Sometimes I watched reruns of the Julia Child show when I was a kid, escaping the Midwestern humidity to lounge in the basement and flip through whatever was on TV at three in the afternoon. I still can’t cook to save my life, but I remember her voice, and how she never seemed to stand still behind the kitchen island where she sautéed vegetables and did fantastic experiments on nearly every cut of meat known to man.
Her autobiography My Life in France captures this movement, the way she was always shifting from foot to foot and fluttering her hands across the countertops. She and her husband, Paul Cushing Child, fluttered across Europe in similar fashion, from Paris to Marseilles to Germany to Norway. Eventually the pair landed back in the States, and, shortly after, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (1961) made Mrs. Child a household name and worthy of portrayal by Meryl Streep in the movie Julie and Julia (2009).
But before the fame and the TV show and the Cordon Bleu came the sole meunière. It’s a fish filet, usually pan fried and served with some brown butter sauce, a little lemon, and parsley. Nothing too fancy. But Julia ate a plate of sole meunière, and it propelled her to become one of America’s favorite French exports.
She wasn’t exactly French, mind you, but she’s probably the first American you think of when “France” comes up in a word association test. My Life in France is not only Julia’s memories of life in the culinary world, but her recollections of life in la Ville Lumière. More importantly, it’s her memories of Paul: his vivacity, his photography, his family. He sent detailed letters home to his twin brother nearly every week, and the memories and anecdotes contained within are what inspired Julia to begin writing. The book follows their love story from start to finish, as it details their initial encounter all the way up to his passing in 1994, and even the cover pays tribute.
The book is often sold as a memoir of French life or a chronology of Julia’s progress as a chef and star. But she’s writing not so much about food or country as she writes about love, and how it brings out the flavors of life. Paris was wonderful, and France was wonderful, but it was only wonderful because Paul was there, as were all of the people that helped her reach culinary success. And when they left France, life remained wonderful, not because she loved German cooking or Norwegian pickling, but because Paul was there, and with him she found the conviction to live a life just as daring as the task of mastering the art of French cooking.
Julia Child, on making potato pancakes: “When you flip anything, you really you just have to have the courage of your convictions, particularly if it’s sort of a loose mass, like this… Now, that didn’t go very well. See, when I flipped it, I didn’t have the courage to do it the way I should’ve. But you can always pick it up, and if you’re alone in the kitchen, who is going to see? But the only way you learn how to flip things is just to flip them.”