Add One Part Julia and Stir: Julia Child’s Rules

Julia_Child_at_KUHTI’ve written in the past that books about Julia Child are among mysecret reading pleasures, but I was skeptical when I heard about Karen Karbo’s Julia Child Rules: Lessons on Savoring Life (Skirt!/Globe Pequot Press). It sounded like yet another gimmicky coat-tails kind of project, like the blog-book-movie phenomenon, Julie and Julia.

I must admit that I enjoyed Julie Powell’s account of her year of cooking every recipe in Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking; it’s a funny, engaging, stylishly written page-turner. But there’s a quality about it that’s so anti-Julia—an edge of smugness and a positively Seinfeldian lack of compassion for, well, humanity. In the first chapter of the book, Powell encounters a mentally ill homeless person on her way home from a bad day at work and casually refers to her as “the loon” half a dozen times in the anecdote that follows.  (No milk of human kindness wasted by our Julie, that’s for sure.)

As the Julie-Julia blog project went viral, Julia, then in her 90s, was reported to have made clear that that she didn’t much care for it; she thought it was a stunt and objected to Powell’s use of foul language. For me, it was that soupçon of insensitivity bubbling up here and there in the book that left me with a bad aftertaste. Julia Child was many things—a maverick, obsessive, irreverent, a lover of practical jokes—but (judging from all those biographies I’ve read) she wasn’t mean.

Julia Child Rules book coverSo, like I said, I was feeling skeptical when I opened Karbo’s book, but after the first few pages, that feeling had evaporated completely. Karbo has written a hybrid volume that is part biography, part memoir and part inspirational manual that uses Julia’s life as its template. In ten chapters, each titled with a numbered “rule,” she interweaves bits of Julia’s now-familiar (to fans) history, with a moral about her approach to living. (Rule No. 1: Live with Abandon. Rule No. 2: Play the Emperor. Rule No. 3: Learn to be Amused. And so on.)

In between, Karbo tells about her own life, her relationship with her mother (an early Julia devotee who faithfully cooked Julia’s recipes every night for dinner) and her relationship with food, cooking and balancing all the expectations and obligations of modern womanhood. That sounds like heavy stuff, but it isn’t at all. Karbo writes with a painterly eye for detail and a gag-writer’s ear for a punchline. Here’s her memory of what it was like to wait each night for her mother’s Julia-inspired creation to come to the table:

My mother would be standing at the stove, wearing a pair of Capri pants and a short-sleeved cotton shirt (not unlike those worn by Julia on The French Chef) smoking her Viceroy and stirring. The kitchen smelled of onions and butter, or garlic and butter, or what I know now to have been wine and butter. I’d ask when we were going to eat, and she would say soon. But it didn’t mean soon. It meant whenever she was finished stirring.  … We usually ate around eight-thirty. I had finished my homework hours earlier and some important TV show was inevitably on at that very moment. I had long since stopped being hungry and had entered the state where your body starts digesting its own organs to stay alive.      

You and your inner adolescent can’t help but laugh along in sympathy, even if your mother (like mine) never attempted Tranches de Jambon Morvandelle— at twelve, whose view of the world matches her mother’s? And then, two chapters later, having been thoroughly drawn into the domestic scene Karbo creates, your inner adolescent just might find herself sobbing when the author recalls her mother’s death from a brain tumor at the age of 46, and her last Julia-inspired birthday meal for her apathetic daughter.

If Karbo had only written a memoir of her own life, this would have been a charmer of a book, but it is more than that. That’s because Karbo interprets Julia through a fresh, decidedly feminist lens. Others have written about how Julia’s height of six feet, two inches put a damper on her social prospects, and how she languished, rich but purposeless, until World War II. Then, so the story goes, her wartime service with U.S. intelligence forces in Asia occasioned a fateful meeting with the man who was to be love of her life, Paul Child, who didn’t care that she was a whole lot taller than he was.

This is all undoubtedly true, but Karbo puts a different spin on Julia’s height. Her chapter titled “Play the Emperor” refers not only to the roles Julia always got in the amateur theatricals that she loved, but also to the approach to life that she evolved in those years. The tallest girl in the room never got cast as the princess or the ingénue; she was always the lion or the emperor. In Karbo’s telling, instead of accepting her lot with the outward grace of a good sport, Julia enthusiastically embraced it, and came to revel in the opportunities if afforded her to steal the show.

From this, Karbo extrapolates a rule for living: Play the Emperor. And she explains: “A woman as tall as Julia could never be transformed by a new dress or a tube of lipstick. No makeover would ever make over the part of her that failed to comply with traditional standards of feminine beauty.” Karbo finds inspiration in Julia’s resilience: “Her practical nature asserted itself, and she realized she had a choice. ‘Why languish as a giantess when it is so much fun to be a myth,’ [Julia] …wrote in her diary. She may have been whistling in the dark, or practicing a sassy attitude, but she seemed to have understood even then that a girl could choose to behave in a way that would distinguish her.”

Karbo ends the chapter concluding, “I’m not saying you’re fine the way you are. Julia, certainly, for her time, was not ‘fine’ the way she was. Instead, by embracing all that she was, she redefined fine.”

I wouldn’t exactly say that Julia Child Rules “redefines” Julia, but it does offer up fresh perspectives on our beloved food diva—and maybe even on ourselves. And that’s no gimmick. It’s just a darn good read.

This post originally appeared on booktrib.com

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Bon Appetit: A Reader’s Guide For Julia Child Fans

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.      

dearie

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.

my life in france

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.

covertJulia 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.”

As AlwaysA 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.

backstage with JuliaAnother 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.

minetteThere 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, Bon Ap picture book2012) 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.

cats

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 book hardcoverLaura 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