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How she mastered the Art of French Cooking

When I grew up there was always a weighty tome, a two volume cookbook that stood in the bottom cupboard in the service room among other cookbooks and foodie magazines. It was always consulted on special occasions, but more often than not it was put away again because of the vast, expansive, almost encyclopaedic length of the recipes. But when there was time and effort put in and one of the recipes were used, we could be sure of the astounding result of the meal that awaited us. Those of you who have any knowledge of French cooking, and cookbooks on French cuisine bourgeois in particular, know exactly what I’m talking about by now. And, more importantly, whom I talk about. This is a tribute to the marvellous Julia Child and her little gem of a book My life in France.

I guess I really should write about Julia Child’s cookbooks, and in particular Mastering the Art of French Cooking. However, so much needs to go into a post like that that I simply don’t have the time right now. Maybe another day, but not today. If you’re a serious foodie I’m sure you know enough on the subject anyway.

My life in France is a sweet little gem of a book co-written with her husband Paul’s nephew Alex Prud’homme in 2004/2005. It was finished in the year after her death with the help of all the letters she and Paul had written from the 1940s through to his death in the early 1990s, and hours of taped and written down conversations between Alex Prud’homme and Julia in her house in Montecito, California. What’s so wonderful about the book is the honesty to life and the serious love of food and France she manages to convey between the carefully handled lines written by Alex Prud’homme. If you saw the movie Julie & Julia earlier this year you will recognise a lot of the content since this is the book that is the background to the biographical parts of the film where Meryl Streep plays Julia Child. If you haven’t seen it, it’s worth watching the movie for her unsurpassed characterisation alone.

Something else that is striking about the book is that it isn’t just on Julia Child and her way to greatness. It is more concerned with telling the story about how she and her husband Paul enjoyed, discovered and loved in their adopted new home country, how they struggled finding decent places to live in Paris and around France just after the Second World War. How it was damp, cold, hard to find anywhere that was insulated enough, had working gas heaters, running water inside etc. Paul Child’s photos describe this beautifully. He was a truly talented artist with an avid interest in photography. Not just pictures of Julia and her cookery-bookery (as she called it) life is included, there are also a fair amount of beautiful pictures from Paris, Marseille and the trips they did together around La Belle France. One is also taken on the journey of the struggles she and her colleagues Simone Beck (affectionately called Simca after a cheap, tiny and not very reliable Renault car she drove) and Louisette Bertholle had with getting their masterpiece of a cookbook published at all. Numerous publishers said no and others wanted it to be shortened and abbreviated into virtual nothingness. Luckily for us today they were proud and said no to silly suggestions like that and waited until they found someone who wanted to publish it in its entirety.  If they hadn’t carried on with their quest to educate the American housewife in cooking proper food, we would have lost an all-important link to the greatest food tradition in Europe, if not in the World.

The courses Julia Child took at Le Cordon Bleu in the 1950s’ might not haven been worth much, but the chefs she met there, and who recognised her enthusiasm and took her under their culinary wings, was the last living links to the great tradition of the French cuisine bourgeois. The chapters where she describes how chef Max Bugnard takes her to his favourite butchers, fish mongers and vegetable stalls in Les Halles and teaches her to recognise this, that and the other are just amazingly inspiring! They also make me furious that I will never be able to visit Les Halles, this mysterious, today unreachable food Mecca with its weird personalities and fascinating stall holders. And most importantly, what wouldn’t I give to have had the opportunity to taste the famous soupe a l’oignon first hand.

Maybe, though, this is part of the mystery and beauty that surrounds the French cuisine and its reputation that makes it so alluring. The lost connection with the chefs and the now partly lost tradition of manual cooking and how to recognize good produce thanks to the enormous supermarkets that have turned the village markets into a novelty too expensive to be frequented by anyone else than tourists. Would it be better to be back to how it was? Probably not. I’m a romantic born and bred, but even I can see the advantages of a society that have advanced from privies, no running water inside and rats in the kitchen. Still, if you want a touch of La Vieille France, Julia Child’s book is a must. If you’re a serious French foodie, you can’t live without having read it.

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