book club: “my life in france” by julia child

My Life in FranceUntil 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.

Discussion Questions

(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?

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11 responses to “book club: “my life in france” by julia child

  1. Linda Pfeifer (Noelle's mom)

    I haven’t read the book, but after reading your blog, I intend to look for it. The most exquisite meal I ever had was at a lobster pound in Maine. I have eaten lobster in fancy restaurants, but none could compare to this. The lobster pound was a weathered building right on the water where you walk in and pick the lobster you want right out of the tank. Then they boil it along with some sweet corn, and serve it on a paper plate with melted butter and lots of napkins. Just before serving, they take a huge knife and cut the lobster down the center and also cut the claws, so there is no need for lobster crackers in order to get at the meat. Then you take your plate out into the gorgeous sun, where you sit at a picnic table by the water and eat the most delicious meal of your life! It’s worth the trip to Maine just for that.

    • Mmmm… that sounds like heaven! I think often the best meals are just that simple, rather than in a fancy restaurant or with a lot of extensive preparation. The ambiance sounds like it added a lot to the experience as well.

      You should participate in our August book club! I think you would be interested by the book, and it’s a quick read.

  2. I’m sorry that I didn’t read this 😦 I’m also out for next month b/c I hate Michael Pollan. He rubs me the wrong way. I’m such a pain in the ass

    • Patti- even though you don’t like Michael Pollan, maybe you should consider participating anyway, so we can have a lively debate! 🙂 Did you read one of his books that you didn’t like? I”ve read The Botany of Desire and In Defense of Food, both were good in different ways. TBOD was certainly less “political” and had more of a scientific bent.

  3. Guess I’ll go ahead and kick off with my thoughts… hope those of you who read it will join me soon.

    1. I don’t feel there was one defining moment for me like there was for Julia; rather, I’d say it was a series of discoveries that led me to be the food-lover I am today. (Maybe if I’d had a single meal as transportative as the sole meunière, I’d be a cookbook author already!)

    2. Although I have a huge amount of respect for the work that went into MtAoFC, it’s difficult for me to accept Julia’s point of view that good food requires a lot of hard work and huge quantities of time in order to be truly special. Nor do I appreciate a lot of fussiness in my food, whereas Julia was mad about garnishing and embellishing to the hilt. I probably would fall more into the Simca school of cooking- she seemed a bit more free-spirited. I definitely enjoy puttering around the kitchen to try something new if I have the luxury of a whole day free, but that’s so rare that I pretty much have to make do with simpler dishes.

    3. I don’t know anyone who has taken on a project anywhere near comparable to MtAoFC in terms of time and effort, whether or not they had a possibility of getting paid. Ironically, though, Julie Powell’s blog project (cooking all of the dishes in MtAoFC in a year) kind of had the same manic feel, and she did end up profiting in the end, although I think it was a happy accident.

    4. I sympathized with Julia in regards to her relationship with her father, and understood why she had a “no love lost” attitude towards him, but it was a bit sad. In particular, it was such a shame that he missed out on what an interesting person his daughter became, not to mention his failing to recognize her achievements. I know from experience that it can be difficult when a family member just doesn’t “get” your interests or lifestyle, but it made me feel fortunate that I’ve never experienced such an outright rejection as what she went through.

    5. I would have to say that my favorite part of the book was probably the beginning, because although I have been to Paris many times, it was fun to “discover” it through Julia’s words. I loved imagining the Paris of 1948, when Les Halles was still a funky, earthy wonderland of food, and when excellent meals could be had at virtually any neighborhood bistro for a song. However, the book kept my interest throughout, and I enjoyed the parts that take place at La Pitchoune when she talks about dinners with the local folks and visits from James Beard.

  4. 1. I can’t think of one instance in particular, but a funny one sticks out for a different reason. I once took a job at a chocolate shop and they sent me home with one of each (literally), because we had to be able to describe each one to the customer. It really made me pay attention to the subtle differences between the chocolate, and I think that was the beginning of awakening my palate. Then I did some tea testing for an independent woman-owned company, and her instructions were so specific and thorough, it just got me thinking more about food.

    2. I like to do both. But as far as learning about food, I want Food Network to bring back the real chefs! It isn’t hard to make something in 30 minutes, and pretty obvious too. If Rachel Ray makes one more “pasta version of her favorite dish,” I might scream. I miss Sara Moulton, Mario Batali, Gail Gand, and so on.

    3. I think it is remarkable that it got published considering the culture at the time. But in some ways, I think her cookbook transformed the culture. Think of what we could do if we put something similarly toiled over out into the world. I mean, you just never know. She knew it was important to do right even if it never sold, and I like that philosophy.

    4. I have a similar relationship with my own father, and the only thing that works for me is to communicate infrequently and live far away, just like Julia. Some people are just so set in their ways that not only will THEY never change, they are intolerable to be around if you don’t share their views. I just try to find common ground and brush off the bad feelings. But I really don’t think Julia could have or should have done more. It was her life to live, and live it she did!

    5. I just love the era where she is learning about cooking and food the first time in Paris. I love her fearlessness, and how she expects to learn something from everyone she meets (not just the “experts” at the school). I find her so inspiring!

    This is my second time reading the book. The first time, I was considering the culinary world for a career, and now it is just a hobby that takes a lot of my time and creative energy. I noticed more about her husband’s story, the non food parts, this time around, and just find it remarkable the life they lived together.

    I also had a dinner party last night at my house which was more of a potluck really – we had all read Julie & Julia and everyone was supposed to bring a dish they made from a Julia Child recipe. One woman who claims not to cook made a quiche for the first time, there was coq au vin, the impossible rice, and I made souffle l’orange. We all chose the recipes from Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which Julia is laboring over in My Life in France. I have to say that I would never have picked up the cookbook from the title, assuming French recipes would be mostly meat, and too rich.

    You really feel like Julia is right there in the kitchen with you, reassuring you that while it might not be “easy,” you can make anything by following her very clear steps and just taking the time and effort required, with amazing results. I need to add both volumes to my library, and try more of the recipes. I find it more enjoyable to cook with Julia, and I thought I liked to cook to begin with!

    • Thanks for your responses, Jenny! Your dinner party sounds great. We had a similar blogger potluck a few months ago, and that was my first time using MtAoFC. I agree about it never being a cookbook that I felt like I “needed”, but now wanting to add it to my library just based on reading about Julia. Also, I feel like those must be some recipes you can really trust, after the amount of testing and time that went into their creation.

  5. I read this last week and just remembered to post my review.

    1. Maybe not quite the same as Julia’s experience but food wise my most stand out moment is when my now husband took me out to a fancy dinner place on a dateI was 17. We decided to order some steaks to go all out. They asked how I liked it cooked and I had no clue since all meat was cooked well done at my house. They said medium rare is popular so I decided to try it. OMG it was amazing. I’ve never gone back to well cooked beef ever again. I didn’t realize beef could be so juicy and tender and melty (is that even a word? LOL)

    2.Honestly it all depends, on a day to day basis I like things that quick and easy, or at least where you can do all the prep ahead of time and just pull it out of the fridge to put it together. For familu dinners and speical occasions I will defintely take my time and turn out something amazing. I would love to be more towards Julia’s style but with having little kids I cannot be serving dinner anytime past 6 or the crankiness distroys my house.

    3.I couldn’t imagine doing something like this. I’m having a hard time knowing I need to go back to school and what to do about that. I’m sure that while it would have been upsetting if MtAoFC didn’t getting published like it did, Julie would have just said ok looked elsewhere and continued on. She was always saying in the book that she was doing it for her own research as much as for the book.

    4.I think she did ok. If her and Paul had to hide who they were from her father and step-mom just to have a good relationship with them, how is that a good relationship. Its sad but even though you have close bloodties with someone doesn’t mean that your lives are going to be anywhere near following the same paths. No one needs toxic people in their lives and its hard to let go.

    5.My favourite was when she started at the Cordon Blue. Her relationship with her teacher-chef was amazing. To be able to have someone who knows so much about the food and markets, and to be willing to give extra help and studies blows my mind. To read about the awakening she had once she was getting the hang of things was great. Makes me want to go to Paris and forget the tourist stuff.

  6. Okay – I read the book and even finished it on time… Life’s been getting in the way of a lot of projects lately and technology has not been my friend this last month… Hope you don’t mind the late response!

    1. My first meal that really made an impact on me would have to be the first time I made Canneloni… I found the recipe in an old cook book and without much (any) cooking experience I followed that recipe step by step (took me all day) and made homemade pasta, the tomato sauce, the meat filling, and the beschamel sauce… It was time-consuming – but I had never tasted something so fresh and perfect in my life.

    2. I think most people think they need the quick fix. I know that I certainly used to believe this. Quick and easy cooking and food so I can get back to my life. It was a revelation when I realized that I could incorporate that time in the kitchen with the rest of my life. At least once a week, the kids and I go into the kitchen together and cook a meal together. My 2-year old helps with pouring and measuring, my 14-year old helps with reading and sometimes takes over an entire component of the dish. With school starting back up in a few weeks, I still hope to set it up so that the kids can do homework/projects at the counter while I cook. This time together is so amazing… we actually have time to talk and connect while putting together dinner – without having to worry about whether it takes 30 minutes or 3 hours!

    3. I think that when one truly finds a passion in their lives, then, yes – they’ll put the energy into it – regardless of whether there is an expected payoff. One of my goals with my kids has been to expose them to a wide variety of activities – you never know what will spark that passion. Having found my love of food and cooking late in life (even a little later than Julia Child : ) I think this is extremely important. I have no idea what would have happened if I had been exposed to cooking earlier in life (cooking – not just heating : )

    4. This is a difficult question to answer… I need more time to think about this one… I have mixed responses.

    5. I was hooked early in the book – I think that is the stage of cooking I am at now – enjoying the food, experiencing new things… I was truly inspired by this part of the book.

    Jen

  7. I loved this book. I read it after Julie and Julia (which I thought was ok–in fact I liked the movie better). The whole time I was reading it I tried to figure out how to move to France and just cook and experience life.

    I do think people care about cooking the traditional way….and are figuring out how to do it. I have been cooking for my family and friends for years, but just started making my own pasta, freezing and canning, and have created a gourmet food club with 12 friends who all really love to cook (and eat).

    I hope that the slow food movement, the reality of the treatment of food (both poor treatment of animals and over processed treatment of everything else) is impacting more and more people and that we will take a minute to slow down and enjoy everything in life–our kids, our spouses, our work, our food.

    I have just about given up on TV and when I’m not cooking, I’m reading (as evidenced by my trashed house)…but I think it is a step in the direction of embracing life like Julia did–enjoying every moment.

  8. Thanks for the awesome book club questions which I will be using tonight for my first book club.

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