The act of reading ... begins on a flat surface, counter or page, and then gets stirred and chopped and blended until what we make, in the end, is a dish, or story, all our own.
— Adam Gopnik

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July 31, 2011

Her Life in France

Laura Shapiro's short biography of Julia Child was one of the most memorable books I read last year, no so much because it was a great book (very good, if not great), but because Julia Child was such an incredibly interesting woman. I loved reading about her approach to 'cookery-bookery,' most of all, but it was also moving to read about her marriage and even the difficulties (an understatement) and dissatisfactions her husband Paul experienced in his career in foreign service. All of which left me wanting to read more.

When a new book comes out that I can't wait to read, I do one of two things: I put in on reserve at the library, and read it as soon as it's available, or I buy a copy and let it sit on my bookshelves for a few months, or a year, or two... It's silly. I think I should officially adopt my strange habit of buying books that I want to own after I read them. That way, I get to them sooner, and own the pearls. On the other hand, I'd miss out on the joy of delayed gratification.... Hmmm.

My Life in France, written with her grand-nephew Alex Prud'homme, fell into the second basket (owned but not read), and I felt like I was giving myself a present when I decided that I would finally, finally read it for the end of Paris in July. It's a perfect book to read for pleasure, just to sink into, especially when some of the stories that she tells are familiar (the first meal in France, her experiences at Le Cordon Bleu, the cooking school, her working relationship with Simone Beck, the rejection and then publication of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, the postings to Marseille, Bonn, and Norway, the strange investigation into her husband, the first television shows), and you're in the lovely comfort zone of hearing them again. Some of them were new to me, too, including her friendship with Hadley and Bumby Hemingway. And you can just sink into the meals, too...

'No more guests!' Paul and I said to each other, slumping into our chairs, once Patricia had left. 'We need peace and quiet.' ... But the summer solstic was approaching, and as we imagined the Norwegians getting drunk and lighting fires along the edges of their fjords, we decided to celebrate in our own way. ...
      We started our evening off with iced Clos des Goisses champagne, which Paul served in the big bubbly-glass goblets that we'd bought in Biot, the local glassmaking town. The first course was tomates farcis a la pistouille: tomatoes stuffed with chopped eggplant, fresh tomato pulp, basil and garlic. A poached egg sat on top, like a queen on her throne. Underneath was a lettuce leaf, and the dish was surrounded by freshly made mayonnaise. With this we served a lovely Chablis, Fourchaume 1964. (Paul had just discovered this juice at the Cannes supermarche, of all places, and it was better than any Chablis we'd had before.)
      From there we moved on to un feuilleton de boeuf en croute, a beef tenderloin in a pastry crust. Inspired by our loup de croute, this dish was like a beef Wellington, only it substituted the more handsome, delicious and non-damply dumpling brioche crust for puff pastry. The tenderloin was sliced into about fifteen pieces and sauced with a heavenly mixture of duxelle of mushrooms, ham, foie gras, shallots and Madeira; then the whole was wrapped in brioche and baked. Each slice was served with a bit of crust and stuffing, and spooning of sauce. An important dish, our boeuf was served with the non-distracting pommes Anna fromages and pointes d'asperges sautees a la chinoise. ...
      For dessert we had a so-called pouding pelerin, made of ground toasted almonds, kirsch and apricots with creme anglaise in a mold lined with lady fingers toasted in butter and sugar; the whole covered by a sauce puree aux fraises et franboises. (The dessert name refers to the pelerin, the old pilgrims who stuffed their pockets with nonperishables like dried apricots and almonds.) Our pouding was accompanied by the nectarlike Chateau d'Yquem 1962.... At about 1:30 a.m., the party broke up. What a splendid evening.

even if you could never dream of eating them. {Though no one could blame you if you're dying to know what that fish tastes like. And no one could blame you, either, if you have to, just have to, get up from the computer in the middle of quoting these paragraphs to put your 'non-distracting' leftover pasta in the microwave and pour yourself a glass of not very 'nectarlike' iced tea to go with it. Or if you promise yourself that one day, come what may, you'll find a way to use the adjectives 'non-distracting' or 'nectarlike' or, especially,  'non-damply dumpling' to describe something you've cooked.}

It didn't mar my enjoyment of the book (I loved reading it), but there was something that felt just a little ghost-written in the writing here. The story of how the book was written (told in the foreward) explains a lot of this, and it's all upfront, and I thought very interesting. Alex Prud'homme writes he had long wanted to collaborate with Julia, and that '[his job] was to help Julia tell her story, but it wasn't always easy.' The idea for a memoir had been 'gestating' since 1969, when Paul Child found the hundreds of letters that he and Julia had written to Paul's brother Charlie (Alex's grandfather) during their early years in France, but the work on this book didn't really begin until about nine months before Julia died. He writes that 'almost all of the words in these pages are Julia's or Paul's,' but that in writing 'expositions and transitions,' he 'tried to emulate Julia's idiosyncratic word choices -- 'Plop!,' 'Yuck!,' 'Woe!,' 'Hooray!' I think that comes across a little, but it's also clear that she was engaged in the process, as much as she could be, and that the collaboration must have been such an amazing experience. Together, they did a wonderful job of evoking Julia and Paul's surroundings, and their daily lives, and Julia's growing interest in food and cooking, and we're lucky to have her voice, with his gifted help, in these pages.


JoAnn said...

This was one of my favorite books last year. Reading your thoughts brought back happy memories - thanks!

Karen K. said...

I just finished this a few days ago -- loved it! But wow, so much butter!

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