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Reading Julia Child

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I mentioned in early July reading the New Yorker piece on Nora Ephron — which gave a lot of attention to the not-yet-released movie Julie and Julia — and then ordering Julia Child’s memoir My Life in France, only to discover that Gail had bought it when it came out in 2006. So we have two copies, one hardcover and one paperback. I started it a few days ago, reading just a few pages each night, but finished it in a rush last night as I got swept along by the question of how her first book, Mastering the Art of French Cooking (written with co-authors Simone Beck and Louisette Bertholle), would ever get published.

It’s an extraordinary story, a story of discovery, both of self and of the science of cooking, as Julia Child (and Beck — Bertholle soon disappears) works to master recipes, to understand what makes them work, and to develop a writing style that effectively communicates her discoveries. The cookbook they ultimately write has “art” in its title (a story in its own right, given due attention in the book), but what becomes clear is how much of the spirit of a scientist Child brings to the endeavor. I was reminded of James Watson’s recounting in The Double Helix of his discovery with Francis Crick of the structure of DNA. Or, closer to home for me, the story of Andrew Wiles’ efforts to prove Fermat’s Last Theorem, told for instance by Simon Singh in Fermat’s Enigma: The Epic Quest to Solve the World’s Greatest Mathematical Problem. Like them, Child was obsessed. And confident, a confidence that grows in front of the reader’s eyes as the memoir progresses.

I won’t give details. If you don’t know the story, you will enjoy reading about it, and I don’t want to spoil it. I’ll just say that Child understood early on the importance of her work, and its uniqueness, and was not about to be deterred by responses of less comprehending editors.

A second theme in the memoir is the importance of people, Child’s husband most of all, but friends, chefs, providers of food as well. Yet, Child reveals — at least in my reading — that as important as they were, other than her husband, no one was going to get in the way of her work. She was driven, she had a vision, and she would realize that vision. Extraordinary.

Categories: Books, Food
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