I spent the summer of 1987 in Paris, studying beginning French at the Sorbonne and staying at the Cité Universitaire, in a program geared toward older students. Some of them wanted to take a cooking class, and the Sorbonne organized it for them. They needed one more student to make it go, and I was browbeaten into filling the empty space.
Understand, I was raised on the five Alaskan staples of Spam, Bisquik, Velveeta, pilot bread and Carnation Instant Milk. If we didn’t get our moose that year we didn’t eat meat, except on my birthday, when I got pork chops no matter what. We got all the salmon and king crab we could eat for free. The salmon was mostly fried. The crab was mostly boiled. The first fresh milk I ever drank was in college. The first real cheese, same. Remember those Kraft Cracker Barrel packages of four logs of four different kinds? Until then I thought I hated cheese.
So at the time I went to this cooking school, my most complicated prepared meal was a hamburger. Claudine, our chef, went around the class, asking where we were from, and when I said Alaska her eyes lit up. “Alaska,” she said, “sauvage…” and made up a roux for wild game on the spot just for me.
I’ve been playing catchup in the kitchen ever since. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to discover Julia Child.
This book is the story of her life in France, from the first oyster in Rouen to the last pot roast at La Pitchoune in Provence. It’s a love story, of her marriage with Paul Child, who is about the most intelligent, charming man I’ve ever met between the covers of a book. It’s a voyage of discovery into French cuisine, into the science of cooking, into collaborating on and writing a cookbook, or any book for that matter. And it’s a mesmerizing walk through Paris looking over Julia’s shoulder. The first year she says
By now I knew that French food was it for me. I couldn’t get over how absolutely delicious it was. Yet my friends, both French and American, considered me some kind of a nut: cooking was far from being a middle-class hobby, and they did not understand how I could possibly enjoy doing all the shopping and cooking and serving by myself. Well, I did! And Paul encouraged me to ignore them and pursue my passion.
(You’ll remember what I said about Paul being intelligent and charming.)
The how-to portion of this book is fascinating. French ingredients are different from American ingredients and the French learn cooking by watching, not reading recipes, so Julia would take the recipes of her French collaborators and translate them and the ingredients and the measurements of the ingredients into something an American cook could, first, buy the ingredients for in America, and second, understand and recreate. And then she’d test them and test them and test them and test them again, and she and Paul would eat them and eat them and eat them and eat them again until it was foolproof enough to unleash upon American cooks. “No one is born a great cook,” she says, “one learns by doing.”
In between they’d drive around France and eat in great restaurants. In a more perfect world I would have been their child.
She concludes with a remembrance of that first, marvelous meal in Rouen
…the sole meuniere I ate at La Couronne on my first day in France, in November 1948. It was an epiphany.
In all the years since that succulent meal, I have yet to lose the feelings of wonder and excitement that it inspired in me. I can still almost taste it. And thinking back on it now reminds me that the pleasures of the table, and of life, are infinite — toujours bon appetit!”
I gotta say, I got a little teary at the end of this book. And I just ordered my first ever copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking. Both volumes.
Author and founder of Storyknife.org.