Tag Archives: Julie and Julia

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?

book review: “julie and julia”

julie-juliaThere are many theories on what makes people happy, and just as many (if not more) self-help books.  I should know; I worked in a bookstore, and had to shelve books with titles such as “Crappy to Happy” and “Learning to Love Yourself”.  But the only one of these theories that I ever thought actually made sense was outlined in a book called Flow.  The premise is that we are at our happiest when pursuing an activity or goal that is neither too easy nor too difficult, but which offers us a challenge and a focus.

Julie Powell probably never read Flow, but she innately understood that she needed a challenge to lift her out of the doldrums.  Her job as a secretary was unsurprisingly  unfulfilling, and she was angsty over the thought of her approaching 30th birthday. The challenge she undertook, for anyone unfamiliar with the book, was to cook every recipe in Julia Child‘s Mastering the Art of French Cooking, Vol. 1 in a year, and to blog about the experience.  As she made her way through “The Project”, she gained readers who cheered her on, and also gained a strange sort of strength which propelled her forward, even when she felt she wanted to throw in the tea-towel.

Julie & Julia came out a few years ago when I was still working at the bookstore, and I didn’t read it then, partly based on a co-worker’s review that it “wasn’t that great”.  However, when we decided to have a MtAoFC theme for a recent blogger event, I picked it up from the library out of curiosity.  A fellow blogger had commented that she was turned off by the author’s voice, and I can’t say I totally blame her- she tends towards shrill and whiny at times, and when she describes certain hissy fits, you wonder how her saintly-sounding husband doesn’t crack and either lose his temper or walk out.  But, as with most memoirs, I’d like to think there is some creative exaggeration going on (and I’d be lying if I said that I haven’t occasionally had similar fits of frustration in the kitchen). That said, the book isn’t always whiny, of course, and there are parts where Powell displays a keen wit and sarcasm.

I found the book entertaining despite the occasional hysteria over a failed crêpe or what-have-you, and I had respect verging on awe for someone who found the energy to shop for and cook a full meal several times a week after working all day and commuting from the outer boroughs.  I also identified with someone who, although smart and capable, found herself dissatisfied with the fact that life is not all she thought it would be, and wonders how to save herself from dull oblivion.  I don’t know that cooking would work for everyone, but it certainly worked for her, with the completely unexpected results of getting national attention and press, a book deal, and even a movie deal.

One thing I rather liked about Julie is that although she took on a cooking project, she didn’t seem particularly like a “foodie” (prior to the Project, she had never even eaten an egg!!), and I don’t think she ever considered her blog a “food blog”. I almost got the impression that the challenge could have been anything, like building a model replica of Westminster Abbey, or memorizing all the plays of Shakespeare.  She does develop a reverence for Julia Child, though, and the passages in the book where she imagines Julia’s life are the most well-written.  I actually got a little teary-eyed when reading how, at the end of the Project, someone tells her that Julia Child has heard of what she is doing and has a negative opinion of her; it must have been heartbreaking.

In the end, regardless of the elder Julia’s opinion, Julie Powell has the last laugh.  She was able to quit her job as a secretary, and is now a full-fledged freelance writer (check out her post-Project blog here).   It just goes to show that the most important catalyst for change is movement; you never know when a project intended to save your sanity could end up opening up a world of unexpected possibility.