The phrase “reading for pleasure” takes on a different meaning for every reader. Some choose mysteries; others go for romance or biography or a particular author. For the past few years, one of my favorite escapist reading choices hasn’t been an author or a genre, but a subject: Julia Child. Her life and work make for reading that I, for one, find irresistible: cooking and eating, Paris, true love, international intrigue and the triumph of perseverance. Plus, there’s Julia herself, the force of nature, the exuberant soul whose wit and charm belied a work ethic of steel. Julia, who told legions of fans that of course they could cook haute French cuisine, and who counseled them to take courage in the kitchen. Julia, who, more than any single individual, transformed the way we think about food.
Even now, eight years after her death at age 91, Juliaphiles like me want more. And lucky for us, the past few years have seen the publication of a shelf full of books about Julia. Since the 1999 publication of Noel Riley Fitch’s 592-page doorstop of a biography, Appetite for Life, there have been at least nine volumes devoted to Julia’s life and times, including her own posthumously published memoir, My Life in France. And while they all cover the same waterfront, they’re all different enough to make engrossing and pleasurable reading.
The most comprehensive of these is Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child, by Bob Spitz, published by Knopf late last year. Spitz writes that he got to know Julia when he accompanied her to Sicily in 1992. He was on assignment to write about her and emerged from the experience with a crush on the lively septuagenarian: “She was exactly like her TV persona… warm, funny, outgoing, whip-smart, incorrigible and most of all, real.”
The two talked about a biography, but Spitz had other projects and did not start on Dearie until after Julia’s death. I must admit that it took me a while to love this book. In the early chapters, Spitz sometimes takes a portentous tone, endowing simple events with great meaning. Example: in kindergarten, Julia McWilliams learned to follow rules and listen to instructions, which Spitz notes are “prerequisites for following a recipe.” One wonders at the other five-year-old rule-followers who did not go on to culinary careers. But that’s just a quibble, and for the most part, it’s fun to follow Julia’s life from her youth in conservative Pasadena, California; through her wartime service in Asia (where she met her future husband, Paul Child); to their years in Paris and elsewhere in Europe (where she learned to cook and began her groundbreaking book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking); to her days of cookbook and TV stardom and beyond. Along the way, he offers snapshots of nearly a century of history—turn-of-the-century California; World War II in Washington, D.C. and the Pacific theater; postwar Europe; the early days of public television; and the evolution of the food scene in America.
Julia told her own story in a memoir that came out not long after her death. My Life in France (Knopf, 2006) was written with Paul’s grandnephew Alex Prud’homme, and it is a beauty. The pair worked on the book during the last two years of Julia’s life, with Prud’homme interviewing her, writing up what she had said and giving it to her for editing. Julia recalls her days not only in Paris (where Paul was stationed with the State Department), but in Marseille, (his next assignment) and in Provence, where they had a vacation home. Forty or fifty years after the fact, she recalls individual meals and how she cooked them, as well as the people she shared them with. It’s both sweet and frank, a graceful memoir of food, work and her years with the man she adored in a land they both loved.
Julia and Paul’s wartime experience has been recounted many times, but never in as much detail as in A Covert Affair: Julia Child and Paul Child in the OSS by Jennet Conant (Simon and Schuster, 2011). This book is as much about Julia and Paul as it is about an all-but-forgotten-but-once-notorious woman named Jane Foster. The three met during the war when they were stationed in what was then Ceylon, working in the Office of Strategic Services, the intelligence unit that was the precursor to the CIA. Foster left government service shortly after the war, disillusioned by a leadership who ignored her on-the-scene observations of revolution in Asia. She went to France to pursue her painting, but during the McCarthy years, her leftist ties led to her being investigated by the State Department and the FBI. She was eventually indicted on charges of espionage, but never tried because France did not extradite for such charges. (The evidence seems to have been pretty flimsy, at that.) Paul was investigated too, but he was exonerated, while Foster was hounded by the U.S. government and the press for years. Connent tells a sad but fascinating tale of what Julia herself later called “a disgusting era.”
A happier story is told in As Always, Julia: The Letters of Julia Child and Avis DeVoto: Food, Friendship and the Making of a Masterpiece (Houghton Mifflin, 2010). Joan Reardon, a food historian who has written on M.F.K. Fisher, was the editor of this volume, and she has done a wonderful job of selecting and judiciously annotating the correspondence of these two friends. They met by mail in 1952, when Julia sent a fan letter to Avis DeVoto’s husband, the historian and writer Bernard DeVoto. He had written a column bemoaning the poor quality of kitchen knives and Julia sent him a good one from Paris. Avis DeVoto, who handled her husband’s correspondence, wrote back, launching a friendship-by-mail that lasted for years and resulted in the publication of Mastering; it was Avis DeVoto who made the introductions that eventually got the book published. Reading this book is pure pleasure; sixty years later, the two women’s voices dance off the page as they exchange notes on cooking and recipes, husbands, politics, and the progress of the book, which took years to complete. You’ll enjoy meeting the dynamic DeVoto, and if you want to know what Julia was like in private, in her own voice, this is the book to read.
Another angle on the Julia story can be found in Backstage with Julia: My Years with Julia Child by Nancy Verde Barr (John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 2007). The book chronicles a later period in Julia’s life, some twenty years after the publication of Mastering, when Julia had been a TV star for nearly two decades. They met in 1980, when Barr was running cooking schools and raising her family. A friend asked her to help with a Planned Parenthood benefit where Julia would be doing a cooking demo; the two women clicked and Barr joined Julia’s team of assistant cooks, working with her on Good Morning America, traveling with her, and forging a friendship that lasted until Julia’s death. Barr is an engaging writer (and a wonderful cookbook author in her own right) and this slender book adds another perspective to the Julia canon.
There are even two children’s books about Julia Child, both beautifully illustrated and full of charm. Bon Appetit! The Delicious Life of Julia Child, written and illustrated by Jessie Hartland (Schwartz & Wade, 2012) offers up Julia’s life in storyboard form, with multiple hand-lettered pictures spilling from each page. Beguiling scenes of Paris and of Julia in her kitchen with Paul accompany the familiar story, which ends with Julia’s first TV show. Minette’s Feast: The Delicious Story of Julia Child and her Cat, written by Susanna Reich and illustrated by Amy Bates (Abrams Books for Young Readers, 2012) tells Julia’s story from the point of view of her cat, Minette. Reich’s cat’s-eye-view narrative and Bates’ haunting pictures of Paris nicely capture Julia’s years there. Young readers will surely enjoy these two books (my daughter and niece did), but I can’t help thinking that their elders—who remember Julia in her heyday—will enjoy them even more.
There’s actually another whole book devoted to Julia’s feline obsession. Julia’s Cats: Julia Child’s Life in the Company of Cats by Patricia Barry and Therese Burson was published by Abrams in 2012. This is, contrary to what you might expect, a serious biography, and it tells Julia’s story with an emphasis on the cats that joined her household over the years. (Minette was the first of many.) If you are both cat lover and a Juliaphile (like me) this book is, um, sheer catnip.
Laura Shapiro is one of the nation’s preeminent food historians, so it makes sense that she has weighed in with a book of her own. Julia Child, part of the Penguin Lives series (Lipper/Viking, 2007), is beautifully written volume that tells the story of Julia’s life and sums up her place in American food history and popular culture. “Julia Child,” she writes, “was unlike any other celebrity in America…what was unique about Julia was the quality of emotion she inspired, which was remarkably direct and pure. Julia attracted love, torrents of it, a steady outpouring of love that began with the first pilot episode of The French Chef and continued through and beyond her death.”
Which I suppose is why, years after her passing, we’re still reading about Julia—and enjoying every page.
This post was originally published at http://www.booktrib.com