My family is hoping that I'll reread Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, maybe several times. They love it when I cook up a storm, and how could I do anything else as I learned about the fascinating, complicated, and long life of Julia Child? They don't need to worry, I'm planning to reread every page, maybe a couple of times, not only to hone in on the details but to savor again the delightful anecdotes that pepper the book and give full body to this amazing woman. Once was definitely not enough.
Author Bob Spitz had a singular advantage in writing this comprehensive biography—he knew Julia Child and travelled across Sicily with her in her eightieth year. Many of the stories he tells clearly came from Child herself. Spitz has combined this advantage with apparently flawless research into her papers and interviews with friends and family. It's heavy on details that are fascinating.
I love to cook, and Child has been a presence in my entire cooking life. Both her comprehensive yet approachable books and her always delightful and funny television series taught me, entertained me. I thought I knew her. But no.
I did not know that she came from a prominent and wealthy California family. Her father was not only rich, but a conservative snob who hated all things French. Ironic. (I was not surprised to learn that the grown Julia had some difficulties getting along with Dad.) I did not know that Julia was a Smith graduate who later regretted frittering away those four years on fun and a few drinks instead of study. I did not know that when she finished college she returned to her parents' home to be a good stay-at-home daughter. Not much ambition there.
I did know that finally, bored with inaction, she served in Asia for the Office of Strategic Services during the Second World War. I did not know that she hated her mostly clerical job but came to know and dearly love Paul Child for the rest of her life. After their marriage Paul's diplomatic career took them to Paris where everything changed. Julia who had never cooked much, and often with disastrous results (she once had several ducks explode in the oven when she failed to prick the skins), met food, met cooking, and met a new life. She studied at Cordon Bleu, made friends with two women who wanted to write a cookbook, and food history changed. Their efforts—mostly Julia's as it turned out—became Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
At this point, for a cooking enthusiast or for an eating enthusiast, this book picks up speed as it describes the amount of work going into the books, testing and retesting each recipe, making each recipe American cook-accessible (what about ketchup?), making the writing clear and understandable. Hours, months, years of hard work. Finally in 1961, an instant classic appeared to be followed by many more.
The delightful, seemingly spontaneous television shows involved the same painstaking preparation. The evidence is there on the end papers which are taken from scripts—one on Boeuf Bourguignon and one on omelets. Every step, every motion is right there—hours of work for each episode.
This book will delight and intrigue readers not only for the fine detail and great writing but also because of the enchanting personality of the subject. Even as she became and remained the renowned food doyenne, she stayed a fully human person (and cook). The only appetizer served at her house was a bowl of her favorite Goldfish. She thought Hellman's a dandy mayonnaise and that a microwaved potato was every bit as good as one fresh from the oven. Maybe better. Her dinner parties were not planned like her books or television appearances. It was all the better if the guests pitched in and did some of the kitchen duty themselves. What's important was having fun, good food, and good company.
August, 2012 marks the centennial year of Julia Child's birth. A great reason to have a party. I'm cooking up some pot au feu. Come on over!
The author of several biographies including the best selling The Beatles, Bob Spitz also wrote a juvenile book on the group, Yeah, Yeah, Yeah. His works appear regularly in many national publications. For more on this book and on Spitz visit his website.
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