Butter? Lard? Cream? Roast duck, with skin? Liver, kidneys, lobster? Check…hold on. Wait a minute…not exactly. While I doubt that many dieticians or cardiologists would suggest Mastering the Art of French Cooking to their patients, it’s hardly a morass of cholesterol and sodium, not least because the authors based the recipes on cooking from scratch. Not a box or mix in sight1. While not the only or the best French cookbook out there today, it’s still deservedly a landmark because it was the first (that I’m aware of) to spell out how to cook French food for an American audience, using ingredients likely to be found in the United States at the time it was published.
…and boy, did that take a lot of doing. But on to the subject of Fitch’s biography.
Julia Child didn’t start out intending to become a chef, much less be known as The Doyenne of French Cooking. She was a California Rich Girl, full of life to be sure but not connecting that to love of food when young. Well, not cooking haute cuisine for herself. Certainly nothing in her upbringing, education or early career would indicate that she’d become so strongly associated with French cooking in the United States. Born in California in 1912 to a wealthy old family, she went to Smith College and as a young woman, worked as an advertising copywriter in New York City. Too tall at 6’2″ to serve in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II, she instead worked for the OSS, starting in Washington D.C. but later moving on to Ceylon and China. She met Paul Child, her future husband, in Ceylon; they married in 1946 and went to Paris in 1948. Between Paul and Paris, it is at this point that she realized just what really good food could be.
It’s at this point that the obvious biographical timeline for a landmark cookbook’s author begins: she attended Le Cordon Bleu, befriended a couple of other avid French cooks who were themselves working on a cookbook of same for Americans…and here I’ll stop with the mini-biography. This is when she began to step forward into the limelight to become the media star (insofar as chefs ever do become such) that most people remember; I’ll just add that the PBS series that aired in the late ’60s, The French Chef, is still worth watching, if you can get over the sound of her voice2.
While Fitch’s book isn’t the only biography of Child—Dearie came out last year—it strikes me as the more respectful and the better researched one. Not surprising, given that Child herself worked with Fitch to provide the papers and documentation so necessary to write an authoritative biography, and gave her the freedom to write an un-nitpicked one. What to read next? Well, other than the cookbooks themselves. If you found Fitch’s biography too worshipfully “at the feet of the master”, try Bob Spitz’s Dearie: The Remarkable Life of Julia Child. If you want to know what Child herself thought, try her autobiography My Life in France, but give Julie and Julia: My Year of Cooking Dangerously a miss: Child didn’t think too much of it, and certainly the style is much breathier, centered on Julie, the blogger-author herself rather than on Child’s cooking.
Oh, and if you’ve watched all her television shows, don’t miss the “Julia Grownup” skits on the first Electric Company show (not the one that’s currently airing on PBS) and, of course, Dan Ackroyd’s sendup for Saturday Night Live; apparently, Child herself thought that was hilarious.
1Well, hardly ever: the book does allow as how canned broth and the occasional can of peas can be terribly convenient in a pinch
2yes, it was a bit peculiar. I’ll confess that the first time I heard her speak, in one of her later shows, I was somewhat taken aback; as a comment on how she sounded, I completely missed the transition from her show to Sesame Street because darned if she didn’t sound exactly like some of the Muppets. With apologies. I like Jim Hensen’s work, and I hope she wouldn’t take that comparison amiss.