Until fairly recently, I have to confess that my familiarity with Julia Child was pretty minimal. I vaguely recall seeing snippets of the French Chef on PBS (you can watch some of the episodes here), and when Dan Aykroyd lampooned Julia on Saturday Night Live, I sort of got it, but that was about the extent of my exposure. A few months ago, I read Julie and Julia, and in that book there are interludes where the author imagines scenes from Julia Child’s life. This prompted me to want to learn more, so I picked up My Life in France. The bulk of the book takes place from 1948-1954, during which time Julia lived in Paris and Marseilles and began the decade-long journey that would culminate in her book Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
Julia had lived overseas before, working for the government in such places as Ceylon (where she met Paul Child) and Kunming, but when she and her husband moved to France just after WWII, Julia experienced a feeling she’d never had before- the feeling of finding one’s spiritual home. She grew up in Pasadena, CA, but never felt she fit into the bland, conservative culture there. In France, Julia was able to truly blossom and find what would turn out to be her calling.
What struck me the most while reading this book was Julia’s endless reserves of energy and enthusiasm. Most people would have been content to just take a few cooking classes, enough to prepare them for cooking everyday meals at home and the occasional dinner party. Julia became a woman obsessed, determined to not only learn all aspects of classical French cuisine, but to share her knowledge with all of America. The sheer amount of man-hours that went into all of the recipe testing and writing for MtAoFC boggles the mind. Even with a co-author, the book took well over 10 years to complete, and certainly not for any lack of motivation or work ethic. But despite her dedication, she seemed to balance it all with a sense of humor and adventure. Her infectious joie de vivre permeates the book, making the reader feel as if they are a backseat passenger on Julia’s crazy joyride of a life.
Regardless of whether you even like to cook, Julia’s memoir is inspiring for all those who would dream of making a career out of your passion. It’s true that the 1950s was a different time, and having the luxury of unlimited free time and resources would be an uncommon situation in today’s world. However, not everyone in her position went on to write a bestselling cookbook and have their own TV show, so clearly Julia’s intrepid spirit and boundless ambition are to thank for her eventual success.
(Note: The discussion questions are intended to be a springboard for conversation and comments. However, if there are other aspects of the book that you would like to touch on, by all means do so!)
1. Julia’s first meal in France (Sole Meunière) was transformative. She recalls it in the book with great detail, calling it “the most exciting meal of my life”. Do you have any one meal that stands out in your memory like this? Was it simply because the food was exquisite, or is it tied to another experience that made it particularly special?
2. Nowadays, with the popularity of celebrity chefs such as Rachel Ray touting “30-minute meals”, is Julia Child obsolete? Do you think people care anymore about the art of cooking and making something truly oustanding, or are most people looking for the “quick fix”? Where do you fall on the spectrum, and why?
3. For several years, Julia spent enormous amounts of time and energy writing the cookbook that would become Mastering the Art of French Cooking, despite having no assurances that the book would ever be published. Can you imagine undertaking such an enormous endeavor, not knowing if your efforts would ever bear fruit? Do you feel that this type of dedication is a vanishing quality in our society, or have you or someone you know ever undertaken a similar project not knowing whether there would be a payoff?
4. Julia describes her father and stepmother as being somewhat small-minded and not at all interested in “experiencing” France in the way she did. Her father’s conservative attitude was a constant source of chagrin for her, and she never felt close to him because of it. Do you feel she should have made more of an effort, or was she right to give up on him and keep her distance? Why do you think her father was threatened by Julia’s choice of husband and lifestyle?
5. The memoir covers several periods in Julia’s life, from the time she arrives in France to her later years at La Pitchoune. What was your favorite part of the book or of Julia’s story, and why?