Monday, April 10, 2006 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

How Julia Child became The French Chef

The Associated Press

"My Life in France"
by Julia Child with Alex Prud'homme
Knopf, 317 pp., $25.95

Julia Child's memoir "My Life in France" is really a love story: a couple's love for each other, and Child's love for a country and its cuisine.

The book is not so much written as it is told: Her grandnephew and co-author, Alex Prud'homme, has put together these autobiographical stories from his conversations with her as well as from the numerous letters written by Child (who died in 2004) and her husband when they lived in France.

The result captures her charm, warmth and, above all, her determined and robust spirit.

Julia Child has become such a culinary icon that it is surprising to learn she came from a family of ordinary cooks. She says, "As a girl I had zero interest in the stove."

The book begins and ends with her recalling her first meal upon arriving in France in 1948. The dish was sole meuniere, "a large, flat Dover sole that was perfectly browned in a sputtering butter sauce with a sprinkling of chopped parsley on top." She refers to this in her closing paragraph as a "life-changing experience."

In France, she discovers that food is central to life, and she gleefully recounts the rarefied expertise of chefs and purveyors of meats, fish, cheeses, fruits and vegetables. In a creamery, the owner asks her what time the Camembert she orders will be served — and Child marvels at the woman's "ability to calibrate a cheese's readiness down to the hour."

She also recalls a dinner of duck, which has been "killed by being smothered, so as to keep the blood inside the body (an example of the lengths the French will go to for a special meal)."

Child notes with pleasure that "Parisian restaurants were very different from American eateries. It was such fun to go into a little bistro and find cats on chairs, poodles under the tables or poking out of women's bags, and chirping birds in the corner."

But "My Life in France" is more than an account of her increasing obsession with food. The book tracks her marriage to Paul Child, his work for the State Department, and their struggle to make a life together abroad. She traces her growth as a cook but always links it to the jobs they held, and their family and friends, so there is a human backdrop to her culinary saga.

She does not shy from politics and comments with her characteristic bluntness on the McCarthy hearings of the 1950s and the Eisenhower administration. "Ike was just not inspiring," she writes. "I got nothing but a hollow feeling from his utterances, as if Pluto the dog were suddenly making human noises."

A major part of the book is the story of the writing of her groundbreaking book, "Mastering the Art of French Cooking." The manuscript went through years of research and rejection before being published in 1961 to universal acclaim. On receiving a deeply disappointing negative response from a major publisher who had encouraged her, she writes:

"I wasn't feeling sorry for myself. I had gotten the job done, I was proud of it. ... Besides, I had found myself through the arduous writing process. Even if we were never able to publish our book, I had discovered my raison d'être in life."

This is a very touching moment, described without self-pity and with almost heroic determination.

The great achievement of "My Life in France" is Prud'homme's capturing of Child's voice. Anyone who has heard her on television will immediately recognize the frank, jovial and embracing tone.

He brings to life her self-effacing character and her generosity toward others but also another, even rarer quality: her extraordinary cheerfulness. She comes across as a truly optimistic person, accepting life's reversals and pitfalls without complaint, and one feels that this optimism has somehow resulted in things turning out for the best.

That quality, of accepting life's setbacks, also came through when she filmed her public-television series "The French Chef." She didn't like to pause and make corrections.

"Our viewers would learn more if we let things happen as they tend to do in life — with the chocolate mousse refusing to unstick from its mold, or the apple charlotte collapsing. One of the secrets, and pleasures, of cooking is to learn to correct something if it goes awry; and one of the lessons is to grin and bear it if it cannot be fixed."

In "My Life in France," we hear Julia Child with all the intimacy and warmth with which she spoke to her family and friends.

Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company


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