Thursday, December 17, 2009

My Life in France

I did it! I finally got around to reading My Life in France! Now I can join the ranks of thousands of other hip female readers who follow the latest rages (which, in this case, is really an old rage). I've even seen Julie & Julia (the movie)! In the theatres! (For me, that's a novelty, ok?)

My Life in France was about what I expected and it was also not what I expected at all. I was rather glad, actually, that I had seen Julie & Julia before reading the book. Before having seen the movie, I had never really paid attention to Julia Child at all. Sure, I had seen spoofs of her, but I didn't realize people were mocking her. I had never heard her voice for real to know what all the fuss was about. Hearing her manner and style of speaking in the movie, prompted several Youtube sessions and it gave me a voice through which I could read this particular book. That made the whole thing more fun.

Child had a certain attitude about her that made her, maybe not so much someone that I would have been friends with, but rather someone that I would have been strangely drawn to for amusement purposes. And I can't say that my motivations would have been totally honorable. She's the type of person I would snicker in my sleeve over. Once I would have figured out what brought about a rise within her, I'd probably have goaded her a bit to get a reaction. She took issue over interesting things, I think, and I find her intriguing in a humorous way. (I would have poked fun at politics and told her how much I liked dry toast and Kraft macaroni and cheese. Even though that's not exactly true. I'd do it just to see her reaction and for no other very good reason.)

If you aren't familiar with My Life in France, it is about Julia & Paul Child's experiences while they lived in France. Mostly, it is written so that Julia could share her love of French foods and the French people themselves. In this book she also talks about how she came to be a part of and write Mastering The Art of French Cooking. It is a personal memoir of a specific passion in Child's life. In these few sentences, you can pretty much sum up the feeling of the whole book:

". . . I felt a lift of pure happiness every time I looked out the window. I had come to the conclusion that I must really be French, only no one had ever informed me of this fact. I loved the people, the food, the lay of the land, the civilized atmosphere, and the generous pace of life." (page 58, movie tie-in version)

I absolutely do not begrudge her the love of France, French people or French cooking. But she does take on a rather condescending air in the book that any American who did not understand this or agree with her whole heartily, was small minded. That is a particular attitude that I do not appreciate very much because I think there is great honor in loving your home country. I am very proud to be an American and to be able to live here. I would choose to live here under either of the main political parties (in other words, I've never made a threat to leave the country if my own choice for president wasn't elected). I love this country, plain and simple. I appreciate other countries and enjoy visiting them. But America is my home. Julia Child's "I love France more than America" was a bit off-putting at times, but not so much so that I couldn't enjoy the book.

As for cooking, I have to say that, for the most part, I appreciated her attitude. (Now that I've seen her chunk pots, pans and food aside on episodes of The French Chef, I'm more amused.) Something I both appreciate and question to a degree is her attitude towards serving people meals that didn't come out quite as you had hoped.

"I don't believe in twisting yourself into knots of excuses and explanations over the food you make. When one's hostess starts in with self-deprecations such as "Oh, I don't know how to cook . . . ," or "Poor little me . . . ," or "This may taste awful . . . ," it is so dreadful to have to reassure her that everything is delicious and fine, whether it is or not. Besides, such admissions only draw attention to one's shortcomings (or self-perceived shortcomings), and make the other person think, "Yes, you're right, this really is an awful meal!" (page 77)

There was one evening that we had invited some friends of church over for dinner. I used some older noodles in an attempt to make a pasta dish and the noodles were just plain bad. They were so mushy that they covered the chicken and you couldn't tell if you were eating a dumpling or a piece of meat. Just awful! I let my family talk me into serving the dish anyway and it was HIDEOUS. I DID apologize to our dinner guests and offered to make them something else on the spot! (Thankfully, dessert had turned out well so there was a consolation prize to my meal.)

I think there is (or ought to be) a balance. I don't know that I would say a hostess should never apologize for her poorly made meal. After all, when we invite guests into our home, we want them to feel treasured and enjoyed and one way we show and tell them that is by making something especially for them - hopefully something that they'll find appealing! At the same time, it IS the role of the guest to show appreciation and gratefulness because someone else is obviously putting time and energy into providing a meal for them and that's no small matter! That's HUGE! So it works both ways. We should want to set our best meals down before guests. And when we are guests ourselves, we should be gracious and show appreciation for whatever we are given to receive - whether we like it or not.

The thing I found most amusing in Child's book was her exposure to American supermarkets when trying to research and prepare Mastering the Art of French Cooking for an American public.
". . . American supermarkets were also full of products labeled "gourmet" that were not: instant cake mixes, TV dinners, frozen vegetables, canned mushrooms, fish sticks, Jell-O salads, marshmellows, spray-can whipped cream, and other horrible glop." (page 225)

It IS true that Americans are generally horrible cooks and are always on the look out for quick and easy. (Guilty as charged!) I would say that there is a movement towards the raw and organic which does require more preparation time and offers us more healthy and enjoyable alternatives for an evening meal. I can imagine that Julia Child, who had spent several years working on learning how to properly cut and prepare a chicken would be horrified by spray-can whipped cream! Ha! As a short blurb, here is Julia Child talking about McDonald french fries, if you are interested:

On the whole, I thought this book was insightful as to personalities and entertaining as to culture and her own brand of....being. I quite enjoyed it and am glad I spent the time becoming more acquainted with Mrs. Child. Again, not totally what I expected but not altogether unexpected either.


jama said...

Enjoyed your review, Carrie. Liked your candor, especially. I've wondered about this book myself and may someday get around to reading it . . . while eating McDonald's french fries. :)

Renee said...

Really enjoyed your post!

Stephanie Kay said...

You never watched her show on PBS?!! Sounds like an interesting book. Maybe some day I'll get around to it. Probably not until all the hype has gone away - I'm a rebel like that. :)

Missi said...

I have been wondering about this book, ever since reading "Julie and Julia" (which I did not enjoy) and after seeing the theater movie "Julie and Julia" which I greatly enjoyed. I think I may just read this book now. Thanks for the review!

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