It is rare for someone to emerge in America who can change our attitudes, our beliefs, and our very culture. It is even rarer when that someone is a middle-aged, six-foot three-inch woman whose first exposure to an unsuspecting public is cooking an omelet on a hot plate on a local TV station. And yet, that is exactly what Julia Child did. The warble voiced doyenne of television cookery became an iconic cult figure and joyous rule breaker as she touched off the food revolution that has gripped America for more than fifty years. Julia Child was a directionless, gawky young woman who ran off halfway around the world to join a spy agency during World War II. She eventually settled in Paris, where she learned to cook. She was already fifty when The French Chef went on the air, at a time in our history when women were not making those leaps. Julia became the first educational TV star, virtually launching PBS as we know it today. Julia Child's story, however, is more than the tale of a talented woman and her sumptuous craft. It is also a saga of America's coming of age and growing sophistication, from the Depression Era to the turbulent sixties and the excesses of the eighties to the greening of the American kitchen. Julia had an effect on and was equally affected by the baby boom, the sexual revolution, and the start of the women's liberation movement. On the centenary of her birth, Julia finally gets the biography she richly deserves. --From publisher description.
My ideas of Julia Child were fairly vague till now, then formed a bit more after reading My Life in France, but now they're fairly solid, though probably not quite comprehensive yet.
The reason I say this is because this book, while very extensively covering Julia's life (what is it about Julia that we want to call her by her first name?), definitely displayed a certain - positive - bias. The author admits as much in his Sources and Acknowledgments section, wherein he says that he had "a powerful crush on her." I'm not sure if it was because of this, but at times I felt I wanted the other side of the story, such as with her rivalry with the "woman from Newton."
It was really interesting to learn about her political views as well - how she was liberal, fought to bring women into the spotlight, and supported Planned Parenthood. Yet, she was seen as a homophobe up till a certain point in her life, and she railed against things like the Environmental Defense Fund and Rachel Carson. Alas, there is no black and white in the world - things are pretty much always grey.
But overall, I enjoyed reading this and learning more about Julia's life. She was definitely an inspiring woman, quite a character, and someone without whom the US probably wouldn't be the way it is today.
I would also recommend the book to any fan of modern cooking shows, there's a great deal of information on how we got where we are today. But primarily, if you "grew up with Julia" and haven't dug in to her life before, I found this book to be an excellent place to start.
She was sent to boarding school as a teenager, and then went on to Smith, where she earned respectable C grades, but didn't find her calling. Although the author didn't emphasize her drinking, Julia's enormous energy found both productive and unproductive outlets, and he mentions a few episodes when Julia overindulged during these years, and in later life. After a brief stint as a copywriter in NYC, Julia returned home when her mother became itll. Caro McWilliams died in 1937. Julia remained in California with her grieving father, but was at loose ends. She tried a few things, but nothing thrilled her and she fell into a rich girl's life, socializing and playing golf until WWII gave her a chance to live a bigger life.
Julia went to Washington and got a job with the OSS as a file clerk. In 1944, she was sent to Ceylon where she met Paul Child, who became the love of her life. Julia apparently had a zest for sex as well as for wine. She and Paul started off slowly, but became a life-long love match. When the war ended, Paul accepted a job in Paris, and Julia had no idea what she would do next. She stumbled into her love for food when Paul introduced her to French cuisine. Julia's enormous energy needed an outlet, and cooking became her saving interest. She eventually met two women with whom she would undertake to write a book for Americans about French cooking, which became a huge success, opening up opportunities for Julia, who despite her gangly, awkward appearance and odd voice, became an immediate TV star.
Julia was by all accounts a very warm and generous friend, but she could be cold-blooded in business matters, and in later years, was extremely devoted to maintaining her image. She was a Democrat and person who was never grasping for money (perhaps because she'd always had some), but who certainly knew how to maximize her earning power by coordinating TV series with the publishing of books. She was not hesitant to squeeze her publisher for a better deal using a lawyer who was thought sleazy by most. Julia was always admiring of handsome men, and was susceptible platonically to their attentions. When in later years Paul suffered a series of strokes, Julia missed the companionship they had shared for so long. When he finally had to be put in a home, Julia found another companion (platonic). She refused to nurse him through his final illness, though!
I enjoyed this very positive portrait of Julia Child, and feel prepared to read more critical views which I'm sure are available. She was a remarkably singular individual who had an enormous cultural impact.
I've long been intrigued by Julia Child and not only because we share a name. I grew up watching her cook on public television, and her high-pitched, warbly fluting voice (a result of unusually long vocal cords, Spitz reveals) and her tall (6 feet 3 inches tall), ramrod-straight posture made a definite impression. She did not manage to inspire in me a passion to learn how to cook, sadly, but she was the beginning of my fascination in watching other people cook.
What I didn't grasp at the time, of course, was just how revolutionary she was. She along with James Beard revolutionized the way Americans look at food and food preparation — not to mention public television itself, which was in its infancy when her show, The French Chef began airing in 1963. That and her seminal cookbook [Mastering the Art of French Cooking] were unlike anything that had ever been seen before in this country. And to think she didn't even embark on that career until she was in her 40s.
Fair warning: This is a huge book, more than 700 pages when you include the acknowledgments, notes, index, etc. But it is not at all a slow read. The first 450 pages especially just flew by. I hated having to stop reading to go to work in the morning, and could not wait to get back to it at night. Author Spitz takes us from pre-birth to death with the amazing Julia, and you'd be hard-pressed to think of anything he left out.
It turns out that the outgoing personality we saw on TV was the real Julia: She was always gregarious, prone to troublemaking as a child, and fearless. But she didn't know what she wanted her life's work to be — it was easier for her to figure out what she didn't want to be, which was a conventional housewife. In the 1930s, that was a tall order. Before she latched on to cooking as her life's work (that happened when she and her husband were posted to Paris after World War II), she had a whole other career as a senior civilian intelligence officer with the OSS (Office of Strategic Services, the precursor to the CIA) during World War II, posted first in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and then China and was in charge of processing and routing all the intelligence reports coming in from the field of the Pacific theater. Even so, she chafed against what she thought of as "filing, filing, filing" and still longed for more.
I was pleased to read in the acknowledgments that Spitz knew Julia Child personally, having accompanied her to Sicily on a trip while he was profiling her for a magazine. And she knew of his intention to write a biography of her and planned to assist him, although she died before that collaboration got off the ground. Still, Spitz interviewed many of the prominent people in the Childs' life and made extensive use of primary sources such as letters and other documents that Julia donated to the archives at Harvard University. The book is well-grounded in evidence-based fact, and he makes no attempt to sugarcoat or gloss over some of the more difficult elements in Julia's life or personality.
The only quibble I could make is that the tone is a bit too breezy and gee-whiz for my taste. He could have reduced his exclamation-point usage by one-third and still expressed an appropriate amount of enthusiasm, for example. And he occasionally got fixated on certain words or phrases that made the reading a bit odd, like "finchy," which seems to mean "touchy or sensitive" about something or someone. Again and again he refers to "Paul's finchy nature" and "audiences were particularly finchy when it came to drinking alcohol" and women who were "finchy types with degrees in stupefying disciplines." I don't really know what the word means because it's not in any dictionary I've consulted. It was a weird tic but not enough to mar enjoyment of the book overall.
Julia Child, for all her patrician accent and affinity for France, was as American as apple pie. Her life story is an amazing journey, one that I think would be enjoyed even by people who have never contemplated the proper way to bone a duck or what the "correct" types of fish are for true bouillabaisse.
Focuses on her development as a mostly directionless young woman to a strong writer and business woman. At times she's contributory between who she wants her readers and views to see her and and who she really is underneath the facade.
This was a difficult read, at times, because Julia Child was truly a product of her time. Her personal views on equal rights for women, people of color and the LGBT community, as well as her language make it difficult to like her at times from a contemporary place. That said, she was a product of her time; as a reader, viewer and home cook I have to give her credit for changing the landscape of American cooking. She elevated chefs in a way I don't think anyone else could have and she made it possible for average people to share there love of food, cooking and food related products on the blogs of today.
Julia Child looked at life squarely in the face and refused to accept defeat in anything she had put her mind to. That's the way she lived her life - right up until it was her turn to "fall of the raft" (as she called death)
This was a joy of a book to read.