest of their lives to each other, she wanted to impress him by cooking some French dishes. At first this was an absolute disaster and I understand exactly how it could be after going to a number of French restaurants. The meals in the end do not seem extremely complicated. Things like duck confit are in the end relatively simple dishes, as it is the meat accompanied typically by some sort of potato side, maybe some greens.
Her first dish was brains simmered in red wine – how she did not realize how ambitious this was to try first is beyond me! (And I’ve never had the guts to actually try it either) Unsurprisingly, it was a failed attempt, and this continued with the next dishes that she would try to make. It would take hours and hours and soon she realized how much time and effort it takes to do French cooking right. There’s such an art to it and even the smallest of restaurants have these brilliant culinary artists in the kitchen. Reading through some of her early attempts and seeing the progress that she had to make to become the renowned cook she is gives you some insight on how the “true” French have to work to get their dishes just so when you order at their bistrot.
Along with the food, Child has the same little moments where you recognize the magic and beauty of living in Paris, although she also spent time in Marseille and Provence. The “brilliant sparkle of autumn light on the dark Seine” or the “smell of Montmartre at dusk” are just little details that are beautifully said but even better when you experience them. There really is something about the way that light sparkles on the surface of the Seine as you walk across one of the bridges, or the way that the smog so ironically creates a soft romantic focus on the buildings across the way.
There is a lot to grow accustomed to in Paris, especially coming from the States, and Child takes you through it and I cannot help but see some of these moments myself. If I were to navigate my way through some French recipes, it would also end in disaster. She figured this out and continued to work on it, coming to understand the great deal of work that it takes to create great cuisine. It is no wonder that the French take time with their meals and enjoy every morsel of it. How else would the chef feel rewarded if it weren’t for the appreciation his guests gave him for his craft?